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Mayor, county supervisors team up to make energy-neutral public space

San Diego Mayor Bob Filner laid out an ambitious plan March 8: Within five years, the collection of public buildings operated by the city and county of San Diego will be energy-neutral.

Energy-neutral buildings produce as much energy, perhaps through the use of solar panels, as they consume. In partnership with the San Diego County Board of Supervisors and San Diego Unified School District, Filner announced a regional collaboration that aims to both increase energy production onsite at public buildings and decrease the energy needed to operate them.

As described, the vision doesn’t necessarily preclude that each building will be energy neutral on its own, but that when taken as a whole, the buildings’ energy use will be balanced by distributed energy generation where additions are possible.

The mayor presented the vision after hosting a two-day summit on how to more greatly involve local government facilities in proliferating distributed generation of renewable energy, particularly solar energy. The summit was attended by county supervisors Dave Roberts and Dianne Jacob -- who last week partnered to propose changes to the county’s Property Assessed Clean Energy program, and representatives from the Environmental Health Coalition, the San Diego Unified School District and solar energy technology companies.

The plan, Filner said, will begin with a basic understanding of what can be done, building by building.

“To make sure that our public buildings are seen as the forefront, we are going to have an energy audit of all of our buildings, we are going to make sure they are energy efficient,” Filner said.

Noting that not every building under that umbrella may be fit for the infrastructure to produce electricity, Filner said the program will go beyond solar panel installations to include every building through energy-efficiency upgrades, such as weatherization, lighting, windows and insulation.

The issues of finances, regulations and legislation paving a way toward the goal, he added, become “almost trivial within the context of having an overall vision and an overall dream.”

“We can deal with those issues,” Filner said.

He did say, though, that cost effectiveness would be a priority, and that the goal would be to drive down costs through both the size of the cross-government collaboration and the financing mechanisms through which projects would be completed.

“Any [request for proposals] or contracts that we let out, the scale is so big that we can bring down unit costs tremendously,” Filner said. Financing mechanisms that use the resulting energy cost savings to help pay for projects over time could also be utilized, he added.

Bogging down the progress of the program with endless study is not something he’s interested in, he suggested just before saying he hopes it can be done in five years.

“There’s many ways we can get there,” Jacob said. “But most important is we need to lead by example.”

Other public agencies from around the region will be encouraged to participate in assessing their own possibilities, Jacob said. From there, she thinks it could spread to local businesses and drive down costs to energy consumers.

Roberts said the initial three steps in the program are envisioned to include the study looking at public building efficiency, a possible combination of the county and city PACE programs, and a close look at community choice aggregation -- a proposal that would create an alternative to San Diego Gas & Electric as the sole local power provider and could spur more locally produced renewable energy.

Filner said internal figures show that regional energy neutrality in the public space could be achieved by installing solar on roughly 3 percent of rooftop and parking lot space in the county.

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