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In Bob Filner’s San Diego, city and school buildings will be powered by the sun’s indefatigable rays.

Solar energy makes up a major part of Filner’s economic development proposal and his branding of San Diego. The city, he has said, should become “the alternative energy capital of the nation.”

“I’ll mandate all public buildings be solar-powered within five years,” Filner said at a candidate forum in May. “It will save money, create jobs and allow us to be proud of ourselves as a city.”

Filner has been talking about solar power on the campaign trail for eight months. And while it’s a core part of his platform, he hasn’t addressed fundamental details about his ideas. And when it comes to a plan of that scope, the details matter.

If Filner wants to power all city buildings just through solar, he’d need to increase municipal production by 11,000 percent. If he wants to put panels on roofs regardless of their size or power possibilities, it’s unlikely he’d create enough energy to make a dent in those buildings’ power bills.

So the key is whether Filner is pitching a slogan or a solution. Actually solar-powering all city and school buildings would test the boundaries of the technology, the city’s relationship with its major energy utility and someone’s pocketbook.

Simply boosting solar production (even by a lot) appears to be a more achievable, if less sexy, goal.

“It’s an absolutely valid idea,” said Jim Waring, who heads the local sustainable energy advocacy group CleanTECH San Diego. “There’s no reason for either the public sector or the private sector not to maximize the use of rooftop solar. And part of maximizing solar is to know its limits.”

For now, these questions remain unanswered. Filner didn’t respond to an interview request for this story and, like many policy issues, he hasn’t released a specific plan on solar.

What the City Does Now

San Diego already could make a decent case for being a solar energy capital. The city ranks first in the state in solar capacity and number of installations, according to a recent report by nonprofit advocacy group Environment California. That bodes well for its national ranking.

“If you’re No. 1 in the state, you’re No. 1 in the country,” said Bernadette Del Chiaro, clean energy director at Environment California.

By itself, the report states, San Diego would rank in the top 25 countries around the world in solar capacity, generating more power than all of Mexico.

Both the city government and San Diego Unified School District have solar programs. The city has solar panels at 17 government-owned sites that produce enough power to light between 315 and 525 homes. The school district is in the middle of increasing its own solar production to the equivalent of lighting 2,025 to 3,375 homes.

Nine years ago, the city set a goal of producing 50 megawatts of solar power — the equivalent of lighting 7,500 to 12,500 homes — from city residences, businesses and public buildings by 2013. It’s about 10 megawatts short of the goal now, but remains in striking distance, said Tom Blair, the head of the city’s sustainable energy efforts.

“We’re well on our way to doing that,” Blair said.

Filner’s Solar Goals

Filner wants city government to create solar jobs and lower the technology’s costs for the private sector.

“If me and, say, the school district announce that we’re going to solar-power all the public buildings in five years, tell me that doesn’t create an enormous stimulus for small businesses to expand, new businesses to come, maybe manufacturing to come,” Filner said in a February interview about his economic development plan. “We expand that whole industry, which will bring down prices for individuals so they could buy. I could do that the first day in office.”

Exactly how Filner wants to do this matters a great deal.

To generate enough solar power for every municipal building, Blair estimated that the city would need 333 acres of roof space, which is larger than San Diego State University’s campus. That’s more than three times the roof space the city has now.

A giant solar plant out in the desert could generate power more efficiently, but the city would face regulatory difficulties in getting the project approved and the energy transmitted here.

And all this would cost money. Based on current rates, it could cost between $333 million to $555 million to power city buildings through rooftop solar, Blair estimated.

Filner has said he’d pay for his plans through standard agreements with developers. The developer pays to install the panels in exchange for energy payments from the city over a set number of years.

But the city’s bottom line matters, too. The key in solar projects, experts said, is to invest in a system that would lower the city’s total lower energy costs. For instance, Blair said the roof space available at City Hall isn’t large enough to install a system that would reduce how much the city pays to power the building.

“You won’t even see it on the bill,” Blair said.

Scott Sarem, owner of Oceanside-based solar installer Everyday Energy, said he’d love to put solar panels on every municipal and school building in San Diego. But he also knows the return on the initial investment matters to everyone.

“You could say that you want to do it with a broad brush and say you’re going to do it on every building,” Sarem said. “I think the responsible thing to do is to look at each building individually and make sure it makes financial sense.”

Filner’s solar vision is more ambitious than his mayoral opponent, Republican City Councilman Carl DeMaio. He wants to expand partnerships with developers to install the technology at city facilities. DeMaio’s primary solar idea is eliminating permitting fees for residents and businesses, which fits with his general economic development theme of reducing regulations.

How Far Does Filner Want To Go?

There’s a movement afoot to create a new local utility that would give a public alternative to the region’s sole energy provider, San Diego Gas & Electric. Filner has allied himself with some of its supporters.

Filner doesn’t have the highest opinion of SDG&E and he’s even discussed the city going off the power grid entirely.

Right now, SDG&E is involved in nearly every aspect of local solar energy production. Any potential conflict between Filner and the utility could have large implications on his solar plans.

SDG&E spokeswoman Stephanie Donovan said the company supports greater solar production, the exploration of a utility alternative and is open to Filner’s ideas. But she warned of the complications and cost of doing a solar project on such a large scale. Rooftop solar, Donovan said, is the highest cost energy source in the utility’s system.

“From SDG&E’s perspective, there are a lot of unanswered questions,” Donovan said.

The Bottom Line

Back when the City Council set its citywide solar goals in 2003, it also said it wanted the city to generate five megawatts of solar energy on municipal properties by 2013. It’s less than halfway toward that number.

“We might not make our five,” Blair said, “but the private sector will make it up for us.”

Filner wants to turn that around. He wants the city to lead the way developing solar — not the private sector.

The more ambitious Filner’s plans turn out to be, the more difficult they’ll be to accomplish.

Liam Dillon is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. He covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at or 619.550.5663.

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Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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