The city of San Diego made national headlines when it became the largest city in the country to set a goal of using only renewable energy. But how to reach that goal remains an open question that could generate political battles over who controls the city’s energy in the years ahead.
Renewable energy — or “clean energy,” as environmentalists call it — means power that comes from natural sources such as wind, solar and hydroelectric dams. The city aims to go all renewable by 2035, which would mean eliminating any power that comes from natural gas. In 2014, that was 52 percent of the city’s power, according to numbers from San Diego Gas & Electric.
The 100 percent renewable goal is part of San Diego’s larger Climate Action Plan, which the City Council unanimously passed last month. The overall plan makes a legal commitment to cut carbon production in half by 2035.
Transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy is projected to reduce the city’s carbon production by almost 1.6 million metric tons, more than all of the city’s other carbon-cutting strategies combined.
Environmental activist Nicole Capretz wrote a version of the Climate Action Plan when she worked for Democratic City Councilman Todd Gloria, who was then serving as interim mayor. She said when she included the 100 percent renewable energy goal, she did not expect it would survive in the final plan.
“One hundred percent is bold and pushes the envelope to what our city leaders are usually comfortable doing,” Capretz said.
She now leads the environmental nonprofit Climate Action Campaign, which has served as a watchdog over the climate plan. Capretz said she was surprised not only to see the renewable energy goal survive, but to see business groups support it, including the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“It was important at this moment in time to have a mayor who's Republican and who supports bold action on climate,” she said. “That facilitated a more open mind in the business community for keeping the 100 percent clean energy goal.”
If a Democratic mayor had been pushing the plan, Capretz said groups might have returned to their traditional corners and fought it.
“It probably would have been a much harder lift,” she said.
Sean Karafin, executive director of policy and economic research at the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, said backing the Climate Action Plan and its 100 percent renewable goal was a no-brainer.
“The environment and the economy are not things that are at odds with each other,” Karafin said. “A thriving business environment is one in which the quality of life is high so we can attract the best and brightest talent from around the nation and around the world.”
Neither Karafin nor Capretz would speculate on what a bold Climate Action Plan might do for Faulconer’s political career, or whether political aspirations motivated the mayor to push the plan. Faulconer told NPR’s Weekend Edition that he did not worry the plan would become a partisan issue.
“It's what's the right thing that we should be doing in San Diego,” he said. “And showing that we're having increased economic development while we are reducing our (greenhouse gas) emissions, people get that.”
What Faulconer and the City Council now need to decide is how to boost the city’s renewable energy consumption from 32 percent in 2014 to 100 percent in 2035. That’s less than two decades away.
NPR host Rachel Martin quizzed the mayor on how he would accomplish this, asking if San Diego Gas & Electric would be fined if it doesn’t reach the 100 percent goal.
Faulconer said SDG&E has worked well with the city on hitting its targets so far, and said the utility would be one part of the energy sources the city will be considering.
“With increase on solar and a variety of other things, it's been a partnership,” he said.
What he didn’t mention was the main program being considered to reach the 100 percent renewable goal would strip SDG&E of its purchasing power.
The program, called community choice aggregation or community choice energy, has been adopted by some local governments in Northern California, including Marin and Sonoma counties, and is being explored by other cities and counties across the country.
Under the current system, SDG&E purchases energy for all of the residents and businesses in San Diego. Under community choice, the city would make those purchasing decisions, giving it more control over where its energy comes from, the cost and how much clean energy is in the mix.
Karafin with the chamber said his organization is focused on examining community choice aggregation, or CCA, as the way to attain the clean energy goal.
“Right now, the only option that's been brought forward is CCA. So the question right now should be: Does a CCA get us there, and is it financially feasible?” he said.
Answering that question involves a lot of analysis. Marin and Sonoma are much smaller than San Diego, so they can’t be looked to for answers, he said.
“Nowhere in California has anyone taken that amount of energy off the local utility’s load,” Karafin said. “We're in uncharted waters when it comes to program size.”
Another wrench could be California’s Clean Energy and Pollution Reduction Act of 2015, which stipulates that utility customers can’t see rates rise to subsidize community choice aggregation programs. That could translate into increased rates if the city switches to community choice, he said.
But Karafin wouldn’t say what other programs the city could use to reach 100 percent renewable energy. He said the city’s focus is on exploring community choice, and so that’s the chamber’s focus, too.
“If we spend the next one to three years looking at CCA in every way and we decide that it is feasible, then excellent,” he said. “If we decide it's not feasible, than we shouldn't have to move forward with something we've decided is infeasible. We should have the opportunity to look for another option that gets us to that same goal, which is 100 percent renewable energy.”
The city is working to hire a consultant to do a feasibility study. Another study, funded by a local nonprofit, was never finished.
Capretz with the Climate Action Campaign agrees a feasibility study should be done but said she views community choice as the only option for reaching the renewable energy goal.
“The problem is we don't have any control or jurisdiction over our utility, so we can never bind them to deliver 100 percent clean energy to us,” she said.
Capretz sees storm clouds on the city’s renewable energy horizon.
“I do unfortunately believe there are going to be tensions and battle lines drawn when the implementation of the plan moves forward,” she said. “When actual specific policy recommendations come to the fore, people will get back into their usual corners.”
Those conflicts could come over a variety of things, including increasing housing density, eliminating parking or driving lanes to build transit and bike paths, or requiring building owners to disclose energy use. But Capretz said the biggest fight will likely be over community choice aggregation.
SDG&E does not support community choice, she said, evidenced by the utility’s decision to ask the California Public Utility Commission to let the company set up a shareholder-funded marketing district to lobby on the program.
The utility also sent a comment to the city on the Climate Action Plan that said eliminating natural gas completely is not possible.
In a statement, SDG&E said it fully supports the climate plan and is committed to delivering 50 percent renewable energy by 2030. That’s only half the required amount under the Climate Action Plan.
Capretz said it’s too early to know whether the chamber of commerce will support community choice, but she is concerned about SDG&E’s influence there.
“Our utility is a really strong voice at the chamber of commerce, and I'm hoping the other small businesses and voices at the chamber have equal weight and so we can have a fair conversation about the opportunities when we can have local control,” she said. “The battle lines are drawn, so hopefully we can create a more persuasive case about why it's in the public interest and the interests of families and small business to offer an alternative and offer choice in the marketplace.”
Last year, Burlington, Vermont, became the first city in the country to go 100 percent renewable.
The city arrived at that goal after 10 years of progress that began when residents decided they no longer wanted nuclear power, said Mayor Miro Weinberger. The Democrat took office in 2012.
Weinberger said achieving 100 percent renewable energy came from a combination of political will that survived multiple administrations and skillful use of the state’s renewable energy tax credits.
Burlington’s power is managed by an internal department, the city-owned Burlington Electric Department, which set up purchase agreements with wind farms and a hydroelectric dam.
“Having those agreements in place allows us to claim renewable energy tax credits and find investors interested in those tax credits, and that has made it much more affordable to use renewable energy sources,” Weinberger said.
The Burlington Electric Department is not a community choice program, but it is controlled by the city. Weinberger said that allows the local government to ensure all energy comes from renewable sources.
“It’s given Burlingtonians a much greater ability to see that their values and environmental interests are reflected in their electrical utility,” he said. “We don’t have the same kind of responsibility to try to earn a return for investors as other types of utilities might have. My sense is that in a materially significant way, that allows Burlingtonians to make energy decisions about their energy future.”
The next goal is to wean city from renewable energy tax credits, and to work on making it easier for residents to set up small scale solar panels and wind facilities, Weinberger said.
Of course, Burlington’s population of about 42,000 is dwarfed by San Diego’s 1.4 million, so there’s no comparison to be made in power supply between the two cities.
Energy experts said getting San Diego to 100 percent renewable is possible but will be a challenge.
The 20-year deadline is tight, said Shirley Meng, a nanoengineering professor at UC San Diego’s Jacobs School of Engineering.
“I want to be optimistic that it could happen in 20 years, but it will take a lot from all sectors, not just scientific breakthroughs, but how to implement it policy wise,” Meng said.
The goal is likely not doable with today’s technology because the cost to store power generated from solar, wind and water is still too high, she said.
“Even though costs for energy storage have come down quite a bit, when we talk about grid storage we need to cut costs by about five times,” Meng said.
In the past 25 years, storage costs have been cut by a third, she said.
“With just the existing technology, we won’t be able to reach 100 percent renewable, so we have to keep innovating and investing in energy research,” she said.
Byron Washom, UC San Diego's director of strategic energy initiatives, equated the need for new technology to walking up a hill.
“In 2016, that might be a steep hill, but with innovation and progress the incline becomes less over time,” Washom said.
He said the problem is that renewable energy is produced during times when residents don’t use as much power — wind blows at night and sun shines most directly in the middle of the day.
So, Washom said, the challenge is storing that energy and integrating it into the grid when it’s needed.
“I use the metaphor of a large orchestra that has many different instruments,” he said, equating the types of energy to instruments. “What will be key is having the sheet music and a conductor to determine when each instrument is to chime in and participate in the supply of energy.”
Faulconer will present a plan to the City Council in April to show how to achieve all of the Climate Action Plan’s goals.
Capretz said she’ll be able to tell a lot from that plan and how it’s generated.
“At those first stakeholder meetings, we're going to see where everyone's at and what questions they raise and what concerns and challenges they bring to the forefront,” she said. “If they're talking about the cost and not willing to look at the larger context of the benefit, we'll have a clearer picture of where everyone stands.”
But, she said, the Climate Action Plan is legally binding, and city staff will have to produce annual monitoring reports. That means environmental groups and lawyers could threaten to sue if the city doesn’t appear on track, even in the first few years.
“If we're seeing business as usual is the way we're going, and climate emissions are on an upward trajectory, that could be a signal to some people that we're going to need to intervene here earlier than the first 2020 benchmark because elected officials aren't doing what they need to be doing,” Capretz said.
The battle over community choice aggregation likely won’t come to a head for two to three years. That’s when the City Council will decide whether to move forward with the program.
Until then, city leaders can continue to enjoy the attention San Diego is getting as it aims to be a national leader in running its homes and businesses on 100 percent renewable energy.