It's a breezy, overcast day standing atop ground zero of the coming solar-power revolution. The breeze carries the scent of burnt toast, and Jim Westfall says he's smelled it for some time now.
“There are some catering businesses around here,” Westfall explained. “But I've never quite figured out where it's coming from.”
Another scent he has picked up, however, is that of cold, hard cash-an opportunity to play an integral role in the burgeoning solar-power industry in a region where sun (despite the current June gloom) is an abundant commodity. That aroma has brought together a diverse core of supporters, from environmentalists and local politicians to a growing faction in organized labor, as Westfall will attest.
“We're working with Greenpeace to promote this,” he said, “because we think that renewable energy is something that we have to get into... to try to convince everybody in San Diego and Imperial counties that we've got to do more in the area of renewable energy to keep from having the kind of problems we had a couple years ago.”
The stench of that “problem” lingers even today, as state officials grapple—rather poorly—with a smothering budget deficit that had its origins in that “problem”—the energy crisis of 2001, when prices shot through the roof and power shortages ruled the day.
“One of the main things to remember is that the state is in this current budget deficit in large part because of the energy crisis,” Greenpeace's clean-energy policy analyst J.P. Ross concurred. “Of course, there are other things involved, but the fact of the matter is that our current energy and budgetary crises are simply a result of bad planning-bad energy planning in particular.”
Sparked by the economic uncertainty that the massive swings in energy costs produced, San Diegans of all stripes are hitching themselves to the solar-power bandwagon in hopes of both an economic salve for the region and as a statement of self-sufficiency.
“The truth of the matter is, every house is a power plant,” Ross said, “and we need to start utilizing those power plants in a much more distributed fashion, reducing the possibility of future energy crises, as well as brownouts.”
Back on the roof of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 569 training center, where Westfall serves as director of training, the evidence of the coming solar age is impossible to ignore. Reclining like a giant, tilted glass coffee table, the massive, gently sloping expanse of solar panels raised up on gray-painted steel stretches more than halfway across the length of the 32,000-square-foot commercial building just off Interstate 15 on the southern outskirts of Kearny Mesa.
The steel-framed, deep-blue panels take on a gray patina on this cloudy day, but they continue to generate power to this two-story industrial building. An ongoing project made possible by a forward-thinking board of directors and dozens of electrical workers who have passed through the local's solar-installation classes, the panels are still pumping electricity into a bank of panels that feed into a main control panel resembling a traditional circuit-breaker box.
By September, Westfall is hopeful that the project will be completed by still more solar students, at which time the training center will become energy self-sufficient, generating 70,000 watts of power.
“Right now, we're saving about $1,000 a month on our electric bill,” Westfall boasted, roughly a 30 percent cut in that cost. That, coupled with an aggressive energy-reduction program within the building has cost some serious money—$250,000 for the solar panels alone—but the benefits will be reaped for years to come. And as part of a state program, Westfall's union will be receiving a check to cover half the costs of the solar panels.
As solar power begins a rebirth of as-yet-unknown proportions, it's here at the training center where an estimated 100 electricians have become proficient in solar installation. A growing number of developers are opting to include solar panels in the homes and commercial structures they now build, so electrical contractors will be looking for workers with the requisite skills.
“Some people are now starting to call for [solar power] and putting them in the specs of their buildings and as options on homes,” said Westfall, who started the solar training last September. “It's still catching on. The students didn't take the class because they knew they'd get a job tomorrow-they took the class in case their contractor has the opportunity to bid on a project.”
Greenpeace's Ross said his group is working with a gaggle of solar proponents in San Diego, which he considers a prime stage for the future of renewable power production.
Bolstered by the passage of two bond measures in November of 2001 that will make San Francisco a national leader in solar-energy use, Ross—who is based there—said San Diego is “the next municipal territory that we've really been focusing on.”
Last month, Ross piled about three-dozen local solar enthusiasts into Greenpeace's bio-diesel-run, solar-paneled bus, code named “Rolling Sunlight,” to tour some of San Diego's best examples of sun-tapping achievement. They popped by developer Mike Turk's solar in-fill homes in Mission Beach; the city's Ridgehaven “green building,” which Ross dubbed “fabulous;” as well as Westfall's training center.
Tom Blair, the city of San Diego's energy czar, took part in the tour, and he sees a bright future for solar as an engine that can help reinvigorate San Diego's sputtering economy. Blair, who oversees the city's energy usage—currently pegged at a whopping $32 million annually (ironically, the approximate equivalent of the city's pending budget deficit)—can boast of three city facilities that incorporate solar into their energy diet. One building, the Miramar Operations Center—is actually sending electricity back onto the power grid, an achievement known as net metering, Blair said.
City Councilmember Donna Frye, who also joined in the tour, has naturally been a longtime advocate of the city's move toward use of renewable energy resources, solar in particular. She's had solar thermal panels on the roof of her family home in Clairemont for years, and they keep her backyard pool more than adequately heated, she reports.
“Literally, sometimes I have to turn the solar off, the pool gets so warm,” Frye laughed. “I like it, but the rest of the family doesn't. Ohhh, it's so wonderful, going in at night.”
Although Frye has found success—and a small harbor of protection from erratic energy price swings—with her decades—old solar technology, Blair said it was that very technology that sank the industry during the last push to go solar.
“I think there are people who probably had a bad experience in the '80s, when solar thermal was introduced,” he explained. “The water running through black pipes that ran up on the roof? Well, a lot of systems failed. And when they leaked, you didn't have water in the house.”
With advances in technology, however, folks like Frye see nothing but sunshine in a solar future.
“Our city has the ability to actually do something incredibly wonderful here,” she said. “And, yes, the initial investment will be expensive.... It means a ton of jobs, good manufacturing jobs, installation jobs, all sorts of good side benefits.”
At one time the council's reigning energy person (a role now held by Michael Zucchet), Frye said she has no intention of slowing her relentless push for a cleaner running San Diego. “Hell no, I'm not stopping,” she boomed. “I told my constituents I'd work on it. We just need to do it!”