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Guest Opinion | Rick Cole: Going Carbon-Free to Create a Sustainable City

Published on Sunday, January 29, 2023 | 6:17 am
 

This is the first in series of columns on 10 Grand Challenges to transform Pasadena’s future. Today’s column focuses on converting to carbon-free energy.

A century ago, Pasadena citizens opted to create their own electric utility instead of relying on a private monopoly. Their vision gives our generation the opportunity and responsibility to act locally to meet the global climate emergency. We can do this by ending the burning of fossil fuels to power our community. 

The Secretary General of the United Nations is blunt: “We are on the highway to climate hell and we haven’t taken our foot off the accelerator.” Incredibly, nearly half the power sold by Pasadena Water and Power (PWP) last year was generated by burning coal — releasing 800,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. To put that in perspective, our per capita carbon footprint just for generating electricity is greater than the total carbon footprint for more than half the countries on the planet. 

That’s unconscionable. Yet last year, when the grassroots Pasadena 100 coalition began advocating for a 2030 transition to kick our public utility’s addiction to coal and gas, City Hall reacted with derision and disdain. PWP staff doubted it could be achieved. Even if it were possible, they insisted, it would undermine reliability and jack up rates.

This week, however, the City Council Municipal Services Committee voted unanimously 4-0 to endorse a resolution setting that exact goal. What changed?

Over the past six months, Pasadena 100 mounted an unprecedented public education and advocacy campaign. These grass roots activists persevered against City Hall skepticism, signing up supporters, speaking at Council meetings, enlisting coalition partners and assembling a powerful case for change. They rallied in front of City Hall, delivering more than 1000 signed support statements from Pasadena citizens. They arranged meetings with City staff and Councilmembers to directly maker their case. They won unanimous support from the Pasadena Unified School Board, the Pasadena City College Board of Trustees and the City’s Environmental Advisory Commission. They provided proof that utility scale wind/solar electricity is already less expensive than gas and coal. They cited studies by investment analysts, researchers and government agencies predicting further decreases. They pointed to the Inflation Reduction Act subsidies for investment by publicly-owned utilities in infrastructure and programs like bulk storage (batteries), community solar and the development of a skilled workforce to install them.

Pasadena 100’s leader Cynthia Cannady saluted the new attitude at City Hall: “The transition from dangerous fossil fuel dependency is the challenge of our age.  This week, the members of the Municipal Service Committee showed we are ready to take on that challenge in our electric system. Thanks to all the Pasadenans who advocated for 100% clean energy by 2030, and thanks to the City Councilpersons who supported that goal! Our city has now taken the first step.  There’s lots of work to be done, but the new General Manager of PWP brings expertise and vision to the task.  We can do this.”

The battle, however, is far from over. The resolution adopted by the MSC now goes to the Council. Even if the Council adopts the goal, the utility’s new General Manager must then forge a path to wean us off coal and natural gas.  Reliability can be achieved by a wide range of feasible measures that don’t rely on burning fossil fuels. Promoting rooftop solar and on-site storage can offset demand peaks, as can additional investments in conservation. Promising new technologies are coming on line to meet peak loads. 

Fundamentally, however, meeting the goal is not a technical challenge. It is one of community will. Clean power is just the start. We rely on fossil fuels for everything from lighting and heating our homes to powering our transportation system to supplying the plastics that we casually throw in the trash after a single use. That’s not sustainable. Things that can’t go on forever don’t. We can wait for mounting disasters to force change – or we can take the lead to build a model of a resilient community.

Pasadena used to be an environmental leader, pioneering green policies and inspired other communities to follow. Jason Lyon, the newest Councilmember, took the lead in advocating for the Municipal Services Committee to endorse the goal of 100% carbon-free power by 2030. Lyon frames the challenge ahead: “I’m optimistic that the full Council will approve the resolution at our meeting next week. I am especially encouraged that my fellow Committee members share a deep commitment to making Pasadena an unquestioned leader on environmental issues. It’s time to move decisively to become a more sustainable community.”

Rick Cole is a current Pasadena Planning Commissioner and a former Mayor of Pasadena. He serves as Chief Deputy Controller for the City of Los Angeles.

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