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We look at green energy in San Diego's low income areas.

September 6, 2012 1:14 p.m.


David Alvarez, San Diego City Councilman, 8th District

Nicole Capretz, Associate Director, Green Energy, Green Jobs campaign at the Environmental Health Coalition.

Related Story: San Diego's Low-Income Communities Want Clean Energy


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Amid the flurry of bills sent to governor Jerry Brown's desk last week, a solar energy bill was left out. Assembly bill 1990 which would have created small-scale energy projects in low-income neighborhoods failed to find support. But backers are not giving up. Nicole Capretz, my guest, associate director of the green energy, green jobs campaign at the environment 58 health coalition. And joining us, San Diego City Councilman, David Alvarez. Welcome.

ALVAREZ: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Nicole, who book part in the survey?

CAPRETZ: We have regular contact and communication with the community members that we serve. As part of our voter education outreach, we survived about 300 community members, not only about how they're feeling about this election process but as they're feeling about the transition to green energy and the green energy economy and what their interest level was in participating in these new opportunities. And even hearing over the years a frustration that they kind of hear out there that there's these new opportunities and all these solar projects going in the region but they weren't seeing them in their backyard, in their neighborhood. Of so we wanted to give voice to that. We wanted to help amplify their voice through this survey. And we wanted to really test the strength of their interest in green energy.

CAVANAUGH: So what neighborhoods are we talking about in San Diego?

CAPRETZ: Basically Barrio Logan, Sherman heights, city height, and national city.

CAVANAUGH: And just about how many people took part in the survey?

CAPRETZ: About 300.

CAVANAUGH: Is and what did you ask them?

CAPRETZ: Very direct question. So, would you pay $0.10 more a month if SDG&E would install solar in your community? I want to make the distinction, they didn't just say raise our rates and install solar in the desert. There's a real hunger, a desire, to have solar and green energy installed in their community. Of it's an investment, job opportunities, they want that.

CAVANAUGH: And how many said yes?


ALVAREZ: I'm not necessarily surprised. I think what's interesting is that people who live in every community really want to embrace this -- this is sort of part of the American fabric now. Sustain communities is the new America. If you think about it, there are a lot of recent immigrants, people who have come to this country to be part of a greater society. And sustainable communities is the new frontier in some ways for America. And we've heard so much about it particularly over the last three or four years. So I think what I heard Nicole say is that people want -- want to take part in that. And I think that's why it's not surprising to hear that so many people favor having in their own backyard solar installations in their homes and neighborhoods to be part of this.

CAVANAUGH: Most of the people who answered the survey, were they homeowners?

CAPRETZ: We didn't make any distinction. But the reality is the majority of our community members are renters. And they're often living in multifamily buildings, which are a huge solar sweet spot because of the large rooftop.

CAVANAUGH: I see. So that's why nonhomeowners would really want solar, to be put on condos and apartment buildings and things like that some

CAPRETZ: Yeah, exactly. It would be a challenge to put solar on every rooftop in any community. But some rooftops are more kind of ready for solar, and larger commercial buildings such as multifamily buildings are ripe for solar.

CAVANAUGH: I get the feeling from you that some of the people who answered this survey might have been thinking about the broader neighborhood aspect of having more renewable energy, not just having solar on the rooftop of their own home.

CAPRETZ: Yeah. We didn't really get the sense that it was about any particular benefit that impacts them directly. But it's about their community. Of it's about their sense of place. It's about their sense of pride. It's about their opportunities to get this valuable infrastructure. And really, it's about jobs. To install a solar panel, someone has to do it. To maintain it, someone has to do it.

CAVANAUGH: You're with the environmental health coalition. And I'm wondering, what kind of health impact would there be from having more renewable energy? Solar energy, in these neighborhoods?

CAPRETZ: Well, I don't know that we could say there's I direct one to one health-related benefit. But it's about chipping away at the need for dirty energy in our region, and it's about building this green energy economy, which we strongly believe is the future. What we just want to make sure, that there is equity in where this infrastructure is going.


ALVAREZ: And I think there's something to be said about the visual of seeing a solar panel in the community and what that means to a child who lives in those neighborhoods or even to a family who perhaps doesn't get a chance to see a solar panel. It really internalize that and to understand that our world is changing, and if we want to survive and thrive as a world, we need to be respectful of our resources. And I think the visual itself has a strong message, it sends a strong message to the community.

CAVANAUGH: Nicole, this is called a nonscientific survey. Does that minimize its efficacy, its impact?

CAPRETZ: Well, we certainly hope not. We've been working in these communities for 32 years. We have deep roots with these neighborhoods. And our direct contact, we're a trusted messenger. They know us, they trust us, and they let us know the truth.

CAVANAUGH: Now, $0.10 a month is not a big increase to say okay to. Do you think respond objects might have said yes if it were $1 more or $10 more a month to have more renewable sources of energy?

ALVAREZ: Well, I think there's always price points. When people study the market, they try to figure out at what point is it too much to ask or to be beared by a family. I think what was interesting built proposal was that it was trying to give something a chance, something different, something that would perhaps allow this type of energy to go into communities that otherwise do not have access to this type of energy. So that's why it was an interesting approach. So I think there is a point where an amount is too much, and I don't know what that is. I have no idea what that is. But again it's at least an idea. That's one of the things about our democracy which is so great, we can put up ideas, and hopefully get enough support to get those forward.

CAVANAUGH: And wasn't the $0.10 linked to a plan?

CAPRETZ: Yes. We had a legislative proposal this year that went through the process, got killed at the end unfortunately.

CAVANAUGH: We're talking about AB 1990

CAPRETZ: This is a very modest program proposal to pay commercial building owners for installing solar in these disadvantaged and vulnerable communities. And when we first started out, we had a larger program, and we crunched the numbers and figured out what is the worst case scenario of what an impact might be to ratepayers for this program? That is where the $0.10 figure came in.

CAVANAUGH: If this had passed, what would it have done?

CAPRETZ: It would have installed about 500-1 thousand solar panels on commercial buildings throughout the state, and it would have created about three thousand jobs.

CAVANAUGH: David Alvarez, you have been very involved in trying to get more solar into the neighborhoods that you represent. What are the challenges in doing that in low income communities?

ALVAREZ: There are different kinds of challenges. Some of the communities I represent are working with a nonprofit called grid alternatives that we've really been pushing for the last year. Our goal was to get 50 homes installed with solar energy. We're above 30 at this point. Like I said, it's about giving an opportunity to every neighborhood. And that's why we're partnering with great alternatives to do in the communities that I represent. But not everybody qualifies for certainly programs because it's a government-assisted program. So you got to find different ways to make it happen. That's why AB 1990 was an alternative. At the side of San Diego right now, we're moving forward with the Pace programs, which allow other commercial buildings to be outfitted also with energy-efficiency, and other types of solutions. So we're looking at different ways because there is no one solution to this problem. So we've got to just take a different stab at it from different directions to figure out how we can make this happen.

CAVANAUGH: And even with the incentives that I believe are still available, state incentives and federal incentives, to install solar, it's still a pretty expensive undertaking for a homeowner, isn't it?

ALVAREZ: It is. And that's why we need programs like the Pace programs which allow property owners to finance in a way that they can pay back. You can't go out and take out a loan to put up a solar roof on your home or to do some of the basic energy efficiency things like weatherization, fixing your windows and doors. So there are a few things that can be done that are low-cost, and some programs that exist through SDG&E, and others that have rebates. But we've got a long way to go.

CAVANAUGH: San Diego has the reputation of generating the most solar power of any city in California. We have had that reputation for several years now. How do we keep on track with that distinction to move forward with solar power in San Diego?

CAPRETZ: Great question. One of the things we recognize in participating in some of these energy policy discussions is this green divide, or this solar divide as we call it. We are the No. 1 solar capital in California. And that's awesome. And we want the industry to continue to flourish. But the reality is, national city has 12 solar panel installations, the City of San Diego has 2,600. So there's a huge disparity this about who's benefiting from some of these solar programs. It's incumbent on us to search for different solutions and different programs. Some of the old programs, some of them are phasing out now, didn't reach our communities. So that's why we had put a proposal on the table that we felt was marrying the need and opportunity in the low-income opportunities.

CAVANAUGH: So you had the proposal, you had the survey to back it up, why did the legislation fail?

CAPRETZ: Yeah! Not only that, we took every amendment asked of us by the business community. We really tried to be collaborative, we really tried to compromise and make the bill have as much bipartisan support as possible. And SDG&E came in and killed our bill. They brought in troupes of lobbyists, spread misinformation about our bill. And it blindsighted us. We just suddenly -- people started changing their votes.

CAVANAUGH: That's interesting because I know SDG&E has actually worked on some community solar generation projects. Have you ever partnered with SDG&E on any of this effort to get solar into lower income neighborhoods?

CAPRETZ: I'm not aware of any particular efforts. I know they have a sustainable communities program that tries to install solar on certain government buildings. But to be honest, we have not -- I'm pretty aware of most of the programs, there really aren't any that are sponsored by SDG&E to install solar in our communities. And that's why we've been working with them behind the scenes too, trying to craft a solution. And that didn't pan out. So we felt obligated to pursue the legislative process. And even trying that, trying to modify our bill to make all the parties and stakeholders comfortable, they still killed it.

ALVAREZ: The Pace program that I just mentioned, and others out there, these are all optional programs. Nobody is being required to participate. So this is not some sort of mandate on anybody. So again, trying to give options to everybody, everybody has a different situation, everybody community is different. So we want to give real options so that people can actually afford through financing or some assistance to get these installed and to make sure that we stay as the leader here in San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: Councilman, with our energy demand, the fact that San Onofre nuclear power station is not online, it would seem that this would be a really good moment to push for alternative energy. Do you think that we are seizing that moment?

ALVAREZ: I don't know that we are here in San Diego. But -- and I don't know what's happening nationwide. But I don't think we're doing enough. I think there's more to be done. That's why you see proposals like this one and others because we're realizing that we are not on track. I think everybody is just sort of maybe sitting back and hoping that technology will get better and cheaper and then it'll just be easy to do. I think we're not there yet, and I don't know how far away we are. We've come a long way, but we can sit here and sort of take a risk and say the time will come. Or we can take action and actually start doing something about it.

CAVANAUGH: Nicole, finally, now that AB 1990 is no more, what's next?

CAPRETZ: Well, we're regrouping. We learned a lot of lessons about how Sacramento works. And we're ready to fight another day. We're not giving up. Our communities are relying on us to step up and find solutions, and we're committed to doing that.