“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
By now, it's no surprise that money is as tight as a mosquito's backside here in America's Quirkiest City.
But what gets Spin Cycle's knickers in a bunch is when dough dresses up in its finest fishnets and leans provocatively against the lamppost, blowing warm kisses at us while we look the other way.
Such is the case of a $2.2-million California Energy Commission loan approved in 2006 that would help San Diego amp up its energy efficiency while saving local taxpayers more than $262,000 a year by way of reduced energy costs.
“San Diego will use the loan to add photovoltaic solar panels at five locations,” then-commission Chair Jackalyne Pfannenstiel announced at the time. “But the city is also planning to invest in energy efficiency, recognizing that it makes little sense to waste the electricity that it generates. That's why they also plan to upgrade mechanical and lighting systems, improving energy efficiency at over 37 city-owned facilities.”
Great idea, right? Well, except for one small detail: So far, the city has spent only slightly more than $300,000 of the loan and now faces losing what remains. What's more, the five locations targeted to receive solar panels—the Mission Valley Library and four buildings in Balboa Park—remain devoid of such energy-saving accessories.
How could this be, you ask, while Mayor Jerry Sanders touts his expensive plan to “green” Balboa Park? Spin Cycle sought answers for weeks, but, in the end, all city leaders had to say fell into two categories: stone silence and deflecting confusion.
Stone silence came from the normally chatty office of the mayor. And by “normally chatty,” Spin Cycle means if you need 10,000 announcements that mandatory water cutbacks would begin June 1.
Deflecting confusion came from the normally on-the-ball energy czar for the city, retired Navy officer Tom Blair. Asked why the city hasn't installed solar panels on the buildings it proposed in its loan application, Blair directed Spin Cycle to the city's energy efficiency website and rattled off other city buildings now sporting solar panels.
Pushed on the aforementioned proposed sites, Blair replied, “I don't know that they weren't projects.”
Well, unless they've invented invisible solar panels, they aren't projects yet. Maybe the Mission Valley Library and Balboa Park's Casa del Prado Theater, Palisades Building, Balboa Park Clubhouse and Municipal Gym couldn't handle the panels?
“Well, yeah, there is flexibility from the California Energy Commission,” Blair went along. “They want us to get the best that we can out of those dollars.”
Guess that makes sense if by “best” you mean not spending the dollars at all.
Percy Della, a spokesperson for the California Energy Commission, which provides low-interest loans to cities and other public agencies through its Energy Conservation Assistance Account, said loan recipients must file quarterly status reports on how the money is spent.
So far, Della said, the city has submitted invoices totaling $301,659.11 for “lighting and mechanical retrofit” projects at the Tierrasanta Recreation Center, San Ysidro Community Center and branch libraries in Linda Vista and Otay Mesa.The commission must agree on each building allocation, so if the city said it would install solar panels on some buildings and later decided otherwise, “then the city will lose those loan allocations,” Della said.
Della noted that the current loan—the city also received a similar loan in 2004, which it did use—is set to expire June 30. He said the city has requested a one-year extension on the 2006 loan, which the commission is now evaluating.
Councilmember Donna Frye, whose district includes the Mission Valley Library, told Spin Cycle she wants answers. Frye notices a pattern evolving, in which money seems to pile up, for such things as Americans with Disabilities Act and storm-water projects, while little gets done.
“Unfortunately, I don't have the staffing levels I need in order to dog 'em on this stuff,” Frye said in frustration. “I'm just trying to keep up with trying to get a stop sign on Bob's corner.”
Minions for Sanders would have us believe that in order to showcase the wonders of solar power in sunny San Diego, we should spend $5 million in federal stimulus money to leverage a $30-million solar project in Balboa Park through Maryland-based SunEdison that will generate 3 megawatts of power—and a rather pathetic 37 jobs over a three-year period.
Doing the math, that's $10 a watt, more than double the $4-a-watt that Southern California Edison is paying to generate solar power 50 miles to the north.
Few will argue that making Balboa Park more energy efficient and self-sustaining is a bad idea. But why does San Diego always seem ready to jump into plans that make us all look like rubes?
Bill Powers, a local energy expert, urban-solar advocate and vocal opponent of SDG&E's plan to bring renewable energy to San Diego from the desert through the controversial, billion-dollar power lines known as the Sunrise PowerLink, has a hunch.
“The mayor's such a booster for the Sunrise PowerLink, and the premise of that project is that we can't do solar economically in San Diego,” Powers told Spin Cycle. Perhaps the best way to prove that, he suggested, is to slap an overpriced solar project into the urban heart of San Diego.
“It would certainly provide the visible lesson in San Diego why you wouldn't do this on a massive scale because it's too expensive,” Powers hinted.
Now, Powers isn't suggesting that there's anything nefarious about the mayor's wish to bring solar power to Balboa Park, but it's no secret that SDG&E has relentlessly panned as too costly the idea of “paving” city rooftops with solar panels.
“The biggest fear of SDG&E is that if there's a simple, easy way to generate your own power, then you really don't need a utility, other than for backup support,” Powers said. “Its role would be a shadow of what it is today.”The irony, Powers notes, is that SDG&E's parent company, Sempra Energy, is producing the cheapest solar power in the world right now in Nevada. Unfortunately, that power is sold to Northern California's Pacific Gas & Electric.Powers is quick to say don't blame Blair. “If the city gave Mr. Blair free rein, we'd be paving the city with photovoltaics,” he said. “He's not the problem. Unfortunately, it's a very parochial environment here.”Tired of looking the other way? Send a tip to email@example.com.