Californian Rex Parris is part mayor, part sheriff, part lawyer and part preacher. And his main evangelistic cause is renewable energy.
Under Parris’s leadership his city – Lancaster, north of Los Angeles – has transformed from being named the “worst city in LA county” into a renewable energy powerhouse that creates more power than it uses, with unemployment a third what it was.
Parris was in Kiama for Thursday’s “Cities Power Partnership” summit of mayors from around Australia – and beyond – to address climate change.
“Our goal was to create the template so that when the world woke up they could follow it,” he told the Mercury.
“The first thing you do is remove all government obstacles to converting to solar panels and wind. How long does it take to get a permit? It used to take six months in Lancaster, in most cities in America it still does. Now in Lancaster it takes 20 minutes.
“You look for reasons to say ‘yes’ to innovative ideas. And what we find is that the power went from 19c a kilowatt to 3c a kilowatt. It’s a lot cheaper to build a factory in Lancaster than anywhere else because of the power.”
Parris has engineered an economic turnaround in Lancaster by enabling a booming renewable energy sector, with every new house mandated to have solar panels and be Zero-Net Energy – that is, it generates more energy than it uses.
The policy will now be taken on by the entire state, while Lancaster is now the site of a factory building electric buses for the city and beyond.
All from the power of the sun. With a little help from some friends, that is – in particular Chinese vehicle and battery manufacturer BYD, and building giant KB Home, who came together to invest in low-cost housing and batteries in Lancaster.
“Now it’s a whole different city,” he said. “We’re one of the safest cities in LA country, we power the city on alternative energy, it’s cheaper to build a factory there so unemployment has dropped.
“Our first endeavour was to be the first Net-Zero city in the world. But when you start off on a course like that, it becomes infectious.”
Parris’s autocratic style and conservative sensibilities have earned him critics. But the drop in unemployment from 18 per cent to below six per cent has changed lives.
Not bad for a policy which Parris said was primarily motivated by environmental concerns.
“I have five grandchildren,” he said.
“I can read. The difference between people who understand the level of threat (from climate change) and those who don’t is the difference between people who read, and people who don’t. Because it’s irrefutable.”