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From solar jobs to electric cars, Los Angeles seeks green future for all

by Avi Asher-Schapiro | @AASchapiro | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 18 June 2021 12:57 GMT

A view of solar panels have been installed on the rooftop of the Audubon Center in Los Angeles, California, as part of an initiative training low-income residents in solar installation skills, May 21, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Aude Guerrucci

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By Avi Asher-Schapiro

LOS ANGELES, June 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In the six months since former gang member Ramon Ramos was released from prison, he has worked as a landscaper in Los Angeles - another minimum-wage job in a string of them.

But the Los Angeles native is hoping that will change when he finishes a 12-week training course in installing solar panels, opening the door to jobs that pay well over $20 an hour.

"I hear people are trying to go green. So I thought there must be money in this if I work hard," said Ramos, 30, unfurling the set of tools he is learning to use in his mother's small North Hollywood apartment.

The free training program, arranged by nonprofit group GRID Alternatives, aims to launch people like Ramos into California's booming solar power industry and get panels installed in more low-income neighborhoods.

It's part of a broader effort by Los Angeles' government, community groups and businesses to help California's largest city achieve its climate change and social aims together.

Los Angeles, which has battled climate pressures including worsening wildfires, heat and drought, is part of the C40 Cities network, a group of nearly 100 major cities around the world working to drive faster action on climate change.

The cities have each committed to delivering climate action plans designed to spur uptake of clean energy, boost adaptation to climate threats and turn the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change into an on-the-ground reality.

Under Mayor Eric Garcetti, the chair of C40 Cities, Los Angeles has pledged to sharply curb its greenhouse gas emissions, aiming for a 45% reduction by 2025 and net zero by 2050, through measures ranging from decarbonizing the energy grid to promoting electric vehicles.

Leaders are trying to ensure the green shift benefits all residents - and gives a leg-up in particular to those left behind, like Ramos.

"L.A. is trying to demonstrate how climate action is also a road to racial and economic justice and equity," said Lauren Faber O'Connor, the city's chief sustainability officer.

But in a region famed for its car culture and crisscrossed by 88 separate cities within L.A. county, coordination is needed between many actors, from business and community organizations to city and county agencies.

"It's going to be a long haul to meet our carbon-neutrality mandates," O'Connor admitted. "And we are only as strong as the partnerships we can build."


Tucked in the center of the city's trendy Arts District, the nonprofit Los Angeles Clean Tech Incubator (LACI) aims to mimic Silicon Valley start-up accelerators by nurturing green tech companies - especially those run by women and racial minorities.

"We want to change the face of clean tech," said Matt Petersen, LACI's CEO.

LACI has worked with more than 250 start-ups - including one selling pavement that repels the sun's heat - providing mentoring, office space and access to labs and fabrication facilities to test their products.

It takes a small stake in the companies it backs, and any profits are then plowed back into the incubator, Petersen said.

Kameale C. Terry, one of the founders of ChargerHelp!, a start-up with an app that matches electric vehicle charger technicians with jobs, said LACI was key to securing a recent $2.75-million investment.

"As a start-up with two black female founders, it's been critical to have LACI help guide us, mentor us, and help find investors," she said.


Across Los Angeles, city officials see reducing the time Angelinos spend in their cars as vital for the climate-change fight. The city has set a goal to cut residents' average daily drive from 15 miles a day now to 9 miles by 2035.

To spur that, the Department of Transportation recently ordered 155 electric buses and is expanding 15 rail lines, a move the mayor's office called the largest current expansion of transit in the United States.

"L.A. is where the notion of urban sprawl initially developed and now we have to reckon with that," said Colin Sweeney, the department's director of public information.

For Angelinos who do drive, the city is now home to the largest concentration of private electric vehicle charging stations in the United States, in a city with more than 60,000 electric vehicles, according to the mayor's office.

But including low-income residents in the switch is a challenge, with electric cars still significantly more expensive then gas-powered models.

To bridge the gap, the city has helped roll out a pilot electric vehicle sharing program giving discounted membership to those who earn less.

So far it operates only about 100 vehicles - and getting poorer neighborhoods to accept charging stations has been an uphill battle.

"When it first started, no one wanted much to do with it - they associated (electric car sharing) with gentrification," said Anita Tang, carshare manager at the transport department.

But eventually the scheme - with a cheap subscription fee of $1 a month and costing 15 cents a minute for low-income users - drew people in, and now hopes to add dozens more charging stations and hundreds more vehicles, Tang said.


Richer residents also have frustrations with the drive for a greener Los Angeles.

Standing at an intersection in West Hollywood, exasperated former tech entrepreneur Michael Schneider pointed out a bike lane that abruptly ended as the street narrowed - even though parking spaces remained.

"This is everything wrong with how L.A. designs bike lanes," said Schneider, a community activist who sits on the city's Bicycle Advisory Committee and founded the transport advocacy group Streets for All.

"In L.A., all too often people say they want to fight climate change from the seat of an SUV," he added.

With emissions from cars and trucks accounting for more than a third of the city's greenhouse gas emissions, radically redesigning Los Angeles to curb car use is crucial to achieving its long-term climate aims, he said.

From congestion to pollution, "cars are the enemy of a livable city," Schneider said.

But bike lane construction has leveled off in recent years, for reasons ranging from the veto power city councilors hold to resistance from businesses that value parking.

Schneider said the city still lacks the basic networks that would allow people to safely replace driving with cycling.


As they push a transition to renewable energy, officials are trying to brand Los Angeles "the solar city".

It now produces more than 480 megawatts (MW) of solar power, a 15% increase from 2020, according to 2019 data.

That includes everything from small rooftop solar projects to massive installations on commercial buildings and a city-operated 250 MW facility in the Mojave desert.

Building and maintaining that solar capacity is creating new jobs, said Danny Hom, a strategy officer with GRID Alternatives, the project running Ramos' training.

"We've helped more than 200 formerly incarcerated people get jobs in this sector," he said.

One is Darean Nguyen, who has risen up the ranks to become supervisor of a solar crew and is saving to buy a house.

"I help lower people's electricity bills so they have some money to provide for their families," he said. "That feels good."

(Reporting by Avi Asher-Schapiro @AASchapiro, Editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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