San Diego’s Vision for 100 Percent Renewables

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In 2015, San Diego set a landmark goal that made it the largest U.S. city to target a 100 percent renewable electricity mix over the next two decades. But big questions loom over how exactly San Diego will hit the ambitious benchmark.

The cornerstone of its efforts so far is a legally binding Climate Action Plan, approved by the City Council, to slice its roughly 13 million-metric-ton carbon footprint in half by 2035. Early projections show San Diego’s switch to renewables would cut 1.6 million metric tons of carbon production, adding to other carbon-reduction initiatives like adjusting traffic lights to reduce idling and replacing up to 90 percent of the city’s auto fleet with electric vehicles.

San Diego’s Climate Action Plan mirrors similar commitments made in other cities. San Diego’s Republican mayor has touted the play as an economic stimulus anchored by a burgeoning clean energy industry. But San Diego hasn’t come as far as some other municipalities. Officials there still haven’t outlined a specific strategy for the transition to renewables.

Local advocates, including those at City Hall, expect San Diego to lean on solar power to build out its renewables portfolio. The city is known for its year-round sunshine, priming it for rooftop solar and arrays atop parking lots.

But bigger changes will likely lead the way.

On a wider scale, the city is considering community choice energy. Under that framework, the city, rather than local utility company San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), would choose its electricity supply. Community choice aggregation also allows local governments to aggregate electricity demand between them, boosting their collective buying power. Other California communities have already jumped, including Marin County, Sonoma County, and San Francisco.

But not everyone is embracing that solution. As San Diego evaluates community choice, tensions are bubbling up over what a program would mean for San Diego’s existing energy economy.

For example, SDG&E won regulatory approval to mount a public relations campaign against community choice aggregation — a move that triggered blowback from clean energy supporters worried the utility will hold back the bigger vision.

“SDG&E has made clear they’ll stop at nothing to stifle the voices and the freedom of choice for families and businesses who want better energy options to save money, clean the air and create a brighter, healthier future with homegrown clean power,” said Nicole Capretz, executive director of the Climate Action Campaign, an advocacy group pushing the renewables plan.

The concern makes sense, after millions spent by another California utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, stalled the launch of the state’s first community choice program in Marin County by nearly a decade.

It’s important to note that the city’s 100 percent pledge is electricity-only. Contrary to some initial reports, the city won’t phase out non-electricity natural gas use as part of its 2035 goal. The caveat means the use of natural gas to heat homes and power water heaters and ovens will continue, at least in part, beyond 2035.

Still, even if San Diego’s commitment to renewables covers only electricity, it stands to disrupt the existing utility’s plans to shift more slowly to abundant local renewable energy resources. A 2010 study, for example, noted that San Diego County had enough residential and commercial rooftop space to meet the peak energy needs of the city, and supply one-half the annual electricity needs.

San Diego’s plan may be a bit lean so far, but it’s got a lot more meat to the renewable energy transition than many other cities.

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Renewable Energy World's content team members help deliver the most comprehensive news coverage of the renewable energy industries. Based in the U.S., the UK, and South Africa, the team is comprised of editors from Clarion Energy's myriad of publications that cover the global energy industry.

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