Photovoltaic Reformation: Dismantling Gas Infrastructure

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Project Team

Authors: Jimmy Ta, Kevin Slawson

Firm: EDGE Design Group

Project Description

In an effort to reduce California’s greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, the state has invested in solar power to produce cleaner energy and encourage electric vehicles to replace polluting gas-powered cars. As our 20th century oil infrastructure begins to decay in the coming decades the most visible part will be the ubiquitous gas station which can offer better uses for local communities facing some disturbing issues.

As housing costs continue to rise so do other living expenses such as rent, food, and utility bills. With a majority of their income going to rent, low-income families are especially vulnerable to these rising prices and increased risk of falling behind on rent and face eviction. These high housing cost and low vacancy rates have contributed to a 72% rise in homelessness in L.A. County since 2009.

Compounding this problem are L.A.’s rising energy rates that are 54% higher than the national average and rising 6% annually. Over 1.5 million L.A. households are in utility debt that diminishes any assurance of housing security. Furthermore, tenants with older roofs and multifamily units don’t have access to rooftop solar panels which is contributing to a growing energy equity gap in utility costs between low-income households and middle to high income households.

Community solar projects that provide cheap and reliable energy to low-income communities will significantly help families lower their electric bills and provide more money for other living necessities. These projects can be locally based in underutilized gas station lots and provide local green economy jobs with training for installation and maintenance in a rapidly growing sector of our economy.


Additional Links

Project on JSTOR

Studio Description

Our team set out to explore if there were any land-based solutions to our evolving energy infrastructure and the growing social inequities within urban cities. The research process started out by looking at the existing electrical grid and trying to find alternatives to energy dispersal that would result in large R.O.W.’s being reprogramed for more community and environmental based needs. We learned that with the massive amounts of investment that has gone into building and maintaining our grid it is not likely to be replaced any time soon. Based on this realization, we transitioned from energy dispersal to clean energy production that can rely on the existing grid for distribution.

California has already invested millions of dollars to build solar and wind energy in open deserts far away from urban centers that rely on the existing grid, however the vast distance of this transmission has caused some issues in reliability based on seasonal wildfires and heavy winds that have forced utilities to pause distribution and leave millions without power. To help resolve this issue we began to look at microgrids that could produce energy at scale closer to where it is consumed helping to prevent distributions in service. The main challenge with microgrids in urban centers is the lack of available land and the NIMBYism of energy infrastructure in residential communities. Rather than relying on a large single plot of land we began to explore how an interconnected network of solar panels could provide a significant amount of electricity to homes that currently have little ability and access to clean energy. During our research we began to notice a troubling trend based on an equitable access to clean energy. While residential solar panel installations in L.A. County went up 30% between 2008-2015 for families with annual incomes above $40,000, solar installations went down -2% over the same time period for families with annual incomes below $40,000. Furthermore, during this same timeframe solar installation costs fell from $3.50/watt in 2006 to $0.40/watt in 2019 resulting in a 775% price decrease.

Clearly the rapidly falling prices in home solar are not helping low-income neighborhoods take advantage of clean energy. In looking into the reasons why this happening we found that most low-income households live in older, less energy-efficient homes with roofs that can’t support PV panels, or they live in multifamily homes and don’t have access to make rooftop improvements. Furthermore, we found that L.A. County’s high cost of electricity (46% higher than the national average) combined with the highest poverty rate in the state (22.3%) has resulted in more than 45% of households in the south-central neighborhood of Los Angeles are in utility debt (with the highest in the Watts neighborhood at 85% of households in utility debt). These troubling statistics helped focus our intervention on more equitable access to clean energy through local microgrids connected to and distributed by the existing utility grid. Community solar, where a large array of PV panels produce energy that can be shared by multiple households, will solve this energy inequity and repurpose underutilized land to highly productive, community-based amenities. We found 48 gas stations within our 5-mile radius study area, and with this amount of redundancy many will likely become irrelevant in the coming decade. Our proposal aims to focus both public and private investment into these lots along with a variety of additional programmatic opportunities based on community needs that can drive ROI and offset some of the ongoing costs of our social safety net.