Researchers are lending their expertise to help make sure everyone in Los Angeles can benefit from the efforts
More than 20 UCLA faculty and researchers have entered into a $2.6 million agreement to conduct research for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to help the city achieve its goal of producing all of its energy from carbon-free and renewable energy sources by 2035 and doing so in ways that benefit all Angelenos equitably.
Historically, some areas, particularly communities of color and under-resourced neighborhoods, have been ignored by progress or have had to bear the brunt of past sustainability measures’ shortcomings.
UCLA experts from a variety of disciplines and who have an eye for environmental justice solutions will help guide the LADWP as it creates the first equity-focused, carbon-free energy transition of any major city. The collaboration was made possible through an existing agreement between the department and the UCLA Sustainable LA Grand Challenge. The grand challenge is an interdisciplinary, campus-wide initiative aimed at applying UCLA research and expertise to help transform Los Angeles into the world’s most sustainable megacity by 2050 — making it the planet’s most livable, equitable, resilient, clean and healthy megacity, and an example for the world.
“This is important, because no major city that I know of has comprehensively looked into how to transition to renewable energy in a way that is equitable,” said Casandra Rauser, executive director of the UCLA Sustainable LA Grand Challenge. “The value to the project in bringing in UCLA is that we have a long history of doing this work in partnership with numerous regional stakeholders and communities. UCLA is not just doing equity and just transition research — UCLA is Los Angeles. We are here for the long haul, so it matters to us that this is done in a way that benefits all Angelenos.”
Last year, the department of water and power, working together with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, released the Los Angeles 100% Renewable Energy Study, called LA100, which identified multiple paths for the department to achieve a 100% renewable and carbon-free grid as early as 2035.
In the past, solutions to a more sustainable Los Angeles have not benefited all Angelenos. According to a 2020 study by the UCLA California Center for Sustainable Communities, historically disadvantaged communities in Los Angeles County are at risk of getting left behind in the transition to lower-carbon energy sources and energy-efficient technologies.
The research showed that public incentive programs aimed at reducing emissions and promoting energy efficiencies disproportionately benefit wealthier individuals — people who use more energy than their less-affluent peers.
To address these types of concerns, the department of water and power launched LA100 Equity Strategies. The department will collaborate with several UCLA research entities working in the areas of affordability, urban and socio-economics, equity, and jobs and workforce development.
“This project will allow us to address air quality while keeping in mind that the benefits are not universal,” said Yifang Zhu, a professor of environmental health sciences and senior associate dean for academic programs at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health. Zhu noted that the initial LA100 study modeled the region as a whole, but didn’t necessarily drill down to individual communities. “We want to fully address disparities across communities. What are the gaps and what can we do — if we can do this in a more equitable way?”
UCLA is taking on these topics from every angle, with team members from the California Center for Sustainable Communities, Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, Fielding School of Public Health, Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, Institute of the Environment & Sustainability, International Institute, Latino Policy and Politics Institute, Luskin Center for Innovation and Samueli School of Engineering.
This initial effort has begun and will continue through May 2023. It builds upon research already being done across campus, including by the Luskin Center for Innovation, which is developing research focused on energy affordability.
“It takes careful intent to ensure that the costs associated with the transition to renewable energy get translated equitably through rates, and to protect low-income households in disadvantaged communities from bearing too much of that cost,” said Gregory Pierce, co-director of the Luskin Center. “Historically, sustainability investments have not been equitable, so in some ways this project is trying to tackle that transition.”
Pierce’s team will analyze more than a dozen metrics and policies to make recommendations to the department of water and power, which could include anything from enhanced rate discounts, speeding up energy efficiency and solar programs or adjusting what criteria would trigger the department to shut off a person’s water or energy when they were behind on payments.
More detailed data collection and analysis will be important in this effort and others, and it will be led by the California Center for Sustainable Communities — specifically leveraging its Energy Atlas, which can show city officials where resources are being consumed and at what level, down to the individual building or unit.
“Anything that has a spatial characteristic, we can examine and provide an analysis for it,” said Stephanie Pincetl, founding director of the center. “Our motivation is to work at consumption through the lens of equity. How much are they using? Where? And to do what, and under what conditions?”
A transition to more equitable solutions will require many existing jobs to change in scope and skillset, along with the creation of a whole new set of not-yet-defined jobs that will be in charge of helping shape this new renewable landscape. How will that look and how will it affect local communities? It’s a question the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, led by director Abel Valenzuela Jr., hopes to answer through its job toolkit.
“Our toolkit allows us to look at energy transition investments in any sort of municipality that is defined geographically — for example, Wilmington — and mine and extract data about what that means for jobs,” Valenzuela said. The institute will also conduct outreach to those communities that have been redlined in the past and have borne the brunt of environmental racism. “This is all about community empowerment through data.”