Energy Prophets

by Carolyn Chase


It turns out that sustainability educator Jim Bell's somewhat quixotic runs for Mayor were triggered by a specific political incident that bears telling.

After Susan Golding's victory in 1992 over anti-growther Peter Navarro, she was looking for ways to make progress on environmental issues. Bell was invited to discuss what steps the City could undertake.

Bell's vision for a sustainable energy future for San Diego was his first choice. Energy efficiency experts from the world-renowned Rocky Mountain Institute toured City Hall. The energy waste at City Hall was (and is) so profligate that they were able to propose an energy efficiency investment plan that would begin paying back the very day they started to implement it.

But it was to be for naught. According to Bell, things just stopped moving forward. Staff claimed they were already doing energy conservation. Bell decided he needed to pursue his ideas independently through the political process.

Golding did provide leadership for the successful Ridgehaven Green Building project, where the city saved more than $85,000/year on energy before the recent rate run-up. This investment just got smarter.

City Council also passed a well-intentioned green building policy. But it was all voluntary, without consistent staff support at high-enough levels, and calls for the City to undertake a serious effort on the other 4 million square-ft. of properties have gone unheeded. We are now paying the price - err, double the price.

Bell has not given up. He was at City Council last week reminding them yet again:

"If we were energy self-sufficient today, we'd be virtually unaffected by rising energy prices, whether it be electricity, natural gas or gasoline. We are past the point of complaining. Now is the time to eliminate the problem permanently.

"If we aggressively pursue cost-effective efficiency improvements and the development of our region's renewable energy resources, we could be energy self-sufficient by 2015. Even without efficiency improvements, we could supply all the energy we currently use by installing solar cells on less than 8 percent of the land already covered by buildings, parking lots and roads.

"Becoming energy self-sufficient has many economic benefits. Currently, we export around 5 billion dollars each year out of San Diego County to pay for the energy we import. Becoming energy self-sufficient will bring this 5 billion dollars back to our local economy which will increase yearly economic activity in our region by 10 to 20 billion dollars or by as much as 20 percent. Economists call this the multiplier effect.

"Becoming energy self-sufficient will create thousands of new, profitable business opportunities and tens of thousands of new good paying jobs.

"Becoming energy self-sufficient will increase Government revenues and reduce municipal costs.

"Most importantly, becoming energy self-sufficient will put our citizens in control of the cost and availability of the energy on which they are so vitally dependent.

"Recognizing the economic and security win-wins available, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District is aggressively installing solar cells on roof tops and over parking lots in their service area. The L.A. Department of Water and Power has just sweetened the pot by adding their own subsidy to a statewide program.

"I think we can do better than Sacramento and LA in creating an energy-secure future for our city and region. And, in achieving this goal, we can take world leadership in developing energy self-sufficient economies planet wide."

Is anyone listening? Deregulation is an opportunity for new competitive investments. Instead, our usually conservative electeds are calling for price controls! At-risk populations deserve a break. Others should be looking to make strategic energy investments and choices.

That San Diego is ill-equipped for competition comes as no surprise. Michael Shames of Utility Consumer Action Network ( has been pointing it out for years. He emailed me a draft of his "Report of San Diego Impending Energy Crisis" in September of 1999. The report noted, "San Diego is among the most poorly positioned areas to reap benefits from the restructured energy markets." And, "Within three years, San Diego electric and gas rates are likely to become the highest in California and among the highest in the Country."

Shames recommended four "immediate actions:"

  • State policymakers must address those regulatory factors that cause San Diego energy costs to be higher than those faced by other regulated utilities, including the elimination of barriers that prevent local generation and increased access to gas and electric transmission;
  • Policymakers must recognize the failure of retail energy competition objectives and act immediately to invigorate retail competition by increasing choice of service for all customers and reducing costs imposed on energy service providers who compete with SDG&E;
  • Policymakers can not continue to turn a blind eye to the influence that Sempra Energy carries in the San Diego/Baja California region. The pricing proposals and access costs proposed by Sempra companies must be closely scrutinized for self-dealing, its affiliate transactions must be restricted, and the scope of the distribution company activities must be clearly defined.
  • Local government agencies should reconvene a process by which it examines the region's energy options and takes action to promote energy innovation and low-cost solutions to the problems. And it must step in to stop an SDG&E effort currently underway to commit the region's ratepayers to an extensive and expensive transmission building program."

Shames concluded, "While an energy crisis looms with no clear solution in sight, it does present an opportunity to finally turn the region into a 'mecca' for low-cost environmentally-sensitive and innovative power technologies. The national and international energy industries are entering a period of very high levels of technological innovation that San Diego not yet placed upon its radar screen. The deregulated energy markets in California were designed to spur this innovation in the state. San Diego is positioned to attract that innovation first."

Even if anyone was listening, not too many were acting. For years, San Diego Gas & Electric has been treated deferentially by the City. They have also been consistent donors to candidates for office countywide, including most of those in attendance at the Public Utility Commission last week. Calls for action by Shames, Bell and others have been ignored.

Better late than never, the San Diego Regional Energy Office ( is reconvening the Regional Energy Advisory Committee to review and oversee a Regional Energy Plan update. The current REP was adopted by the SANDAG Board of Directors in December 1994. The REP analyzes overall energy supply and consumption in the San Diego region and recommends actions.

According to SDREO, "fundamental changes warrant updating the region's energy policy planning document to reflect the realities of the new energy markets and recent and ongoing updates of the Regional Transportation Plan and the REGION2020 Regional Growth Management Strategy."

Bell and Shames, as well as this writer, have been invited to participate. Let's hope our energies are not wasted.