Lancaster, California, produces more solar power per capita than any other city in the state. Devastated by the recession of 2009, when unemployment rose to 17%, the city has made its commitment to solar the basis of its economic rebirth. Today it is home to the BYD truck and bus factory, which just finished an expansion that tripled its original size.
Lancaster mayor Rex Parris calls his city “the solar capital of the universe.” Described by some as “an arrogant bully and an unstoppable control freak,” the three-term Republican has been an unflagging champion of solar power. “Had it not been for his leadership, we would not be on this journey,” said Lancaster city manager Mark Bozigian.
Today, housing prices have rebounded and unemployment is less than 6%. Parris says his clean energy policies have created 1,000 new jobs within the city, which sits north of Los Angeles and south of Bakersfield. “I think Lancaster is a fantastic story about clean energy and job creation, and it’s a great American story about reinventing,” said Jeff Tannenbaum, chair of sPower, a solar developer that has worked with Lancaster on several large-scale solar projects. “The Republican mayor has reinvented Lancaster as a clean energy capital.”
SolarCity, the company started by Elon Musk’s cousins and which was subsequently purchased by Tesla, has partnered with Lancaster to install rooftop solar systems on virtually all municipal buildings and schools in the city. Lancaster also changed its building code to require that new homes include rooftop solar, the first city in America to take that bold step. Not only is BYD the largest employer in the city, it also partnered with KB Home to build affordable homes that feature solar panels, battery storage, and LED lighting.
City manager Bozigian believes that local governments have all the tools they need to address climate change. “The mayor is in charge of building permits. Not the federal government,” he says. When Mayor Parris speaks about the city’s clean energy campaign, he does so with a photo of Donald Trump nearby. He points to the photo and tells his audience, “He doesn’t issue building permits. I do.”
The permitting process for rooftop solar systems can be lengthy with lots of delays built in. Not in Lancaster. Today, approvals take about 15 minutes. “It’s so business friendly here, it’s not even funny,” says Jim Cahill, a vice president at SolarCity.
The city made a decision to buy its electricity from solar power plants built within the city itself. That not only provides jobs for local workers, it also lowers the cost of electricity for city residents. That initiative has been so successful, Lancaster is helping other Southern California cities set up similar programs. Now Mayor Parris has his sights on creating a regional market for locally produced solar power. Together with several surrounding communities, Lancaster is planning to build a transmission like to deliver clean energy to Los Angeles.
“If other cities, or this state, had leaders like Mayor Parris and the Lancaster City Council, they would all be doing it,” said Bozigian. “You need to have guts, and you need to be decisive. You need to know what’s right, get the information you need, make a decision and do it.”
Parris may be unusual for someone who calls himself a Republican, but he is not alone. Halfway across the country, Georgetown, Texas, is committed to being a city that runs entirely on renewable energy. Republican mayor Dale Ross says it’s not about ideology or politics. Ross, who is a trained CPA, says it’s about dollars and cents.
“The revolution is here,” he says. “And I’m a good little Republican, a right-wing fiscal conservative, but when it comes to making decisions based on facts, that’s what we do. How is anybody going to compete with wind and solar?” he asks.
When the city started considering its options for long-term electricity in 2015, coal was simply too expensive and natural gas providers were only willing to lock in prices for 7 years. Wind farm suppliers, though, were willing to make a 25 year commitment. Now city residents pay about 25% less for their electricity than they did before.
Ross says Donald Trump was his 8th or 9th choice among the Republican candidates for president. “When Trump was campaigning, he was talking about clean coal and we’re going to bring coal jobs back? That is a mirage, that is not going to happen,” he says. “Coal is one of the most expensive forms of fossil fuels to produce. And those jobs are never going to come back, ever. They’re done.”
His opinions about the EPA dismantling the Clean Power Plan are equally acerbic. “Isn’t that sort of like putting a Band-Aid on somebody that has terminal cancer?” Ross said. “I’m not the smartest guy in the room but it’s not that complicated, OK? How’s fossil fuels going to compete in the next five years? They’re not going to be able to compete,” he tells The Guardian. “We were on the frontier of the fossil fuel business, oil and gas,” Ross says. “And now Texas again is on the frontier of the new energy that’s going to be the future.”
Back in Lancaster, city manager Bozigian also emphasizes economics over politics. “Mayor Parris says that the mistake that advocates make is to make it a politicized issue, which means everyone looks at it through a political prism. This is an issue that’s more important than that. It’s common sense.”