R. Rex Parris is the mayor of Lancaster, California – a city of 158,000 inhabitants close to Los Angeles. He’s both a Republican and a strong believer that we have an obligation to do everything we can to combat the impending threat of climate change. With respect to climate change, he was quoted last year in the New York Times as saying “I may be a Republican, but I’m not an idiot.”
In a wide-ranging conversation last month, he repeatedly referred to the climate issue.
As far as global warming is concerned, all the trends support it…We don’t want to believe we are facing extinction because it’s so overwhelming. The disruptions in populations are going to be significant.
The most recent National Climate Assessment, released this week, supports the urgency Parris feels, but he also sees this as a good business opportunity. So he is doing all that he can as a community leader to position his community for survival and success in the world he sees coming. Becoming net zero, and producing more electricity than Lancaster uses, is just part of the mayor’s overall agenda. He also wants to see Lancaster emerge as a central hub in the new energy economy.
Parris explained the rationale and the multi-faceted city plan, and he starts with a simple premise, The role of government is to set up the rules.
One critical rule has to do with the city’s building codes. Starting this year, all new single-family homes must include a 1.0 kilowatt solar system. Parris commented that after taking office, he was looking at the larger utility scale solar arrays, and got one located nearby.
After I was elected, we used parabolic mirrors to create solar energy and erected a 5 MW plant without having to lay a foundation of any kind…They were able to get electric costs down to about 11 cents per kWh.
As he continued to observe the space, he noted that costs of solar photo-voltaics were falling quickly,
Then the bottom fell out of the PV… it dropped by about 70%. Now PV is much cheaper.
So Parris adopted a multi-pronged approach, and applied some systems thinking to the issue. He started with the need to improve the overall efficiency of energy use in the residential sector. Parris began working with the local representatives at KB Homes to develop a net zero home and got them on board.
They used to be like any other builder, except they built faster and cheaper. They took huge risks, but now every KB home has a solar option which significantly lowers monthly payments for the house. So you can buy a bigger house, since monthly payments are so much less. They’ve developed a very innovative culture, and they are rewarding the people who come up with the best ideas to build the best homes. Here in Lancaster, they now have a net zero 2.0 home, that not only produces more electricity than it uses but also cuts a third of the gas and 40% of the water consumption.
The first of these was unveiled this February in Lancaster, and it is estimated to save an estimated $4,452 in energy and water savings annually.
Parris commented that such efficiency gains require a commitment to systems thinking, “by addressing every facet of the house, but that requires a big business model. It requires people to start changing how they think.”
In the process of working with KB Homes and focusing on the housing space, Parris recognized an interesting fact. Home builders will likely build a better house if they think somebody is watching.
If you take the same house, the ones they know are going to be inspected are 30% more efficient. That tells me I will have to figure out an ordinance to have all new housing inspected. I would outsource to an approved contractor. This idea should go nationwide. It would have a huge impact on the CO2 footprint if we just started doing this – make the builder build the house they say the are going to build. I think that’s where government intervention has a place. Before my term ends as mayor we will have an ordinance that every new house has to be net zero. It’s not so hard – now that we know how to do it.
Parris has also achieved national recognition for his successful efforts in simplifying the permitting, interconnection, and inspection process for installing solar. This area – known as PII – is a ‘soft cost’ that makes rooftop solar more expensive and time-consuming than it needs to be. In some cases, it can take months to get a system approved, with multiple agencies involved in the process. In Germany, by contrast, municipalities have a one-stop shopping permitting process. Lancaster was the first U.S. jurisdiction to put a similar approach in place, and it has now been followed by other places such as Vermont.
One thing I learned was one of the biggest concerns was how long it would take to get a permit. I learned how difficult it was to get a permit. The biggest problem was this delay. Now all solar panels for homes in Lancaster are over the counter in just one visit.
Beyond the residential needs of his constituents he turned to the community infrastructure itself, pushing for solar wherever it was feasible.
97% of our municipal buildings are solar and all our schools are solar. We actually make money because of the financing model. Savings to taxpayers are running up on a million dollars. Even at our baseball field – a state of the art stadium – 97% of the power comes from the sun as well.
Beyond that, Parris has set a goal of positioning Lancaster to benefit from the long term trends he sees evolving in the energy arena, as well as the city’s convenient location,
I also look at complexity and chaos theory and I understand that in order to excel in a field you have to be at the center. In finance, it’s London, New York or Hong Kong. In computers, it’s Silicon Valley. In Lancaster we have been at the center of the aerospace industry for a long time, so we have experience being at center of technological developments and breakthroughs. I’ve set out to make us the center of alternative energy and it’s starting to come true.
He is not afraid to utilize the power of his office to get the dialogue started.
We were able to attract the BYD BYD bus company (a Chinese company, of which approximately 10% is owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Berkshire Hathaway) – it took me four trips to get it. They chose Lancaster, which at the time surprised everybody…I put KB Homes together with BYD… Because I’m the mayor I can call meetings and people come. I asked them to team together and build an affordable net zero house. They utilized batteries produced by BYD and they are working together on battery storage for homes.
There becomes a synergy to such relationships, and they develop more and more technologies. Its fascinating what happens when you start telling people ‘we want innovation now, we want you to help save the planet with us.’
Parris sees Lancaster as an ideal location for greentech companies to set up shop, in part because of its ready access to transportation links,
We are the only part of LA that remains undeveloped, and most of the land is disturbed so there are no real environmental issues. We have two runaways that will accommodate the Airbus 380, we are minutes away from the trucking route into LA, and we are located next to rail spurs. We are going to be the energy center. When I first started saying it, people laughed and said I tended toward hyperbole. Once BYD came, the people stopped laughing.
At the end of the day, Lancaster’s mayor points out that while many of the problems we face are indeed global, the solutions have to come from somewhere. And somebody needs to get the momentum started. There is, he comments, a very significant role for local communities to become principal catalytic agents. And he is not shy about what he thinks his responsibility is in this regard.
A large percentage of these problems can be resolved at the local level, and I am setting out to prove it. I have two years and then I will run again for four. My approval rating is 76%, although at some point I will push the city too far and they will kick me out.
Let’s hope that’s sometime in the distant future.