In what he believed would be an altruistic — and energy-saving — gesture, historian and author Gore Vidal recently took his Los Angeles home almost completely “off the grid,” using solar panels to run his household instead of relying exclusively on energy supplied by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Unfortunately, Vidal’s plan to harness the sun was thrown off last Friday at dawn, when a DWP inspector threw the switch to turn off his solar system, leaving the 81-year-old writer intermittently without power throughout the weekend. Power interruptions aren’t just a nuisance in his case, as he sometimes requires the use of a powered lift during his recovery from knee surgery.

Vidal set up his solar panels in April, drawing on the technical expertise of his eco-savvy godson, Muzius Gordon Dietzmann, who came from France to help out with the switchover. The proper paperwork was submitted at the time of the installation, he says, and the panels worked perfectly … until the DWP came June 29 and threw off his power plan. Vidal’s assistant Daren Simkin says a DWP representative cited faulty installation as the cause of the blackouts — a claim Vidal’s contractor denies — but the rep in question did not return our request for comment.

The DWP’s approval guidelines, involving four separate inspectors, are different from those required by other regional utility companies — and, according to William Korthof, a solar energy specialist who helped install Vidal’s system, they involve at least three unnecessary steps. Southern California Edison, for example, doesn’t require inspectors to turn off solar power as part of their routine. Though Korthof attributes the hassle Vidal endured to bureaucratic inefficacy, not malice, the take-away from this object lesson appears to be that red tape can even get in the way of soaking up the sun’s rays. “The DWP is creating obstacles to prevent people from putting up solar [power systems],” Korthof allows.

The author himself has a different take. “I decided that one thing we have an abundance of here in Southern California … is the sun,” he said Sunday. “The sun’s the only thing we can rely upon, after the utility companies, who have not yet seized the sun. But now I feel that I am the opening wedge to their battle, which is to prevent ordinary citizens of the American republic from getting the full benefit of solar power because they have some kind of droit du seigneur. Utilities come first in America; this is the American way.”

By Monday evening, Vidal’s solar system was still shut off — his home, once again, back on the grid.


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