Environment + Climate

Los Angeles County’s energy and air quality earn a C on UCLA environmental report card

Energy use and greenhouse gas emissions have remained relatively constant, but there are encouraging signs

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The 2017 Energy and Air Quality report card examined 21 indicators in five categories to assess energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and air quality in Los Angeles County.

After analyzing roughly a decade’s worth of key energy and environmental data, UCLA researchers gave a C grade for energy and air quality within Los Angeles County in the latest environmental report card.

But with new policies at the local and state levels that promote energy use transparency, public transit funding and more sustainable development, the researchers say there are reasons for optimism.

The 2017 Sustainable LA Environmental Report Card for Los Angeles County on Energy and Air Quality provides detailed assessments for the area in five categories: energy used by buildings, transportation, renewable energy resources, greenhouse gas emissions, and air quality and human health impacts.

This year’s grades ranged from a B for renewable energy resources to a C-/incomplete for transportation.

According to the report, which is the only comprehensive environmental report card for a megacity in the world, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions have remained relatively constant over the past decade despite years of renewable energy, energy efficiency, greenhouse gas reduction, and air quality regulatory policy leadership and technological innovation.

“California and the region have ambitious renewable energy, greenhouse gas emissions, and air quality goals and requirements, and the environmental report card is a critical tool to track progress, identify gaps, and showcase successes and areas of needed improvement to achieve a sustainable Los Angeles,” said Mark Gold, UCLA associate vice chancellor for environment and sustainability.

The 2017 Energy and Air Quality report card examined 21 indicators within its five categories to assess energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and air quality. Researchers assigned grades based on compliance with environmental laws or specific targets where applicable, and on historical improvements and context.

“The ideal indicator was hard to find, but we chose indicators for which data was easily accessible and reliable, and ideally collected across the county on a regular basis,” said Felicia Federico, executive director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities at UCLA. “Unfortunately, we found that some critical data, such as information on the use of car-sharing networks, were either not regularly measured or not accessible. In instances where that happened a lot, we gave ‘incomplete’ grades.”

Energy used by buildings: C/incomplete

Researchers looked at stationary electricity and natural gas consumption, how buildings used energy, efficiency programs like LEED, and municipal streetlight conversions throughout the county. Among the findings:

  • Building energy use has barely decreased in recent years: Total electricity and natural gas consumption remained fairly consistent with only a 2 to 3 percent decrease between 2006 and 2015.
  • Less than one out of every 1,000 buildings in L.A. County was LEED certified as of 2014.
  • The city of Los Angeles converted more than 80 percent of its streetlights, saving 105 gigawatt hours and $9.3 million annually. Southern California Edison has not conducted LED conversions for the majority of streetlights in the rest of the county.

Transportation: C-/incomplete

The report card evaluated fuel sales, use of public transit and modes of transportation, and the penetration of electric vehicles into the region. Among the findings:

  • From 2005 to 2015, people driving alone increased by 3.5 percent, carpooling dropped by 24 percent and public transit use decreased by 6 percent for commuters.
  • In 2015, registered plug-in electric vehicles made up about 3 percent of registered automobiles, with access to fewer than 1,000 charging stations (most with multiple outlets).
  • Transportation takes up a larger portion of total income (20 percent) for people in L.A. County compared to San Francisco (11 percent) and New York (9 percent).
  • Commute times are 69 percent longer for people taking public transit compared to driving.

Renewable energy resources: B

One of the goals of UCLA’s Sustainable LA Grand Challenge is for the county to reach 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. Researchers analyzed the county’s utility energy portfolio, distributed energy generation, and energy storage. Among the findings:

  • Renewable energy resources in the area have steadily increased, but the region still uses too much coal.
  • In 2015, Glendale, Burbank, Pasadena, and Southern California Edison reported at least 25 percent renewable purchases. Glendale and Burbank already reached the state’s 2020 goal of 33 percent. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power purchased just more than 20 percent renewables, Vernon and Azusa purchased less than 20 percent. Cerritos purchased none.
  • Utility-scale solar generation increased by more than 1 million megawatt hours between 2012 and 2015 and reached more than 575 megawatts of capacity in 2015. An additional 475 megawatts of rooftop solar was installed in Los Angeles County as of 2015.
  • Most energy storage comes from a single pumped-hydroelectric energy storage facility of 1,247 megawatts. Fewer than 21 megawatts of other storage was in place as of January 2017.

Greenhouse gas emissions: C+/ incomplete

Researchers assessed emissions stemming from buildings, transportation, and cap and trade stationary sources. Among the findings:

  • Although the Aliso Canyon gas leak and numerous wildfires set the region back significantly, the region succeeded in decreasing greenhouse gas emissions incrementally.
  • Emissions from all building types decreased by 2.5 percent from 2006 to 2010, transportation emissions decreased by 9.5 percent from 2005 to 2012, and emissions from categories regulated under cap and trade in 2013 decreased by 5 percent in 2015.
  • The three-and-a-half month–long Aliso Canyon gas leak in 2015–16 released emissions in an amount equal to about 13 percent of emissions from all refineries and electricity generators in L.A. County in 2015.
  • Only seven out of 88 cities in the county had climate action plans in 2016, and only 21 were in the planning stage or beyond.

Air quality and human health impacts: C

The report card looked at ambient air quality in the south coast air basin, toxic emissions and asthma-related hospital visits. Among the findings:

  • Although air quality remains the nation’s worst, exacerbated by the drought and climate change, local air quality is at its best in 40 years.
  • Asthma-related emergency room visits increased from 2010 to 2015. Hospitalizations disproportionately affected children 4 years old and younger, and adults 65 and older.
  • Monitoring sites in the San Gabriel Valley, Pomona, Santa Clarita Valley and Antelope Valley exceeded ozone standards more than 10 percent of the time. The central L.A. area exceeded the annual average fine particular matter (PM2.5) standard. Although outside of L.A. County, a site in Riverside County exceeded the state 24-hour particulate matter (PM10) standard more than 45 percent of the time. Dry conditions from California’s severe five-year drought appeared to exacerbate already poor air quality.
  • Emissions of 10 hazardous/carcinogenic chemicals decreased between 2010 and 2015, although there is no clear trend of improvement in overall emissions.
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Despite the average grades, the 2017 report card alludes to a promising future for the state’s most-populous region, especially with the passage of policies and funding opportunities at the state, county and city levels.

“Los Angeles is moving in the right direction,” said Casandra Rauser, the director of the Sustainable LA Grand Challenge at UCLA. “We are starting to see a bold shift in how residents are voting, like with Measure M to improve mobility, and how local and state government are leading, like the city of L.A. with their recent ordinance requiring large buildings to publicly report their energy use.

“For the state to meet its energy, greenhouse gas emissions and air quality targets, L.A. County and its 88 cities must continue to ensure that existing programs are contributing to reaching these goals and serving the most vulnerable communities,” Rauser said. The goals of the report cards are to properly assess these programs in order to make the best choices for planning, investment, and new programs moving forward.

The Sustainable LA Report Card for Los Angeles County was authored by Federico, Rauser and Gold. Contributing authors include Sarah Chiang, Sagarika Subramanian, Jamie Liu, Anne Youngdahl and Sharanya Sethuram.

The 2017 Energy and Air Quality report card is the first in a biannual series that will also cover water and ecosystem health.

The Sustainable LA Grand Challenge is a UCLA research initiative that aims to transition L.A. County through cutting-edge research, technologies, policies, and strategies to 100 percent renewable energy and 100 percent locally sourced water, while enhancing ecosystem and human health by 2050. The Sustainable LA Environmental Report Cards will measure progress towards meeting these goals.

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