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Environment Report: San Diego Searching for New Solar Sites

Two statewide water bonds are headed to the November ballot, Congress considers banning environmental lawsuits against the twin tunnels and more in our biweekly roundup of environmental news. 

Solar Panels San Diego

Sullivan Solar Power employees install solar panels on the roof of a San Diego home. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

As it tries to find ways to get more green energy, San Diego is studying spots to install new solar arrays across the city.

Clean Coalition, a Menlo Park-based nonprofit, is spending the next year and a half looking for places that can host “meaningfully-sized” solar projects. The effort is paid for by a federal grant meant to help the city reach its goal of receiving only clean energy by 2035.

Environmentalists have argued that smaller, local solar projects can help the city wean itself off power from big companies with big projects, like San Diego Gas & Electric.

Right now, there are tens of thousands of rooftop solar projects installed by residents and businesses across the city, but the goal of the study would be to find room for larger ones. Officials are looking not for the huge solar farms one finds in the desert, but for solar arrays that would fit in empty lots, over parking lots or across large rooftops.

“There’s actually quite a bit of large industrial space in San Diego,” said John Bernhardt, a spokesman for Clean Coalition.

According to SDG&E, about 3 percent of the power its customers use comes from solar projects installed by the customers themselves.

The company has huge solar farms elsewhere, but it also has its own smaller, local solar projects within the county — about 40 of which are projects around the size of those that Clean Coalition is looking to find room for.

Clean Coalition is also going to propose different ways to help pay for these solar installations. Officials could direct more money to certain projects if they are in low-income neighborhoods, are built on top of already developed land or are connected with batteries that allow solar power to be stored to use at night.

Clean Coalition has done similar work for East Bay Community Energy, a government-run power agency starting soon in and around Oakland. San Diego is thinking about forming its own agency to buy and sell clean energy, but it is also entertaining an offer from SDG&E to do the same thing on the city’s behalf.

Bernhardt said his group’s work can be used by either the city or SDG&E to find places to build new, local solar projects.

SDG&E has a complicated relationship with local solar projects, in part because it may not make as much money from them.

Water Bonds Multiplying

Water Deeply, a news site, put it best: “Californians this year will vote on not one but two water bond measures totaling $13 billion. Given that the state still hasn’t spent all of the $7.5 billion from the Proposition 1 water bond passed in 2014, it raises a crucial question: Does California really need another $13 billion in water bonds?”

Reporter Matt Weiser breaks down the two bonds. He points out that state taxpayers may end up subsidizing subsets of California water users, including Southern California cities and Central Valley farmers. Two large water projects – the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project, which both carry water south from the rivers of Northern California – are supposed to be funded entirely by the people who receive water from those projects. But the bonds would give those people hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies.

Twin Tunnels Above the Law?

A bit of language inserted into a federal spending bill could ban any environmental lawsuits against one of the most controversial water projects in California history.

The project is to build a pair of 35-mile underground tunnels to keep water flowing south through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta, the series of waterways and wetlands fed by snow melting in the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

Rep. Ken Calvert, a Republican from Riverside County, inserted the language, known as a rider, into the bill.

He defended the anti-lawsuit provision because other politicians and water officials have approved the project, known as California WaterFix, after more than a decade of study. Of course, politicians and water officials often have motives that don’t always make the environment their first priority and, over the years, it’s taken courts to make sure officials are following the state and country’s environmental laws.

The reaction has not been favorable.

An editorial in the Chico Enterprise-Record says “A bit of irony has emerged over Jerry Brown’s name for his twin tunnels idea — California WaterFix — because it sure looks like the fix is on.”

Los Angeles Times opinion writer Jacques Leslie called Calvert’s plan a “legislative bomb.” He wrote, “Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the project’s biggest booster, tried to distance himself slightly from the rider by tweeting last week that it was ‘not sponsored or sought’ by the [Metropolitan Water District], but he cagily didn’t say he disapproved of it … Unfortunately for WaterFix’s backers, Calvert’s bomb sends shrapnel in all directions, including theirs. The rider suggests that even the tunnels’ supporters believe the project wouldn’t survive judicial review, that it would be found in violation of environmental laws.”

Ironically, part of the reason why Metropolitan and others have been trying to build the tunnels is because the current water system is sending less water south from Northern California because of court-ordered environmental restrictions meant to protect fish. The tunnels are pitched as a way to more precisely manage the way water moves so that the state could protect fish and guarantee reliable water supplies. But environmental opponents of the tunnels say it’s absurd to think building tunnels to take water away from where the fish live will help fish – and so they have already filed a series of lawsuits meant to test that idea in court.

The bill doesn’t seem likely to stop other challenges, such as arguments raised by a member of the San Diego County Water Authority that the project isn’t correctly financed or complaints that the Metropolitan Water District may have violated the Brown Act when it agreed to pay for the tunnels.

In Other News

  • The Los Angeles Times investigates the “stalls, stops and breakdowns” that have plagued Los Angeles’ electric bus fleet. A few weeks ago, San Diego’s transit system won $41 million to buy electric buses. Some of the money comes from the gas tax increase that local talk radio host Carl DeMaio is hoping to undo.
  • Del Mar’s plan for dealing with rising seas is upsetting residents with coastal property. That’s because the city’s plan is to “retreat” rather than to try to fight off rising seas. Retreat basically involves not trying to save coastal structures that will be inundated. The other major strategy is putting up barriers meant to hold back the ocean, but some of these barriers, like sea walls, can increase coastal erosion and are also expensive, which raises the specter of projects publicly funded that primarily benefit wealthier people who live along the ocean. (Union-Tribune)
  • Preparing for a bad fire season, state fire officials in San Diego are suspending all burn permits for state lands. (NBC San Diego).
  • Last week, the state said it planned to sue the federal government for failing to tame the sewage spills coming across the border from Tijuana. It remains to be seen if the move will amount to anything or be yet another twist in years of developments that have not solved the problem. (Union-Tribune)
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