LADWP Regulations and Aging Substation Slow Sustainability Initiatives

Jesse Leclere/Occidental Weekly

New college sustainability projects, such as Physics Professor Daniel Snowden-Ifft’s proposal to increase the solar power array’s capacity, have been halted by Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) regulations concerning an aging electrical substation on campus.

According to Assistant Director of Utilities* Chris Reyes, the electrical substation on the corner of Campus and Baer Roads is an aging piece of infrastructure and LADWP property. LADWP regulations govern the wattage of electricity that any commercial customer, such as Occidental College, is allowed to generate. Until these regulations are fulfilled, the college cannot generate any additional energy. If parts of the substation were to fail or require necessary upgrades, LADWP would provide financing.

“LADWP pays for their own equipment replacement as part of their infrastructure improvements,” Reyes said. “The substation has many parts inside it. If any of those parts failed, the part would have to be replaced. It is not a replace-all kind of situation.”

According to Snowden-Ifft, he has been pushing for more solar energy on campus since the installation of the first solar array in 2012. His plan to install new solar panels over parking lots — increasing the solar energy the campus receives from one to two megawatts — could be funded through the Green Revolving Fund, also known as the Occidental Sustainable Investment Fund (OSIF).

“Given that other projects are being funded by [OSIF], the solar project will likely be done in pieces over several years. However, we cannot put even one more [watt] of green energy on campus until the LADWP changes their regulations or we upgrade the campus’ substation,” Snowden-Ifft said.

According to Snowden-Ifft, who referenced LADWP safety regulations, the college would have to do two things in order to increase solar on campus: transition to a new electricity generation rate schedule and upgrade the electrical substation. The electricity rate schedule would cause changes to service charges, demand charges and backup energy capacity.

“I did a detailed calculation though, and going onto the new rate structure would not hurt us. We might even pay a little less than we are now,” Snowden-Ifft said.

Snowden-Ifft said that upgrading the substation to accommodate solar generation is the larger problem, as financing an entirely new substation would cost the college. According to Reyes, increasing solar power generation would require Occidental to pay for a new switchgear. The Custom Station Design Group of LADWP would provide cost estimates, starting at $750,000 without taking into account the contractor fees for the vault, pad mount and related parts. The estimated overall cost including these additional contractor fees would be more than $1.3 million, according to Reyes.

According to Reyes, LADWP views any electricity generated over one megawatt as a potential safety threat to workers during a power outage. Therefore, increasing the energy production on campus would require updated safety features on the college’s equipment.

Sustainability Coordinator Jenny Low has been involved with the efforts to increase solar energy output on campus and the dialogue between Occidental and the LADWP.

“It’s going back and forth because I can talk to LADWP about ‘okay, can we upgrade our substation,’ but we don’t have a plan for where the above one-megawatt arrays are going to be installed,” Low said. “At the same time, we can’t make concrete plans until we know how much it’s going to cost.”

Snowden-Ifft said he feels there is widespread support for solar energy at Occidental, but his project cannot continue under the current regulations and budget.

“We’re stuck. If we got the substation replaced it would open the door to a huge number of projects,” Snowden-Ifft said.

Reyes said that there have been recent discussions within Utilities about bringing back a separate form of energy production called cogeneration. Cogeneration entails running a generator with natural gas and using waste heat, exhaust and cooling oil to heat the campus.

According to Reyes, Occidental previously had a cogeneration system in the basement of the Johnson Student Center. The college removed the system after South Coast Air Quality Management District tightened their rules. Recently, Reyes said that he has begun to look into the possibility of a new cogeneration system on campus.

“It’s a very efficient way to do this. I thought about what it would take to get us back up on that,” Reyes said. “The engines and the generators out there now are a lot more efficient and there’s a lot more heat available from them.”

According to Low, there are many other lesser-explored forms of renewable or efficient energy generations that the campus could pursue, such as solar thermal. Solar thermal energy is generated by using heat from the sun to produce hot water and heating.

Reyes said that the prospect of different forms of sustainable energy production on campus are still curiosities, as no official work has been done to evaluate the implementations. According to Reyes, no energy production project can progress under current LADWP regulations or with on-campus infrastructure.

Communication between Occidental and the LADWP circulate through Occidental’s LADWP representative Jacky Magarin. The Occidental Weekly reached out to Magarin multiple times, but she was not available for comment at the time of publishing.

*Utilities is a subsection of Facilities Management.