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San Diego Gas & Electric is bringing new life to an aging strip mall on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard. In May, the utility company plans to open a 27,000-square-foot showroom that will display the latest in energy efficiency, a place where anyone who consumes electricity can learn to conserve and save money.

But just three miles away in a Balboa Avenue business park, a similar facility already exists. With $1.3 million in annual funding from SDG&E, the nonprofit California Center for Sustainable Energy administers efficiency programs.

As early as 2012, the utility company plans to take over those programs, including training workshops and green technology demonstrations, but it first needs a place to house them. Its new Energy Innovation Center, tucked among a barber shop and a thrift store, will cost $7.5 million, funded from a special fee customers already pay on their energy bills.

The nonprofit’s similarly named facility nearby, the Energy Resource Center, houses just some of the programs the nonprofit administered with an annual budget of $28 million last year. But SDG&E provides the facility’s main source of funding. The company’s plans have thrown the existing facility’s future into doubt.

The decision signals a move by the utility company to exert greater control over the programs that state law requires it to provide to promote energy efficiency. And it will end a significant source of funding for a nonprofit that’s become a prominent voice in energy policy circles in the decade since California suffered a crippling energy crisis.

Under state law, utility companies are required to fund programs for public benefit. They include discounted electricity rates for low-income customers and educational seminars about money-saving technologies like solar panels or efficient air conditioning.

To fund them, SDG&E collects a fee on electricity bills and administers some of the programs itself while contracting out others, like the trainings that require a facility to conduct.

An SDG&E spokeswoman said the utility was ready to assume those responsibilities now, too, and that the nonprofit’s building was too small for the programs and seminars the utility company wants to provide.

“We’ve had to turn customers away,” said SDG&E’s April Sharp. “Having our center at one central location, we’ll be able to meet the demands of our customers.”

The nonprofit’s resource center is 6,500 square feet. SDG&E’s facility will be four times that size, and include other features, like a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen where restaurant owners can learn how to conserve gas and electricity.

But the nonprofit says it has room to expand and could continue accommodating SDG&E’s programs, including a commercial kitchen.

Kurt Kammerer, the founding director of the nonprofit, has criticized SDG&E’s plan, saying it would only replicate — at ratepayers’ expense — something already being done well.

Since its 1997 founding, the California Center for Sustainable Energy has grown in both size and influence over local energy policy, especially in the aftermath of California’s energy crisis early last decade.

In the mid-1990s, California deregulated the state’s energy industry in the hope that competition among utility providers would drive prices down. But legislators also feared that in the rush, efforts to conserve and develop alternative energy sources would fall by the wayside.

So the state required utility companies to fund those types of programs, and in San Diego, the nonprofit became a central research and policy hub. It started administering state-funded energy rebate programs, partnered with SDG&E to implement its efficiency programs and built its resource center as an information clearinghouse for business owners and other customers.

“The original concept was to do this policy planning function that wasn’t being served during deregulation,” said Scott Anders, a former employee of the center and current director of the University of San Diego’s Energy Policy Initiatives Center. “They’ve become a trusted implementer of these types of programs and also a trusted source of analysis. There was also a goal early on to provide an educational role, and they’ve been doing that for some time.”

But SDG&E appears ready to chip away at some of that influence by siphoning off some of the nonprofit’s utility-funded programs and possibly ending its partnership once its new digs are complete and its current contract expires. Sharp, the SDG&E spokeswoman, was noncommittal about the company’s future relationship with the center after next year.

Siobhan Foley, the nonprofit’s director of education and outreach, said the organization would have to find funding to keep operating its resource center, but said it hoped to implement new educational programs there that SDG&E’s current funding requirements don’t allow. But she also said the shift would dampen the independent role the nonprofit has played in educating the public about energy conservation.

“We care about the long-term planning for the region and the state,” she said. “Somebody needs to help facilitate that that doesn’t have something to sell. We’re not here to sell you energy or a product. We’re here to help you make a smart decision about energy use.”

Sharp said SDG&E thinks it can do a better job and is ready to do so.

“The Center for Sustainable Energy has been a longtime partner. We’ve been partnering with them for a number of years and will continue to partner with them. But there’s so much more we can do with our customers.”

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

Adrian Florido

Adrian Florido is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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