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Government, business leaders seek UCLA's help to meet new carbon-cutting law

Can Los Angeles clean up its air by offering green retrofits for low-income homes, using electric cars powered by subscription-based car batteries and duplicating the carbon-cutting transit programs from UCLA?
 
The mountains behind LA's skyscrapers are barely visible through the smog.Those were a few of the ideas tossed around when UCLA brought politicians, business leaders and researchers to campus for a March 6 conference exploring how they will meet aggressive requirements to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The California Air Resources Board recently developed a scoping plan for implementing Assembly Bill 32, which requires steep reductions in carbon emissions by 2020. Cities, companies and universities are among the agencies that will have to slash their gas emissions.
 
Board chair Mary Nichols, who helped develop the scoping plan outlining a recommended framework for reducing emissions, suggested that Los Angeles could develop a pilot program offering eco-friendly housing upgrades to low-income families, and that the city could also look to UCLA for ideas.
 
"UCLA is already demonstrating ways to reduce traffic emissions, to make its buildings more efficient and re-landscaping with drought-tolerant plants," said Nichols, a professor-in-residence at the UCLA School of Law. "There's just a whole series of things being done to make the campus itself more efficient. As one of the world's great research institutions, UCLA is also in a position to bring together some of the best scientists and policy thinkers in the world to develop new solutions. There are people right now working in laboratories to find algae that are going to be the fuel of the future."
 
State Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) who authored AB 32, also pointed to UCLA as a source of inspiration.
 
"I can see UCLA becoming the center of forward-thinking strategies to combat what I consider to be the biggest economic and environmental challenge of the 21st century, global warming," Pavley said. She particularly noted UCLA's success in reducing the number of people driving alone to campus.
 
Nichols, Pavley and several other speakers acknowledged the inevitability of using such politically unpopular tools as congestion pricing or toll lanes in California.
 
"I don't see any alternative," Nichols said. Santa Monica Councilwoman Pamela O'Connor added that her city is also looking into pricing tools to reduce traffic.
 
Putting a price on driving is the most effective way to alter driving habits, said William Fulton, a development planner and publisher of the California Planning and Development Report. However, it was easy to see during the last run-up in gas prices that there is a certain amount of driving that people have to do, no matter how expensive it gets, he said. The solution is to build denser, walkable mixed-use city centers.
 
"Concentrated development equals concentrated traffic," Fulton acknowledged. "Is that worth what I can get out of it? Yes. You know, traffic sucks. … But if traffic sucks, and I have a coffee shop I can walk to as a result of traffic sucking? That may be a trade-off I'm willing to make."
 
One of the more radical suggestions at the conference came from Sven Thesen from the company Better Place, which is pushing a new kind of electric car. Better Place envisions cars running on interchangeable batteries that can be charged at home or exchanged at gas-station-style battery pick-up stations. Battery power would be purchased on a subscription basis, like cell phone minutes, and charged using green power. Having had some success in a few countries, like Israel, with batteries offering a 100-mile range, Better Place is beginning to target the U.S., Thesen said.
 
David Nahai, CEO of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, outlined some of the challenges facing his agency, which will be forced to wean itself off of several large coal-based sources of power by 2020. Currently, only geothermal power offers a reasonable alternative, he said. The costly and environmentally sensitive challenges will be obtaining geothermal power from the desired source – the Salton Sea – and building the transmission lines necessary to bring it to Los Angeles, he said.
"The transmission lines issue will be a discussion statewide," Nahai said.
 
Conference participants suggested dozens of research projects UCLA could take on to help California go green, from developing a standard method to measure carbon emissions to turning the kinetic power of cars on the highway into useable energy and providing legal scholars to explain new regulations to mom-and-pop companies.
 
Paul Bunje, executive director of UCLA's Center for Climate Change Studies, said some of that is already happening. "It's not that we don't know some of these answers," Bunje said. "But we haven't figured out yet how to package it and get it into people's heads."
 
But with one of the state's first Climate Action Plans, a new UCLA-wide sustainability coordinator and a slew of other eco-friendly activities, "UCLA," Pavley said, "is walking the talk."