Big Data highlights huge opportunity for solar energy in L.A.

Jorge Madrid

Using groundbreaking climate data, our recently updated and expanded Los Angeles Solar & Efficiency Report, or LASER, has been tapping sophisticated GIS mapping software to show what’s happening on the ground in my city – one neighborhood at a time.

Not only will Los Angeles become a lot hotter in coming decades, we’ve found, but some of the neighborhoods that are most vulnerable to heat extremes (in addition to other forms of pollution) also have the best potential for clean energy jobs.

How do we know? Because starting in 2013, the Environmental Defense Fund partnered with a team of researchers at the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation who crunched environmental, health and census data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Census Bureau, the state of California and a number of other scientific sources.

Our goal: To help community leaders and policymakers visualize climate change at the local level, and to help steer new funding from California’s successful cap-and-trade program and other sources to the neighborhoods that need it most.

Los Angeles is heating up

The new series of detailed maps we just launched [PDF] have information down to the census track, rather than zip code, to give us an even clearer and more accurate picture of what’s going on.

With climate change taking hold, Southern California will get much warmer summers and falls and be more susceptible to heat waves. Temperatures in the Los Angeles region will climb 4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050, our maps show.

Some neighborhoods will get hotter than others.

By mid-century, Los Angeles’ urban core and downtown will experience three times more extreme heat days (above 95 degrees Fahrenheit) than it does today. The valleys and areas of high elevation will experience four times as many.

But where there’s sun there can also be power.

Solar energy in the right place

With nearly 300 sunny days per year and vast urban development, Los Angeles County is primed for distributed energy generation.

The LASER maps show more than 19,000 megawatts of solar energy generation potential, of which only about 2 percent has been tapped thus far.

If we reached just 10 percent of its solar potential, we could create nearly 48,000 job years and reduce nearly 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide annually. That’s equivalent to taking nearly 500,000 cars off the road each year.

California stands ready to help.

The state has committed to making significant investments of proceeds from its cap-and-trade program to reduce climate pollution while at the same time benefitting some of our most vulnerable communities.

Already, $225 million – more than the legally mandated 25 percent of all proceeds – has been earmarked for such projects.

This year alone, more than $50 million of that funding will be invested in weatherization upgrades and renewable energy in our communities most affected by environmental risk and air pollution, which are often low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

In fact, LASER shows that some of the communities most vulnerable to air pollution and extreme heat impacts – such as East Los Angeles, South Los Angeles, and the San Fernando Valley – have some of the highest job creation potential through rooftop solar installation and energy efficiency.

We know that these measures will reduce climate and air pollution, help keep folks cool and comfortable during extreme heat days, and also help keep energy bills affordable.

These areas are also home to some of America’s strongest supporters of environmental action.

Latinos and African Americans consistently back environment-friendly politicians, and they’re much more likely to believe that climate change is real than other groups do – perhaps because many of them face environmental challenges every day in their own neighborhoods.

Investments like these can make the promise of a clean energy economy real to folks on the frontlines.

Jobs and economic opportunities

Our atlas-style LASER report, which was recently highlighted by the White House, can be accessible to people who may not speak much English or understand technical lingo.

We hope the maps will help bring a diverse group of stakeholders to the table to tackle difficult policy challenges.

In Los Angeles County, 3.7 million people – 38 percent of the city – live in neighborhoods that take the brunt of California’s dirtiest power plants, car exhaust and other pollution sources.

Thanks to a smart data screening tool for health risks, CalEnviroScreen 2.0, we can show on the LASER map where they live.

These often-dense neighborhoods also tend to make up the urban heat islands that contribute to our ever-sweltering summer days.

By using Big Data to connect the dots between pollution, dirty fossil fuel plants, clean energy investment opportunities and climate vulnerability we want to begin a conversation in which everyone – from the families in Los Angeles’ inner-city neighborhoods to the policymakers in our state capitol – can participate.

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