Feb. 26 2014 10:10 AM

A look at the city's ambitious plan to clean up its air

Illustration by Lindsey Voltoline

During a Sept. 20, 2013, debate among Kevin Faulconer, David Alvarez and Mike Aguirre, three of the candidates running for mayor of San Diego before the November primary election, moderator Wendy Fry asked this question: "Some people think climate change and rising sea levels will dramatically impact San Diego's beaches and bays. Other people think that that threat is overblown. What camp do you fall in, and how will your administration respond?" 

Faulconer answered by talking about how the city has appropriated funding to repair a decrepit seawall along the boardwalk in Mission Beach and then pivoting to neighborhood-infrastructure needs. Otherwise, he didn't say what camp he's in, and he didn't say how his administration would respond to the challenges of climate change.

So, it's hard to know what Faulconer—who won the Feb. 11 special election and will take over as San Diego's next mayor on March 3—thinks of the Climate Action Plan, a policy initiative in the works since 2009 that languished before interim Mayor Todd Gloria gave it a serious push in recent months.

"Mayor-elect Faulconer supports environmental protection, and is evaluating the draft Climate Action Plan to determine its practicality and effect on San Diegans, particularly homeowners," Matt Awbrey, spokesperson for Faulconer, says in an email. "This is one of several proposed policies he will be reviewing during his first weeks in office."

The Climate Action Plan lays out how San Diego will meet certain greenhouse-gas-reduction goals by 2020 and 2035, and—importantly from a legal standpoint—it's intended to help overcome the negative impacts the city's growth has on air quality. It's in its final-draft stage and will soon be submitted for public review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), a process that will take about eight months. Then it'll go to the City Council for more public scrutiny.

There will be organized opposition to some of the plan's provisions, but scrapping the plan or adopting a drastically watered-down version will likely not be options, judging from recent court cases.

Lani Lutar, executive director of the Equinox Center, a local think tank, doesn't think the plan is in danger just because Faulconer is a Republican. She points to another environmental issue, sewage-water reuse, where Faulconer came around after initial opposition.

"What I know about Kevin," Lutar says, "is that he is collaborative and he listens." Also, she adds, "when you're in a citywide elected position, you look at risk-assessment and liability from a completely new lens."

Lutar supports the plan in concept but notes that details have yet to be hashed out. "To me, it's a living document," she says, "but there's no question that we need a more sustainable San Diego. And, ultimately, I think if it's done right, it will be a win-win for everyone."

An earlier version of the climate plan was completed under then-Mayor Jerry Sanders in 2011 and emerged from CEQA review in 2012. But a committee created by the City Council—the Economic and Environmental Sustainability Task Force—had problems with it, and Bob Filner, who took over for Sanders late in 2012, planned a do-over. However, Filner lagged, and after he resigned as a result of a sexual-harassment scandal last August, his temporary replacement, Gloria, contacted Nicole Capretz, who had chaired the task force, and offered her a job in his office. Her main mission: Finish a new climate plan.

The Sanders plan, Capretz tells CityBeat, "was a very voluntary-based document—like, it was kind of hopes, dreams, wishes that we'll hit these climate targets, but no accountability, no enforcement.

"We've been feverishly working for six months to craft probably the most ambitious plan in the state, if not the country," Capretz adds, "and I say that because we've made it an enforceable document."

CityBeat had an interview scheduled for this story with Sanders, who's now the president and CEO of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, but he backed out. A spokesperson says the chamber has nothing more to add beyond what it and other business groups said about the draft climate plan in a January letter to Capretz.


The Climate Action Plan (CAP) is a way for the city to reach climate-related goals laid out in a 2008 update of its General Plan, the blueprint for how the city plans to grow. It's also San Diego's contribution to California's effort to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions statewide.

The CAP uses 2010 emissions as a baseline for quantifying its goals and judging its progress. That year, the city estimates that it produced nearly 12.5 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses. The CAP calls for emissions of roughly 10.6 million metric tons in 2020 and roughly 6.4 million metric tons in 2035. State and federal mandates are expected to account for 46 percent of the reduction by 2035. Proposed changes to local energy and transportation policies are expected to account for another 30 percent and 11 percent of the reduction, respectively.

So, how's this going to happen? Capretz points to three primary strategies.

One is to get people out of their cars and onto their feet or their bikes and into mass transit, particularly in 14 so-called high-quality transit areas citywide, which are places with transit corridors and lots of jobs. According to the CAP, transportation is the biggest local culprit, belching out 56 percent of San Diego's greenhouse gasses in 2010. The goal is for 25 percent of overall commutes in these 14 areas to be via mass transit by 2035 and 18 percent to be via bicycle.

The city would monitor how people are commuting in these areas annually, Capretz says, as well as, "How's the bike master plan being implemented? Where are the protected bike lanes going? Where are we re-striping? Where's the density going?" 

Arguably, the CAP's most ambitious goal is for San Diego to become a so-called community-choice aggregator by 2020. That means the city would take over from San Diego Gas & Electric the purchase of electricity; SDG&E would continue to deliver electricity throughout the city, but the city would buy power on the open market. The point would be for the city to control how much energy it gets from renewable sources. The CAP envisions San Diego using 100-percent renewable energy by 2035.

"That's a big initiative," Capretz says.

The state authorized community-choice aggregation (CCA) in 2002 as a response to California's energy-deregulation fiasco and energy crisis of 2000 and 2001. The first CCA, Marin Clean Energy (MCE), was created in Marin County in 2010. The city of Richmond joined MCE later, and Napa County is currently considering joining. MCE customers can choose a plan that uses 50-percent renewable energy or pay a higher rate for 100-percent renewable. Sonoma County also has a CCA program, and others are in the works up and down the state.

California is one of six states that allow CCA. Pacific Gas & Electric, one of the state's big investor-owned utilities, pumped tens of millions of dollars into 2010's Prop. 16, which would have made it harder for local governments to form CCAs, but voters rejected it. As a result, all it takes is a majority vote of people within a proposed CCA's boundaries.

Capretz says that a firm called Commonwealth Energy Consortium is conducting a feasibility study on CCA and energy rates, for the city's benefit but at no cost. She says the city will commission a second study that's currently included in the next fiscal year's budget.

The most controversial part of the CAP is a proposal to require all buildings in San Diego to be retrofitted for energy efficiency at the point of sale. The proposed ordinance would expand on an existing law in San Diego that requires water-efficiency retrofits when buildings are sold.

"We've heard a lot about that ordinance," Capretz says.

She says the point-of-sale-retrofit proposal has been the thorniest issue for business groups she's met with, and it's among the short list of plan elements a coalition of business groups won't support, according to a Jan. 15 letter signed by Chamber of Commerce CEO and former Mayor Sanders, as well as the heads of the Greater San Diego Association of Realtors and the Industrial Environmental Association, who were also speaking on behalf of the Building Industry Association of San Diego, the Building Owners and Managers Association, the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties and the San Diego County Apartment Association.

"What I've tried to tell them," Capretz says, "is, No. 1, we have adopted financing programs to help amortize the cost over 15 to 20 years, and these programs are really popular. Also, we do have incentive and rebate dollars, just like we do for our existing water ordinance. So, that will help defray any of the costs that are associated with that. We'll do our best to maximize the amount of those rebates. Or we could cap the amount that it would cost, these upgrades. There are different creative ways we can structure the ordinance so that it doesn't seem as burdensome as it might initially just on first blush."

Lutar, of the Equinox Center, takes the long view. Yes, there will be up-front costs, she says, but "what it's really about is sustainability and how we best use our natural resources for efficiency, and, ultimately, that's going to save businesses, taxpayers and residents money in the long run."

The business groups, more broadly, want the CAP to slow its roll—they want it to be less ambitious and less of a mandate. Their letter suggests limiting the goals to the year 2020, not 2035, and that the plan should be more voluntary and based on incentives rather than requirements, much like the way Capretz described the original plan under Sanders.

But that approach could get the city in trouble, as has happened to San Diego County and the San Diego Association of Governments, which have both been rebuked by Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor for drafting plans that won't effectively meet state goals for reducing greenhouse gasses. All it might take is for an environmental group or a community activist to sue for noncompliance with state requirements or the city's General Plan.

"It puts us at great legal risk if we choose the path of least resistance, which is, ‘Let's just make this a vision document or a voluntary-based document,'" Capretz says. "It's just that the courts have been really clear about what we need to do."

It's not clear how Mayor Faulconer will proceed with the CAP. His campaign for mayor was supported by the groups that are opposed to parts of the plan.

"So," Capretz says, "the pitch is going to be, like, ‘Hey, let's not put the city at legal risk, and let's do the right thing, get ahead of the curve of this beast called climate change and what it's going to mean for the city, and embrace these things." 

What do you think? Write to editor@sdcitybeat.com. Link up with editor David Rolland on Twitter.



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