In the largely predictable citywide elections early in March, that saw only 15-percent voter turnout, one bill managed to generate a raging debate in Los Angeles – and elicit some surprise.

Considered a shoo-in, Measure “B,” the mayor’s solar energy bill, failed by a margin of less than one percent. By election night, both sides had declared victory, but tens of thousands of provisional and absentee ballots delayed a final count for another two weeks. On March 20, Measure B officially failed.

The debate over Measure “B” highlighted a fundamental rift that threatens to impede the city’s – and the state’s – renewable energy goals.

“The argument on this bill had nothing to do with renewable energy,” says Mark Bernstein, managing director of the University of Southern California’s Energy Institute, – “which is unfortunate. The discussion should really be around solar energy.”

The Plan

Part of a larger plan to ween Los Angeles from its coal-burning addiction, Measure B called for the installation of photovoltaic panels – up to 400 megawatts worth, enough to power 240,000 homes – throughout the city by 2014. Owned and operated by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the nation’s largest municipal utility, the rooftop solar panels would plug into the city’s existing grid, converting sunlight to electricity to supplement conventional sources during daylight hours.

Also known as the Green Energy and Good Jobs for Los Angeles act, the plan was drawn up by the DWP’s union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 18 – whose members would would benefit from exclusive contracts to install the work. It was championed by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, as well as several environmental groups and politicians as a much-needed infusion for the local economy that would provide green-collar jobs for young workers– and finally move forward on the city’s renewable energy goals after years of delay.

Major newspapers, neighborhood councils and a frayed coalition of civil societal dissidents came out against the measure, warning that it would dramatically increase consumer utility bills by inhibiting competition and exclude non-union workers.

Moreover, critics noted that the measure would wrest control of the billion-plus-dollar program from the DWP commission and put in the hands of the City Council, which could then change it according to their whims. Representatives of the “No on Measure B” campaign called it a “payoff” to the IBEW, a power grab for politicians, and demanded an alternate be crafted with “transparency” and “inclusion” for taxpayers.

The acrimonious battle over the proposition was never about whether 400 megawatts of urban solar energy should be installed in the city; everyone generally agrees that Los Angeles has to move forward towards its renewable energy goals – which the DWP accelerated to 20 percent by 2010, seven years ahead of goals previously adopted by the board and City Council.

“The positive and negative spin all is around process,” says Lee Alpert, president of the DWP Commision. “It was created by IBEW 18, which came up with a very specific plan, then went to mayor’s office, the City Council – and that portion bypassed the commission – so people were yelling ‘process,’ saying that [we were] giving up the department’s power to city council.”

The City Council, in turn, was criticized for slamming the bill through without really understanding what it would cost or entail. The opposition claimed the measure could cost tax payers up to $3 billion. Alpert disagrees: “Those numbers were wrong. It won’t be $3 billion. As solar power increases its gets less expensive. It was just a figure that was picked up and thrown out.”

A report on the estimated financial impact by Huron, an independent consultant, places costs between $1.5 and $1.7 billion.

As both private and public sectors are aware, urban solar power promises to be big business for whomever wins the rights to build and sell it.

And the ideological conflict behind the political drama is clear. Opponents maintain that keeping the industry open to “all market models” – meaning encouraging free-market competition – will help mitigate rising consumer costs, while supporters see the plan as a valuable means of investing in the middle class and the green economy with solid, well paying union jobs.

The DWP also points out that Measure “B” would have been only one of five programs set to deliver 1,280 MW of solar power by 2020 – only about one-third of which is designated for DWP installation, ownership and maintenance. The remainder, they say, will be available for private-sector development.

Either way, consumers will see an increase in fees, at least in the short-term.

“We could see significant increases in rates over next several years,” says Alpert, while the DWP estimates an average direct increase of about one percent on consumers’ energy bills. “Our commission’s goal is not to see drastic increases, but right now we have state, federal and city mandates and we’re moving forward to meet them.”

Opposition leaders are currently at work on an alternate plan that they claim will rectify the lack of transparency – and will surely make room for the private sector.

Alpert indicates that the DWP commission will bite: “If it’s realistic, reasonable, if it helps bring in new businesses – great.”

Ray of Light

In spite of a recession that halted renewable energy projects across the country and will likely prevent the state from meeting its immediate renewable energy goals, California solar panel installations more than doubled in 2008, according to a recent report by the Milken Institute, a Santa-Monica-based think tank. State-funded initiatives like the customer incentives and rebates for investor-owned utility territories administered by the California Solar Institute have contributed to this upswing.

In 2006, the state senate passed a bill mandating that 20 percent of all energy production in the private sector come from renewable sources by 2010. In 2008, Governor Schwarzenegger issued an executive order requiring that California utilities reach 33 percent by 2020.

And while the state doesn’t have the same control over municipalities that it does over the private sector, it can encourage the public sector to take the same lead. Currently, legislation is making its way through the Senate that would make the same standards applicable to municipally-owned utilities.

In the meantime, mayor Villaraigosa’s ambitious drive to make the Los Angeles the “greenest city” in the U.S. has accelerated the process – a move detractors label as little more than a bid to prop him up for a gubernatorial run in 2010.

At the federal level, there is also initiative to make solar and other renewable energies a reality, the effects of which remain to be seen.

“I think the momentum is there for people to install solar systems,” says Donald Paul, executive director of the USC Energy Institute. “For some individuals and organizations the incentives are already there – [partly due to] the fact that the prices of doing so has come down.”

The other part, he says, is that organizations are uncertain about the future of electric prices and their carbon footprint management.

“There will be an adjustment because of the recession, says Paul, “but fundamentally I think lots of solar is being installed.”

“we’re moving ahead,” says Alpert, ” The department has contracts for solar, wind-farm and geothermal energy programs, and is clearly working on plans to bringing renewable energy to the city as we speak.”