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UCLA Grand Challenge reveals plan for environmental sustainability

By Allison Ong

Dec. 22, 2015 7:17 p.m.

The UCLA Sustainable LA Grand Challenge project released a report Wednesday detailing its research plan to make Los Angeles more environmentally sustainable by 2050.

The five-year plan outlines goals such as powering Los Angeles County entirely with renewable energy, switching to locally-sourced water supplies and increasing native biodiversity and ecosystem health. One objective aims to ensure every resident lives within a quarter-mile of green, outdoor space.

UCLA faculty, students, local experts and partner institutions have been collaborating on the vision since November 2013, when UCLA administrators launched the Challenge to conduct research on metropolitan sustainability.

The UCLA Grand Challenge initiative also announced a Depression Grand Challenge in October, which focuses on the treatment, prevention and analysis of clinical depression.

Donors such as the UCLA Fund, the Goldhirsh Foundation and private parties have raised about $7 million towards the UCLA Sustainable LA Grand Challenge’s $150 million goal, said Mark Gold, associate vice chancellor for environment and sustainability.

Gold said he thinks the Challenge’s goals are definitely feasible, especially given recent developments in environmental policy such as Gov. Jerry Brown’s Executive Order B-30-15, which encouraged a statewide reduction of carbon emissions in April. He added the initiative plans to fund 10 to 12 new Challenge projects in January. All projects aim to improve Los Angeles energy, water or ecosystem health.

“A lot of what’s been talked about (in water research) for decades is now being acted upon,” said Gold, who researches the improvement of water management systems.

Richard Wirz, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, researches cost-effective sources of renewable energy for the Challenge. One statistic the plan cited to support the cause for environmental policy change in L.A. states that renewable energy, like wind and solar power, powers only 22 percent of L.A. County’s electricity.

“In LA, (energy consumption) is a gigawatt problem, so we need gigawatt solutions,” said Wirz, a member of the Challenge’s main steering committee.

Wirz leads a team that aims to improve wind turbine technology and solar thermal energy storage. His project, funded in part by the California Energy Commission, plans to test the technology at a solar field in Brawley, California in 2016, he said.

Gold said Challenge members are on track to release an Implementation Plan by 2020, which will use research findings and models to guide people towards a large-scale implementation of the Challenge’s goals.

Gold said he thinks the Challenge’s biggest obstacles to transforming LA in 35 years are the city’s existing political and managerial infrastructures. Changing everything from transportation, energy, environmental health protection and even water will require major systemic changes, he added.

“(Existing infrastructure) makes things incredibly difficult in how we’re going to move from a model historically based on importing water from long distances, to (a model) of self-reliance,” Gold said.

He added the Challenge plans to launch programs on education and community engagement by end of 2016. He plans to create a leadership council of members from business, government and private philanthropy to further develop collaborative relationships with academic institutions and policymakers.

“It’s a volunteer effort – myself and others do it out of a labor of love,” Wirz added. “It’s not helping our salary. Everyone on a committee is passionate about saving the planet.”

Students can also participate in the Challenge by applying to the Grand Challenges Undergraduate Research Scholars Program, a program founded in 2014 that pairs undergraduates with faculty mentors on Challenge projects.

Seth Pickford, a second-year geography and environmental studies student, spent part of his fall quarter mapping the dispersion of the Engelmann oak tree, contributing to the Challenge’s Biodiversity Atlas of local endangered plants.

“People don’t pay attention to what’s going on in their own backyards,” said Pickford, who said the group will rehabilitate the tree in parts of L.A. to monitor its growth. “I just want to start making the changes that need to be made.”

Lilian Chou, a fourth-year environmental studies student, said she tracked the usage of eco-friendly treadmills at John Wooden Recreation Center last year. Now, she is a project consultant to students interested in reducing energy consumption in Westwood.

“(The Research Scholars program) is almost like a grassroots initiative to get students to think more sustainably,” Chou said.

Wirz said he thinks the initiative has the potential to impact cities, states and countries beyond the immediate UCLA area, potentially making L.A. a model for urban sustainability and livable ecosystems.

“This is an effort to be responsible,” he said. “We’re trying to create an example for other parts of the world.”

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Allison Ong
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