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A new leader took the helm of San Diego Community Power this month, just as the young public energy provider rolled out cleaner power to thousands of customers in five San Diego cities and the county.
I sat down with Karin Burns, the chief executive officer of San Diego Community Power, during her seventh day on the job to learn more about her past life in the private and nonprofit clean energy sector and her vision to provide lower prices than San Diego Gas and Electric while delivering 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035.
San Diego Community Power is one of dozens of government-run power companies that formed after state lawmakers deregulated the energy market with legislation that broke the monopoly investor-owned utilities like SDG&E had on the business of purchasing power. Now, local lawmakers from the city of San Diego, La Mesa, Imperial Beach, Encinitas, Chula Vista and the county sit on a governing board at San Diego Community Power, a community-choice aggregator as they’re technically called. The idea behind CCAs is to offer citizens some form of choice in their energy consumption.
As of January, San Diego Community Power offered a slightly cheaper rate than SDG&E – a roughly 1 to 2 percent savings. But what the company sells is cleaner: 50 percent renewable versus SDG&E’s 31 percent. Both companies offer an option to pay more for 100 percent renewable energy.
Challenges lie ahead for Burns.
There’s pressure to drive down power costs as San Diegans struggle to pay their ever-rising energy bills. Public power companies are fighting to further loosen the grip monopoly energy companies once had over rates. And rooftop solar advocates are frustrated San Diego Community Power is building large-scale solar farms out east. And as some cities are starting to push a controversial transition in its housing stock from gas stoves and water heaters to full electrification, San Diego Community Power could position itself on the front lines.
The following is an interview edited for length and clarity.
Where did you get your start in clean energy and environmental issues?
I was born and raised in a beach town in New Jersey where we had lots of challenges with ocean pollution. I started an environmental club at our high school that did beach clean ups. So that led to a larger interest in the environment and protecting it.
Around 2007 I worked in (the United Arab Emirates) in private equity looking for investment opportunities. Solar was just becoming a thing and Dubai and Abu Dhabi had the highest carbon footprint in the world despite having a tremendous solar resource. I then returned home for family reasons and joined the Masdar City Initiative, an idea to build a 100 percent clean energy city in Abu Dhabi. I worked on securing a business development opportunity between that initiative and Silicon Valley.
San Diego is trying to do a similar thing: go 100 percent renewable. Are there any parallels?
In Abu Dhabi, they were building a city from the ground up. But technology played a really important role and some of those technologies that were just coming out are ubiquitous now. With the increasing focus of investors in green energy and technology, now there’s real opportunity and more political will.
With your experience in the financing of clean energy and with San Diego Community Power fighting to keep rates lower than SDG&E, I wonder whether you have any innovative ideas in terms of trying to drive down rates?
We are about to go into our strategic planning process so it’s a little too early to say. We also want to invest back into communities. Affordable lower rates is one way but there’s also workforce development and training, energy efficiency, electrification – all of those lower energy use behind the meter. And I’m really excited about those kinds of programs.
You worked with Build it Green, a nonprofit that specialized in building electrification. That’s a priority for San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria’s proposed Climate Action Plan. Where do you see San Diego Community Power’s role in driving that?
I’m not ready to comment on that yet. But we’re also working on a community power plan to determine which programs and initiatives we want to roll out. We’ll do a big listening session and community needs assessments so we can tailor the programs to meet communities where they’re at.
What have you found is actually successful in supporting people of lower income in getting some of this new technology in their homes?
At Build it Green, we ran a low-income weatherization program which was a deep energy retrofit. That’s everything from insulation to new windows or heating equipment. We found that so many homes had fallen to a level of disrepair that we couldn’t do some of the programs. So if a roof was already very old we couldn’t put free solar on it, for instance. So we created a gap program funded with corporate philanthropy. That way, if a family needed a new roof in order to get solar, we would bring in a roofing company to replace the roof or patch it. That was life changing for some folks but it’s hard to do at scale because it’s expensive. You could spend up to $30,000 on one house.
What power does the CEO have versus the board in terms of choosing where San Diego Community Power gets its energy from? That’s mostly been driven by developers in the past but some rooftop solar advocates are against utility-scale solar farms, while others think the latter will get us to 100 percent renewable energy faster.
We just had a discussion about it (with the board) but we’re setting up a series of criteria. Geography is one criteria because local sourcing is important. But what about community impact or environmental impact? What kinds of jobs will be created? The not-in-my-backyard issue is one that’s coming front and center. I’m still learning about it, too. Solar doesn’t smell. It doesn’t make any noise. We’ll be thinking about how we encourage communities to understand the value of those resources. … It’s all of the above, though. It’s rooftop solar paired with batteries. We have plenty of energy between noon and four but not enough between four and nine. We have to think about (energy) load shifting and shaping that will help keep our rates more affordable by reducing the peak hour energy price.
How does San Diego Community Power make money to be able to spend on projects?
There’s a small spread between what we buy energy for and what we sell it for. We want to build our reserves, that’s an important piece of what I’ll be doing. When we do that, we can get a credit rating to be able to go into the market and have more leverage with a developer that enables us to buy power at a lower price.
How do you see the relationship between SDG&E and San Diego Community Power?
They have been clients of mine in the past at Build it Green and Franklin Energy. Everybody I’ve worked with there are good people. I am hoping we can continue to have a good partnership to best serve our customers, especially the ones we share.
Disclosure: Mitch Mitchell, senior vice president of diversity and community partnerships for Sempra, sits on Voice of San Diego’s board of directors.