Matt Petersen, the City of Los Angeles’ first-ever Chief Sustainability Officer, is tasked with executing Mayor Eric Garcetti’s push to create a greener city. Coming out of his role as President and CEO of Global Green USA, Petersen now works under Deputy Mayor for Budget and Innovation Rick Cole on projects that range from water, to waste, to energy. TPR has transcribed Petersen’s address from a Young Professionals in Energy event hosted by Glaser Weil in early March, where he outlines the city’s sustainability priorities. He also comments on Global Green’s efforts in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, encouraging civic participation and thinking big.
"We can become the most livable city in America, with the investments we’re making in transit and transportation, renewable energy, energy efficiency, and water efficiency." —Matt Petersen
Matt Petersen: Thank you to YPE LA and to Glaser Weil for hosting us tonight. I’m here on behalf of Mayor Eric Garcetti, first and foremost, who is a dear friend—somebody with whom I worked closely when he was on the city council to pass a municipal green building ordinance. Now, we have the most LEED-certified square feet of any city in the United States in our municipal portfolio, thanks to the leadership of Eric Garcetti. That leadership is continuing in his role as mayor.
We’ve got an ambitious agenda, but the mayor has put forward “back-to-basics” as our message point. We need to fix how we deliver our services in this city. If you follow our news at DWP—in all due respect to the people from the department who are doing incredible work—it’s been faced with many challenges. We need to help them restore not just the public’s faith, but also the faith within the institution—which I think is going to be the greatest municipal utility in the country, not just the largest. We want to make sure that we can begin to figure out a better way to fill the potholes. We don’t have a large enough budget to fix every street, but we can figure out a better way to deliver those services where they’re needed the most.
How do we maintain transparency? How do we put data out there and create a dashboard so that the public can monitor progress? If you go to lamayor.org, you’ll see the mayor’s public dashboard that we launched on his hundredth day last fall, to begin to hold us accountable. Sometimes we’re reporting good news, and sometimes we’re reporting not-so-good news.
The mayor is going to hold his general managers accountable. One of the things that he did was ask every general manager to reapply for their job—the first time any mayor in Los Angeles has ever done that. Leaders of the 37 departments tell the mayor what they’re going to do on restoring city services, improving the budget situation, and sustainability—one of the top four priorities that he asked them to respond to. About six to eight of the GMs are about to transition over the next year. That kind of leadership doesn’t sound groundbreaking, but it took an enormous amount of time for the mayor and staff to evaluate all the proposals from the general managers, interview them, and make sure that they were clear on their priorities.
The standard for excellence in the past was, “Don’t get in trouble and don’t make anybody look bad.” What kind of great city can we have if that’s our standard for excellence? That’s no standard for excellence—that’s a standard for mediocrity. We want to create the great Los Angeles that we know we are. We’ve suffered through five years of budget cuts in the city, rocking the foundation of everybody who works here. How do we make everybody proud to work in Los Angeles again? That’s what this mayor really wants to do. I’m proud to be here as his chief sustainability officer—the first ever. There’s a lot to define. That’s both exciting and daunting, but it is a great task and one that I’m honored to lead on behalf of the mayor.
The other thing I should mention: The mayor changed the way the Office of the Mayor is structured. He went from 13 deputy mayors, including one for energy and the environment, to four. We have a deputy mayor for city services, which includes oversight of the Department of Water and Power and our public works departments or bureaus. We have a deputy mayor for economic development, which oversees Planning, Building and Safety, port, and airport. We have a deputy mayor for public safety—pretty clear what that does—and a deputy mayor for budget and innovation. That gentleman’s name is Rick Cole, and he’s my boss. He oversees all those cross-cutting priorities of the city.
Now, to what I’m doing and what my office is doing: We have only a few people and the task is huge. There’s already a lot of great stuff going on in the city. In terms of priorities: water, obviously. How do we increase our local water supply and reliability, in a time not just of persistent drought but also of climate change? If we think about earthquake and climate resiliency, one of the biggest impacts in an earthquake is fire. If we don’t have water supply, we can’t fight the fires. We can truck water, but there’s a point when we’re going to be in big trouble if we have a severe earthquake. One of the things that I talked about with Dr. Lucy Jones was this idea that sustainability and earthquake resiliency are really tied. If we could lay more purple pipe that is earthquake resistant, we could make sure that firefighters have the water supply they need, and we could help drive the infrastructure for reclaimed water to more parts of the city, helping create more demand for those services.
We’re going to have reclaimed water as part of our future. Orange County and San Diego are way ahead of us. The water bond coming up in California is most likely going to be on the ballot in November. That’s another important opportunity, as well as the LA River.
Waste—how do we get to zero waste? How do we reclaim more of that waste? How do we see the waste that’s going to landfills, being burned, or being trucked somewhere as a resource, not as something to get rid of? How do we keep more of the stuff here that’s going in container ships to China, so that companies can use those recyclable goods in Los Angeles for manufacturing and other needs?
Climate—a big issue, and one that touches nearly everything. The mayor’s committed to building on our success in reducing greenhouse gas emissions while creating a more resilient city that adapts to the realities of climate change. With sea level rise impacting the communities of Wilmington, to a lesser extent San Pedro, and certainly Venice, and with our assets along the coast vulnerable, we need to prepare. With that comes more flooding from storm surge. We’re not going to have the kind of hurricanes that destroyed New Orleans after Katrina or after Hurricane Sandy in the Northeast, but we are going to have more impact from higher sea level rise—especially when we get storm events in the coastal areas, including beach erosion and other challenges. We need to prepare for that.
The mayor has been proud to serve on President Obama’s Climate Task Force for state, local, and tribal governments. Recently, we hosted the second meeting of the task force in City Hall. We brought together Governor Brown, Governor Quinn of Illinois, other mayors who are on the task force together, along with the co-chairs—the chair of the Council on Environmental Quality at the White House and the director of Intergovernmental Affairs. Our first meeting was back in December. The chief of staff to the president came by when the president couldn’t come, because President Obama was at Nelson Mandela’s funeral memorial. Denis McDonough said, “This is a task the president asked to be done, and he wants the report on his desk by September or October at the latest.” What’s remarkable to me is that the White House is saying, “Tell us how we can get out of the way, so cities and states can do more to fight climate change. We know we can’t do anything with Congress. We know we can do certain things with executive actions, and we will do everything we can. We will push the envelope. But, we need local, state, and tribal governments to tell us what we can do to move the ball faster and further down the field.” Some of that may be reappropriating existing funding where they have flexibility. How can they create flexibility in other programs, or reduce regulations that get in the way of the kind of local, state, and county collaboration that needs to happen to put resilient communities in place, as well as mitigate climate change?
Energy—probably the topic most people are interested in here and obviously very linked to climate change. We’re going to put a big emphasis on existing-building energy efficiency. We’re working closely with our colleagues at the county on looking at residential PACE programs and are participating in the commercial PACE program. The mayor just did a bill-cutting ceremony—he literally cut a DWP bill in half at the Universal Hilton on a $7 million PACE-financed retrofit. It’s very exciting. It’s the single biggest PACE project in the country, as far as I was told, completed through the county PACE program. Hopefully there’s going to be more to come there.
We are fortunate that the City of LA was selected as the recipient of the City Energy Project, focused on creating benchmarking and disclosure. It’s going to make us more competitive as a real-estate market and build on the success of all the great Energy Star and LEED buildings we already do have here in Los Angeles. We're going to need your help to get the residential market not just interested and comfortable but excited to work with us on upgrading their buildings. Maybe we can also combine the earthquake retrofits we have to do. We’re looking at how we can potentially do that as we look at the earthquake retrofit needs in Los Angeles. That’s another tall task. We’re looking at how we can leverage impact and resources wherever we can.
The feed-in tariff. The mayor has made it clear. He’s committed to getting from 150 megawatts to 600 megawatts of solar feed-in tariff. We’re going to continue the net metering program, encouraging and supporting that to the greatest extent possible. Our Building and Safety Department and our Department of Water and Power have some things they need to work out. If you’ve got a solar system on your rooftop, in the past it has sometimes taken up to a year to get it turned on. That’s not acceptable anymore. Everybody knows that. There are reasons why, but we’re going to fix it. Building and Safety is already working on their fixes, as is the Department of Water and Power. None of us want to have to read that kind of article on the front page of the LA Times. It’s challenging for everybody. But, we have the most installed solar of any city in America. We want to make it higher on the per capita list, as well. We’ve got a ways to go, and we’re rolling up our sleeves with everybody at the Department of Building and Safety and Department of Water and Power.
One of the things the mayor did when he was on city council was have a two-day hearing to create a city-wide sustainability plan. The City of LA has never had a city-wide sustainability plan, yet many other cities have created them. Most people see PlaNYC as really the hallmark. Former Mayor Bloomberg started off by killing recycling and then became the greenest mayor in America. What really changed that was his PlaNYC. It was outcomes based and metrics driven. That’s what we’re beginning to work on here in Los Angeles. It’s going to be unique to our city and built on our needs.
We’re unique in that we have our own port, we have our own airport, we have our own utility, and we are stressed in terms of water, along with other challenges in terms of budget and other needs. But we can become the most sustainable city in America. We can become the most livable city in America, with the investments we’re making in transit and transportation, renewable energy, energy efficiency, and water efficiency. Our Department of Water and Power has done more than any other city in terms of water conservation. We have a million more people, yet we’re using the same amount of water as we did many years ago.
The timeline for the sustainability plan is to have a draft out by the fall, and hopefully over the summer we’ll start public outreach. Hopefully this group here tonight can provide input individually and collectively as we roll that out and get feedback and ideas.
The last thing I’d say, and the mayor would say in his own way, is that we need you to take action in your community. Even if you don’t live in Los Angeles, you probably spend time or do business in Los Angeles. How can we unleash the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit in this room, along with the people you know, to make LA the greatest city in America? That’s going to take not just a great leader in city hall, not just a great utility, but it’s going to take everybody in this room thinking, “How do we take responsibility for a corner of our world and make it a better place?”
The craziest idea I ever had was that I could help rebuild New Orleans to be green. Some heads of other non-profits, heads of foundations, and others thought I was crazy to think Global Green could make a difference in New Orleans. But we did, and the organization still is to this day. Truly the greatest inspiration for me in New Orleans came from local leaders I met in the neighborhoods. People who said, “We’re going to create the first carbon-neutral neighborhood in the Lower 9thWard after the storm.” It’s because of the woman with that idea, Pam Dashiell, that there are more LEED Platinum homes in the Lower 9thWard than in any other neighborhood in America. It was her crazy idea that made it possible—that allowed me, Brad Pitt, and others to go down there and build all these LEED Platinum homes that now house low-income families, teachers, and community organizers, because she plowed the ground. She got the community comfortable with this concept and created the support politically.
You can make a difference. This mayor wants to unleash the civic commitment of universities, of individuals, and of companies to help in the charge. I enlist you. I hope you help us in that cause, and do whatever you can to take us further and faster.