Exploring the future of energy in Carlsbad

"El Nino isn't going to fix the problem — it'll fix next summer's problem at best."

A group of about 100 Carlsbad residents gathered on the afternoon of January 13 to participate in a forum focused on the future of energy generation and delivery for the region and beyond.

A discussion panel kicked off with a presentation from retired Navy admiral Len Hering, executive director for the nonprofit Center for Sustainable Energy. Hering painted a rather dire picture of the world in its present state, warning of looming crises from ocean pollution and sea level rise to threats to global supplies of food and drinking water from a rapidly-growing population.

"Ninety-five percent of Americans have no clue how the rest of the world lives, nor do they understand the impacts that our 200 years of prosperity have had," Hering begins. "We represent 13 percent of the world's population, but we consume nearly 70 percent of its resources. No matter how much we want to preserve what's here, if we do not change our behaviors it's not sustainable. Our wants and our needs are way out of balance.

"Mankind will need to produce more food in the next 40 years than he has in the last 10,000. And yet the bread baskets in the world are in dire straits due to climate change," he continues. "Here in the United States, we throw out 40 percent of everything we grow. That's virtually equivalent to farming all of the acreage in Mexico — planting it, watering it, farming it, harvesting it, packaging it, and then throwing it all away. That's where we are. America throws out more food every day than the entire continent of Europe consumes, and they're not starving by any means."

More locally, Hering warned that even the dire drought warnings Californians have become accustomed to are insufficient.

"We've worked hard to get the governor to explain that we're in our 14th year of climatological drought. The message that goes out is that we're in our fourth year; that's simply not true. For every year with a decline in precipitation it takes three years of normal precipitation to recover that year. If we don't recover, it doesn't mean the latest drought started over from new. And by the way, folks, El Nino isn't going to fix the problem — it'll fix next summer's problem at best."

Panel moderator Scott Anders, administrative director of the Energy Policy Initiatives Center at the University of San Diego, further focused the discussion.

"In California, the big backdrop for energy policy is actually climate policy," Anders said. He credits the state's Assembly Bill 32 and subsequent gubernatorial executive orders that seek to eventually drive greenhouse gas emissions within the state to a level 80 percent below those measured in 1990 with driving Californians' move toward green tech at a faster pace than the rest of the nation.

"When I came to San Diego in 1999, there were 10 photovoltaic rooftop solar systems producing 30 kilowatts of energy," Anders shared. "Now there are 75,000 rooftop systems approaching 500 megawatts. That's astounding."

Still, clean energy won't be enough to effect real progress in the climate change battle, warns SDG&E chief energy supply officer Scott Drury. Drury notes that the utility beat its 2020 deadline for sourcing a third of its total energy from renewable sources, surpassing the milestone last year.

"In fact, we're probably trending to 40% renewable in the next couple years," Drury said. "That's the system energy that we deliver through our network, but we're also supporters and advocates for distributed energy, or solar."

Distributed solar advocates, however, disagree with this assertion, noting that the utility has acted to make home-use solar costlier for those adopting the technology.

Still, according to Drury, with California's car-centric culture, transitioning to greener electricity sources is just a drop in the bucket unless people move away from their gas-powered vehicles to those fueled by that green energy.

"We could completely decarbonize electricity, and we'd collectively come nowhere near meeting the state's climate goals," he warns. "We have to decarbonize transportation, and one way to do that is to focus on the electrification of the transportation industry, particularly using renewable electricity."

"Our micro-grid saves the campus about $850,000 per month," boasts Washolm, who's optimistic that the projects his team is exploring will one day be able to scale up or down to affordably meet the needs of consumers in a way that solar power cannot do alone.

Cordel Stillman, deputy chief engineer at the Sonoma County Water Agency, the driving force behind Sonoma Clean Power, also presented. Sonoma is one of two municipalities in the state to have successfully implemented community choice aggregation, which proponents say delivers cheaper and greener power to utility ratepayers.

"We get to localize how we set rates, and what our power sources are going to be," Stillman explains. "One of the key portion of this program is that it's an 'opt-out' model."

SDG&E, along with other private for-profit utilities in the state, has fought against the automatic inclusion of local ratepayers in community choice programs, which local activists have sought to bring to San Diego. Stillman says about 10-11 percent of customers switched to a community choice district eventually opt to return to the private utility, which is Pacific Gas & Electric in the Sonoma region.

Rates paid by customers of municipally-administered utilities in areas such as Sacramento, Stillman says, are on average 20 percent lower than those paid by those in areas controlled by private utilities. San Diego's rates, along with the profits of SDG&E parent company Sempra, have long been among the highest in the nation.

Stillman says that as more community choice districts are developed, the implementation gets easier.

"It took about three years for our program to get going, while it took six years for Marin [County, the first community choice district in California]. I would expect that the development time is going to continue to shorten as more jurisdictions get involved in this."

Finally Byron Washolm, UC San Diego's director of strategic energy developments, gave a presentation on projects the university has undertaken to advance its clean energy programs.

"We self-generate about 85 percent of our electricity on an annual basis, along with 95 percent of our heating and cooling," shares Washolm. "We've got about 16 million square feet of buildings. To put that in perspective, the largest building in the world is the Pentagon at 20 million square feet."

Washolm touched on several successful experimental programs, including one that shifts the angle of rooftop solar panels to avoid cloud cover, another that takes batteries reclaimed from cars in order to create storage units for excess solar power and extends the lifespan of the batteries themselves by several years, and even one where methane waste gas collected from the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant was harvested and converted into energy. Nearly 100 percent of the available rooftops on campus, Washolm says, are occupied by solar panels.

"Our micro-grid saves the campus about $850,000 per month," boasts Washolm, who's optimistic that the projects his team is exploring will one day be able to scale up or down to affordably meet the needs of consumers in a way that solar power cannot do alone.

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