The blackout that shrouded San Diego in darkness in September demonstrated the problem with relying on power grids as they’re currently designed. The problem began at a substation in Arizona, and a series of triggering events caused failures all the way to San Onofre nuclear plant on the coast. At the cost of an estimated $100 million in damages, and major inconvenience to millions of people, the San Diego region received a crash course about the fragility of depending on a grid that runs mostly on distant sources of energy.

But it didn’t have to turn out this way. Four years ago a San Diego engineer, Bill Powers, published a groundbreaking report, San Diego Smart Energy 2020. The report was all about how to use off-the-shelf technologies in order to build and generate power locally to enhance the existing grid, and provide protection against these sorts of events. The report isn’t a pie-in-the-sky vision of the future. It uses affordable technologies that are available and ready to deploy. It’s a practical guide that includes a 20 percent reduction in energy usage through existing efficiency measures and 2,000 megawatts of local solar projects. To back up the solar, which doesn’t generate at night, Powers’ report proposes 700 new megawatts of small co-generation facilities, similar to what is already in use at Qualcomm, UCSD, SDSU, and Children’s Hospital, which are highly efficient users of natural gas.

All told, if the Bill Powers Smart Energy plan were followed, most of the electricity generation in the San Diego region would be home-grown, though the region would still be connected to the grid as it is now. There would be reduced dependence on the transmission line from Arizona that failed. The report also demonstrates in vivid detail the obsolescence of the controversial Sunrise Powerlink, which will increase San Diego’s dependence on power plants in Mexico that run off of natural gas imported from Indonesia. The Smart Energy plan reduces greenhouse gases from electricity production by 50 percent, and significantly reduces other local sources of pollution from large natural gas power plants. It adds an extra level of energy security for the San Diego region.

Unfortunately, since 2007, San Diego Gas & Electric has only resisted this call for change. It claims to be contracting for only 21 megawatts of locally generated solar power, ignoring the potential of rooftops in San Diego. SDG&E is now asking the California Public Utilities Commission to approve an additional 415 megawatts of fossil power. And SDG&E is pushing forward with the Sunrise Powerlink, which is more of the same kind of infrastructure that caused the blackout.

In short, since the publication of the Smart Energy plan, SDG&E has shown no signs of changing. However, there are two reasons why change may come despite this recalcitrance.

One is that a number of environmental and consumer organizations, including Pacific Environment, the Sierra Club, and the CPUC’s own Division of Ratepayer Advocates, are making the case at the CPUC that SDG&E does not need another 415 megawatts of fossil power. It’s the wrong direction for the utility to take, and more of the same kind of thinking that caused the blackout in the first place. It’s also unnecessary, as SDG&E already has access to more power than it needs, especially in a slowing economy.

The second is that Gov. Jerry Brown is working on a plan to develop 12,000 megawatts of locally-generated renewable energy in California by 2020. This is well over half of the new renewables that the state plans to bring on-line by that time. This will diversify SDG&E’s energy grid to provide more home-grown power that will continue working even when out-of-state power sources, and the transmission lines carrying it to San Diego, fail. San Diego can expect to host a large amount of the governor’s local solar projects given its strong solar resource. Local solar on such a large scale will also create thousands of new jobs, and provide an economic lift to a region ailing from a faltering economy.

The many people who were stuck in elevators, caught in gridlock, or lost money due to damages from the blackout will likely never forget what it’s like to be at the whim of an energy grid that’s so vulnerable. For the sake of avoiding future such debacles, let’s hope that SDG&E, the CPUC and the governor are all ready to get serious about changing with the times.

Rory Cox is a senior energy consultant with Pacific Environment and a Together Green fellow.

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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