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CLIMATE CHANGE: Manhattan Beach will switch to all renewable energy

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A virtual reality glimpse of a future Manhattan Beach if sea levels continue to rise at present rates. From the “Looking Ahead Manhattan Beach” project developed with sea level projections from the US Geological Survey

 

by Mark McDermott 

The Manhattan Beach City Council Tuesday night moved to opt into the Clean Power Alliance (CPA) upper tier, which will provide 100 percent renewable energy for all commercial and residential users in Manhattan Beach. 

The decision, which will increase local electric bills by an estimated 7 to 9 percent while reducing citywide greenhouse gas emissions by roughly 45 metric tons annually, or 18 percent of the city’s overall emissions, was approved in a 4-1 vote. The CPA’s 100 percent renewable tier derives energy from non-polluting sources such as solar, wind, and hydroelectric power. 

The vote came at the urging of outgoing Councilperson Nancy Hersman, who as mayor last year held a climate town hall at which scientists and activists identified switching to 100 percent renewable energy at the household level as the single most significant impact that could be made locally to combat climate change. 

Hersman said Tuesday night the move to renewable energy was simply the right thing to do. She referenced the increasing severity of wildfires in the state and other climate-induced disasters globally, and argued that the council needed to display the same leadership Manhattan Beach became known for with its pioneering ban of plastic bags. 

“We have been one of the environmental leaders in this state,” Hersman said. “And this is not the time to let up now…This is the time for us to continue to be an environmental leader. It’s as simple as that. And economically, renewable energy is going to get less expensive as time goes on. We’re in the middle of a climate crisis. This is our obligation, for the long-term viability of this city.” 

The precariousness of that viability was made evident earlier in the meeting. The city’s environmental sustainability manager, Dana Murray, led a presentation that included updates on the city’s climate vulnerability assessments and mitigation efforts. A team of city staff and regional scientists are collaborating on a “Climate Ready MB” plan, and among their findings is that at current climate change rates, by the end of this century Manhattan Beach will lose 48 percent of its beach —  from 370 feet in width to 200 feet —  to erosion caused by rising sea levels. Part of that project includes a virtual reality visualization that uses sea level projections developed by the US Geological Survey that shows water lapping nearly up to the foot of the Manhattan Beach pier. 

“Cities are on the front lines when it comes to climate change,” Murray wrote in the staff report accompanying the CPA recommendation. Households are responsible for 80 percent of the nation’s total carbon emissions, and Manhattan Beach is among the highest in the nation; an average household here is responsible for 55 tons of emissions annually, ten percent higher than the national average. In 2017, the city enrolled in the Clean Power Alliance of Southern California, 31 public agencies that formed a collective to purchase renewable energy. The Council initially set the default rate to 50 percent for households —  matching the cost of Southern California electricity rates while obtaining 50 percent of energy from renewable sources. The city itself later upped to 100 percent for municipal operations; only .5 percent of residents, however, opted-in at 100 percent.  

The council’s action Tuesday made 100 percent renewable the default; residents and businesses, who are still billed by Southern California Edison, can still choose a lower tier or to opt out entirely. Those who qualify as economically challenged can obtain a waiver to keep their same energy rates while still receiving 100 percent renewable energy. 

Councilperson Steve Napolitano questioned Murray about the low rate of opt-in at the 100 percent tier. The issue was discussed in early March, and city staff was tasked with broader outreach. 

“We specifically said let’s make an effort over these months to get more people signed up,” he said. “From what I can tell, 100 people signed up. To me, that means that all those people that are emailing, and all the environment groups that are reaching out to us, didn’t actually make the outreach effort themselves except to email the council.” 

Murray said Manhattan Beach actually had the highest 100 percent level opt-in rate in the Clean Power Alliance, with a 29 percent uptick in the last six months. The issue is that few people take the time to either opt in, up, down, or out. 

“Should council vote to go for 100 percent, residents can still opt down or out if they choose,” Murray said, noting the process takes only minutes. “And basically all you would need is your account number, and your name, and your zip code. It’s fairly simple; people can do that online, or they can call and speak to a person.”

More cities within the CPA are now at 100 percent —  including Malibu, Culver City, Santa Monica, Rolling Hills Estates, Thousand Oaks, and Oxnard —  than at 50 percent.  

Councilperson Suzanne Hadley was the lone voice of dissent. She argued the number of residents who voluntarily opted-in for the upper tier represented the will of the people. 

“In eight months of a full court press, I would submit we did not change the hearts and minds of the community,” Hadley said. “So I really respectfully just say that this is about force. This is about a group of five people telling 35,000 people that we know what’s good for them…I can think of a lot of things our residents should be doing, maybe eating more vegetables. We could ship a box of vegetables to every homeowner, and then bill them, and then make them ask for their money back. But we don’t do that to encourage healthy eating. I think a free society allows people to make their own choices.”

Napolitano expressed further misgivings about residents, particularly seniors, who might struggle with a 7 to 9 percent increase in their energy bills. But ultimately he supported the move so long as “somebody with a laptop” showed up at every meeting of seniors to help them opt out if they so choose. 

“I’m not going to vote for this for myself, or to prove that we’re a leader, or that we’re greener than somebody else,” Napolitano said. “Just like the tobacco ban, I’m going to vote for this for one reason — it’s not for me, it’s not for you, it’s for my kids. And it’s for your kids and everybody else’s kids. This is going to be way beyond me. As I said many years ago, in this seat, we are temporary here. We have expiration dates on our time on Council, we have expiration dates on this Earth. So it’s not about me. We are caretakers for the generations to come. And that’s why I will vote in favor of it.” 

Councilperson Hildy Stern said the importance of the decision was hard to overstate. 

“It is a huge deal to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 18 percent with, effectively, the flip of a switch,” Stern said. 

“This needs to be done,” Hersman said. “We need to take a stand. Now’s the time.” ER 

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