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The End of a Green Dream

A $5.7 billion plan to rebuild a California community college system with an emphasis on green technology falters.

It sounded too good to be true -- and it was. An ambitious plan to make Los Angeles Community College District a national leader in green technology and renewable energy appears to be in shambles after an investigative report by the Los Angeles Times has uncovered widespread mismanagement and waste. Larry Eisenberg, the executive director for facilities, planning, and development who oversaw the project, was fired by the LACCD board on March 9.

Editor's Note: The cover story of CT's April issue, “Lean Green Machines,” contains a profile of LACCD's green initiatives. The issue went to print before CT became aware of the LA Times report.

The district's green goals were part of a massive program to rebuild LA's nine-campus community college system. Funding totaling $5.7 billion was secured through a series of bond measures passed between 2001 and 2007. Accounting for interest, the final bill to taxpayers will likely surpass $11 billion.

According to a vision developed by Eisenberg, LACCD was to have become a model of clean energy, generating enough wind, solar, and geothermal energy to supply all its electricity needs -- and to sell its surplus.

In its six-part investigative series, however, the LA Times showed that both the vision and its implementation were seriously flawed, resulting in waste amounting to nearly $10 million. David Beaulieu, president of the District Academic Senate, also found fault with Eisenberg's plans for sustainable energy projects, calling them "wildly unrealistic" in a Senate newsletter.

Among the findings of the LA Times investigative report:
  • Eisenberg estimated that it would cost $975 million to take all nine campuses off the grid. An engineering consultant believed the final bill would be much higher -- $1.9 billion. As a point of reference, LACCD spent less than $8 million on power bills in 2010.
  • LACCD had insufficient space on its nine campuses even to house all the generating equipment that would be necessary to provide the district's energy via renewable sources.
  • Three solar power arrays were scrapped once it became clear that the chosen locations sat on top of seismic faults.
  • Plans to generate wind power on a large scale neglected the fact that average winds at most of the campuses are too light to generate much power.
  • The district committed approximately $4 million to develop solar and wind energy projects that never made it beyond blueprints.
  • At Southwest College, LACCD spent $1.2 million on a parking lot shaded by solar panels, but abandoned the project when it was only half completed.

According to the LA Times, other proposals from Eisenberg included:

  • A $98 million investment in hydrogen fuel-cell equipment that has never been put into commercial operation
  • A $59 million investment in untried hydrogen storage devices
  • A $78 million investment in batteries, in expectation of stocking up on solar power during the day for use at night. With the technology currently available, such an approach is considered by most experts to be too costly to be viable.
  • $78 million in geothermal and wind projects, despite the fact that geothermal systems are not effective in a temperate climate like that of Los Angeles

Given the high level of publicity that LACCD received for its green initiatives, there is a danger that these revelations will damage the credibility of other green projects on campuses nationwide. It is important to note that the problems besetting LACCD went far beyond the district's green initiatives. The LA Times articles exposed issues at every level of governance from the trustees down, and involved all types of construction ranging from a crooked clock tower to heating units installed upside down. Indeed, in April 2009, Eisenberg wrote an e-mail to his construction chief noting that, "Our new buildings are fundamentally flawed.... We cannot control lighting systems, HVAC systems, security systems, building management systems, etc."

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