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Filner's Promises: Solar-Powered Government Buildings

Mayor Bob Filner pledged that all city and school district buildings would be solar-powered within five years.


Image: Working On ItThe Promise: To power all city and San Diego Unified School District buildings with solar power within five years.

Determination:Working On It

Mayor Bob Filner provided a status update on one of his boldest campaign promises.

For much of his mayoral campaign, Filner pledged to make San Diego the alternative energy capital of the nation. He said he’d mandate that city and school district buildings be solar powered within five years but he never explained how he’d do it.

This pledge is one of many we’ll be checking as part of our effort to evaluate the mayor’s performance. (You can check the full list of promises we’ll be tracking here.)

Filner and San Diego County officials shared plans to emphasize alternative energy sources at a Friday press conference.

The Friday gathering followed a series of meetings about how the community can go solar. Filner, county and school officials spent two days conferring with energy-efficiency experts, solar company representatives and environmental health leaders.

Despite the meetings, however, the plan is still short on specifics.

Filner said leaders will need to explore the best option for each facility and potential cost savings. In some cases, rooftop solar panels might be the best fit and in others, large plots of city or county land might be necessary hubs for solar panels, he said.

The mayor suggested the stakeholders should submit plans “rather quickly” to the City Council, county Board of Supervisors and the San Diego Unified School District. Working committees whose members will consider financing and technical considerations will follow, he said.

Other groups will conduct energy audits at each building and also immediately seek out “low-hanging fruit” — buildings that can be easily outfitted with solar panels or where it would be easy to implement best practices and save cash, Filner said.

He hopes plans will roll out soon.

“I don’t think any of us wants to say, a year from now, we’re still studying things,” he said.

The mayor and others acknowledged they may need to overcome complex regulations and other logistical challenges.

Tom Blair, the former deputy director of environmental services, laid out some other potential roadblocks in July:

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 is confident despite all those complications, and the sheer scale of the project.

To power city buildings alone will require the city to increase its municipal solar production by 11,000 percent. Rooftop panels aren’t enough to accomplish that.

But the mayor believes the project will create jobs for contractors and that construction and energy prices will be reduced due to the sheer size of the project. He said he also suspects the coordinated regional effort could encourage everyday San Diegans to invest in solar at their homes and businesses.

“We believe technically and financially this is doable,” he said.

In the past, Filner has said standard agreements with developers would cover costs. The developer would install the panels in exchange for energy payments from the city over a set number of years.

Others who attended the meetings Filner has hosted seem convinced they can accomplish their goal too.

“Today truly is a historic day where you see the city and the county of San Diego working together to really preserve our environment for the long term,” County Supervisor Dave Roberts said.

Other attendees, including sustainability expert Kathleen Connell and Patrick Knighton of the San Diego Electrical Training Center, said they were impressed with Filner’s commitment.

Connell has been tasked with researching best practices for solar implementation across the globe. Knighton, whose company prepares contractors for electrical and telecommunications projects, said he’s been glad to feedback.

“He’s meeting people and starting conversations at all levels of the community,” Knighton said.

But Filner’s promise still represents an enormous undertaking: He’s promised to not only power city buildings with solar energy but school and county buildings too.

To accomplish this pledge, he’ll need to find the needed cash to and persuade the council that the monetary investments are crucial despite continued budget woes. He’ll need to pull together complicated plans and be ready to tackle regulatory challenges. And he’ll ultimately be responsible for ensuring county and school officials also do their part.

Filner earns a “Working On It” rating for his initial efforts to follow through on this big promise. He’s held a series of meetings that indicates he’s begun the conversation but he hasn’t publicly set official deadlines. We’ll be watching for those deadlines, as well as official proposals and formal actions as we continue to evaluate this pledge.

Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at or 619.325.0528.

Reporter Liam Dillon contributed.

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