SAN DIEGO ENERGY DISTRICT MOVES CLOSER TOWARD FORMING POWER ALTERNATIVE PROVIDER FOR SAN DIEGANS

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Prominent East County residents turn out in support

By Miriam Raftery

January 14, 2013 (San Diego) –In Marin County, 80% of utility customers now buy power from a local energy cooperative supported by their local government. Now a similar effort is making strides toward giving SDG&E customers an alternative option to purchase power from a  public utility backed by the City of San Diego.

 Elections have consequences---and Mayor Bob Filner has voiced strong support for creation of a San Diego Energy  District.  One of Mayor Filner’s first actions was to write a letter  of support for SDED’s plans to create a community choice aggregate (CCA) local energy district that aims to purchase power from locally produced clean and renewable resources, primarily rooftop and parking lot solar.

Last week,  a full house packed a meeting held by the San Diego Energy Foundation, the driving force behind the San Diego Energy District.   The Foundation recently received a $50,000 donation from the Protect Our Communities Foundation (an East County group that fought against Sunrise Powerlink) to conduct a feasibility study due out this summer. Leaders from other East County organizations were also among the attendees.

Phil Conner is an organizer of Stop the Santee Power Plant, which has led efforts to block the Quail Brush gas-fired peaker power plant near Mission Trails Regional Park.

“We’re looking forward to putting a stake in that vampire,” he said.

Proposed peaker plants, both Quail Brush and Pio Pico in the Otay area, are key threats to SDEF’s plans.   Any new infrastructure could “seal the deal before we get out of the gate, “ an SDEF spokesman said.

Van Collingsworth of Preserve Wild Santee was present. So were representatives of other environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and UnitedGREEN.  Some local politicians also sent representatives, including Supervisors Dave Roberts and Greg Cox.

Engineer  Bill Powers, a cofounder of SDEF, confirmed that “Elections have made this more feasible.”  In addition to Filner’s support, the SDEF believes both Supervisor Dianne Jacob and Supervisor Dave Roberts are likely to back their plans, but they need help to muster a third vote to make this a reality not only n the city of San Diego, but countywide in unincorporated areas.

They also plan to reach out to other cities in the county, as well as potentially to tribal governments.

“2012 was like the British are coming,” legal representative David Rise said. “Our effort is to be a coordinated team in 2013.”

The group aspires to cut emissions for the region to zero, with projects such as solar panels at airports, stadiums, brown fields and other impacted areas  in the urban environment.

“Why pay for capacity in remote areas when we can put it here?” Powers concludes.

The SDED doesn’t aim to buy power from industrial-scale wind projects, but also doesn’t want to spark controversy by battling them, either. “Fighting Tule wind as we’re trying to launch this CCA, that won’t happen,” said Lane Sharman, cofounder.

“The cost of solar PV amazingly keeps dropping spectacularly,” Powers observed.  He said solar PV has dropped as low as $1 a watt. “If we do it in a smart way, we could pave the city in PV and do it in a way that’s competitive.” He favors projects such as dual axis solar tracking on the roofs of parking structures.

The state has mandated that California must produce 33% of energy from renewable by 2030 and even more in the future. “We feel that we can do this a lot sooner,” Powers said.

The group needs $500,000 to $750,000 to launch. They seek volunteers to serve on various “squads” including financing and funding, legal formation of a joint powers authority, work products, government relations, SDG&E relations, and business relations.

In Marin, capitol came from various sources including city bonds and investors.  “Within just two years, they were able to pay back the bonds that municipalities put up,” said Pol Sandro-Yepes of Nobel Americas Energy Solutions, which helped in the Marin cooperative.

Challenges include persuading elected officials to risk losing campaign contributions from SDG&E in order to support an alternative for consumers.  “Any elected official who plugs this in is going to be a hero,” one audience member observed.

Organizers speculate that the cooperative could provide 50% of San Diego’s energy needs or more in the foreseeable future. 

A lively discussion ensued on how and whether to create a regional resource plan, and what terminology to use to maximize public support.

The need for regional power generation is strong, with San Onofre offline for the past year and the prospect of the nuclear facility remaining offline permanently growing increasingly possible.  Controversies over fracking are making gas less attractive, making solar increasingly attractive. Other alternative energy sources may also be included, though controversy remains around just which sources and at what scale will be acceptable to the group overall.

When a municipality such as a city backs formation of a CCA, the opt-out rate averages just 20%. If energy prices are competitive with the major utility company, or cheaper, the opt-out rate can be far less; if prices are higher then more are likely to opt out. So price point Is key – but so is defining a mission that can build strong support without alienating potential backers by supporting forms of energy that are destructive of the environment or rural communities, such as industrial-scale wind farms—even if they are net zero on emissions.

Done right, CCAs offer customers the opportunity to vote with their pocketbooks—choosing to purchase power from an entity that supports community values over corporate profits.

“For customers, there will be no change in their bill, their power lines, or their maintenance,” Sharman assured. “It’s the biggest change you’ll never notice.”