January 16, 2017 - From the January, 2017 issue

LA County’s First Chief Sustainability Officer To Regionally Advance Sustainability

Los Angeles County, the largest county is the nation, is home to over 11 million residents. Recently, its County Board of Supervisors brought on Gary Gero to become the first ever Chief Sustainability Officer for Los Angeles County. Gero, previously the president of Climate Action Reserve, is being tasked to bring all 88 cities and unincorporated areas within the county together to establish a comprehensive sustainability plan that charts a vision towards sustainable energy, water, transportation, and waste management. TPR sat down with Gero to learn his 2017 priorities, which include stormwater management, increasing local water supply, and integrating resiliency into the sustainability framework. 

 

Gary Gero

“I think the county has done a good job capturing stormwater, but there’s a whole lot more that we can do. As we face a water-constrained future, this is a resource that we can simply no longer allow to be washed away into our rivers and oceans.” - Gary Gero

Gary, as the first Chief Sustainability Officer for Los Angeles County—the largest county in this country—how did the county arrived at the decision to create this new position?

Gary Gero: I think what we’re seeing here is the effects of term limits in the county. The board has turned over entirely in the last six years—with Chairman Ridley-Thomas now being the longest-serving supervisor—and it’s really looking at things in a new way.What’s exciting about that is that board is driven to get things done, and to do things differently than they’ve been done in the past. 

Part of that is recognizing the importance of sustainability, both in general and within the context of the county. In my discussions with the supervisors and their staff, I’m getting an appreciation for how important they feel that this work is, and their desire to have somebody in a position of leadership that can actually drive the bus.

The county has done a lot of great things with regard to sustainability in the past, but it hasn’t done them in a coordinated and comprehensive fashion. That’s the wrinkle that the board wanted to address by bringing somebody in who could have the vision to provide a comprehensive, coordinated framework for addressing the many issues contained within the concept of sustainability.

Have the county supervisors explicitly shared what a new CSO’s priorities ought to be?

We have been talking not only about traditional environmental media—like air, water, and solid waste—but really looking at sustainability as an organizing principle for making our communities healthier, more livable, and more economically vibrant.

Yes, sustainability means the environment. But for us, it also means housing and homelessness, economic and workforce development, environmental and social equity, green jobs, and more. This broad range of elements comprises the notion of sustainability, and we must move it forward in a way that captures the needs of all residents and all communities in the county.

With the county’s population and budget larger than many states—and with most of the public unaware of the role of its 37 departments—how do you plan to foster inter department relationships and collaborations to help you execute on your mission?

I’m still in the process of meeting the folks from all 37 departments, but I’ve talked to many of the key departments. Also, almost two years before I got here, the county created a Sustainability Council comprised of departments, which continues to exist.

I see this work as a series of concentric rings. The first and central ring is, of course, the county’s own departments, facilities, and operations. We’re going to make sure that our house is in order. The county has certainly done lots of good things on this front already—for instance, we have policies regarding water conservation and alternative fuel vehicles—but we need to put them together in a complete package, to set goals, and to lay out the measures for achieving those goals.

The county departments also touch and affect the unincorporated areas of the county. We have 1.1 million residents—one-tenth of LA County’s total population—residing in areas where the county is, effectively, the city. We are the ones who provide the full range of municipal services, including community planning, building and safety enforcement, and a whole range of issues. There are many of these pockets spread throughout the county, ranging from 300 to 250,000 people. This archipelago of unincorporated areas, where we have primary responsibility, is the second ring.

But where I think we really have the opportunity to be innovative, and to demonstrate real leadership, is in the third ring. The third ring is the county working hand-in-hand with the 88 cities in the county to craft regional approaches to sustainability, because there are certain kinds of policies that can only be effective if they’re done on a regional scale. A patchwork approach doesn’t work for stormwater capture, because watersheds don’t recognize political boundaries. The same is true for addressing the urban heat island effect or for street design, since streets may traverse multiple jurisdictions along their path.

We have typically seen sustainability planning exist at the city scale, but we’re going to be looking at it at a regional scale. This is an exciting new innovation, and is consistent with the new Board of Supervisors’ desire to show regional leadership. 

What are your initial thoughts about a regional approach to stormwater capture?

I’m fortunate that the county has a very big prehistory here. We’re in a much better place subsequent to the lawsuit from the NRDC, and are now working collaboratively with cities. The terms of our settlement allow us to start taking collaborative approaches to actual, specific stormwater-capture projects, and to work with the regional board to implement them. I think the county has done a good job capturing stormwater to some degree, but there’s a whole lot more that we can do. As we face a water-constrained future under a climate change scenario, this is a resource that we can simply no longer ignore or allow to be washed away into our rivers and oceans. We must capture it for beneficial reuse, whether in spreading grounds or elsewhere.

Turning to distributed energy, the county has demonstrated an interest in integrating increasing amounts of renewable energy into the grid. Pease address the status of feasibility studies regarding a potential Community Choice Aggregation program for Los Angeles.

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I would draw a parallel to the water world here: Just as we’re looking at increasingly local solutions to water supply and water quality, we’re also looking at increasingly local solutions to our energy issues. In general, local solutions help with climate resilience; in a climate change scenario, relying on far-off plants may not always be the ideal.

What we’re doing in the county, under the authority that we have under state law, is starting to collaborate with cities on creating a regional community choice energy program, in which the cities and the county are providing energy services to our residents. Preceding my arrival, the county has done a couple years of good work on this. We’ve developed a business plan as well as a feasibility study that shows that we can provide cleaner energy at lower cost than what we’re currently receiving from Southern California Edison, and that we can do it in a way that is financially sustainable over the long term.

The county’s initial approach was to go out and do this on its own—providing energy to our own facilities and the unincorporated areas only. We were prepared to move forward on that basis, but the board really took a fresh look in September and said, “No, we don’t want to be a monolith that does this by ourselves. We need to work with the cities within the county to create a truly regional approach to the question.”

I’m going to be talking with all 82 eligible cities—I’ve so far talked to about 25—to encourage and invite them into a discussion about creating a Joint Powers Authority to operate a community choice aggregation program. That process will ramp up in earnest in January. When we create our community choice aggregation program, the power to develop local energy resources will be in our hands. This is something that we’re very excited about. Providing jobs locally and energy infrastructure locally improves our communities and makes us more resilient.

With respect to financing, what programs do you believe have most facilitated the growth of renewables? PACE, for example, is much admired statewide, but not very strong in LA County. Why is that?

PACE is a key funding mechanism, and while the county does operate a PACE program, I think we can be more assertive on it. There are some internal institutional barriers that we’re going to have to address in order to make that program as effective as it can be.  

There are ways to innovate and improve that program. For instance, we’re opening it up to EV infrastructure and seismic retrofits as well, so it goes beyond just solar and energy efficiency. Still, PACE is just one of a number of mechanisms. When it comes to the community choice aggregation program, we’ll be exploring the full range of financing opportunities for us to build local renewable energy plants here in Los Angeles County.

You’ve mentioned that resiliency, building, and planning will be on your agenda. How will each fit into the responsibilities of a chief sustainability officer?

 Resiliency is critical, and I view it as very much part and parcel of sustainability. It will be a key component of the sustainability plan that we write. Resiliency crosses any number of categories, not just our building stock, although that is part of it. Our energy grid needs to be resilient, and in particular, we need to look for opportunities for microgrids or other kinds of technological solutions that can make critical facilities—hospitals, emergency centers, and others—more resilient to the effects of climate change.

We need to look at resiliency in our transportation networks; we need to look at building resiliency into the public health system. We know there is the potential for public health impacts across the board, so we should think about things like additional cooling centers or reverse-911 systems that alert people to the fact that those cooling centers exist, so that we can get vulnerable populations into safer facilities. 

Resiliency also enters into the water area. With the changes coming under climate change—and those that are already here—water scarcity, water supply, and water disruption are all real threats that we need to address. The county has taken that issue very seriously, and is at about the midway point in a significant water resiliency plan that will help inform and drive policy and programs. That will be under the umbrella of the sustainability plan that I ultimately write.

You previously led Climate Action Reserve, and are thus an expert on cap and trade and creating a marketplace for carbon. What’s the future of cap and trade, given the national election?

The national election certainly presents some challenges, although I think Governor Brown has made it clear that California is going to go our own way and that our climate programs, including our cap and trade, are going to continue. And I think we’re going to see increasing interest among other states and regions in joining us.

I’ve been happy to see that Ontario is on track to join California and Quebec in the program. I know that interest in joining has not waned in Washington or Oregon. I wouldn’t be surprised if, at some point, there are discussions among some of the northeast states that formed the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative about joining the California-Quebec-Ontario program, either individually or as a whole. Mexico is another potential partner for the program, to the extent that we could link up to a national cap-and-trade program.

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© 2017 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.