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San Diego a Pacesetter for Clean Energy Future

By David Hochschild and Byron Washom

Clean energy is on a roll. This summer, President Obama launched the EPA's Clean Power Plan to clean up America's aging fleet of power plants, the largest contributor to our nation's greenhouse gas emissions.

In September, Gov. Brown signed landmark legislation ensuring California will get at least 50 percent of its electricity from clean sources like wind, solar and geothermal power by 2030.

Last month in Paris, 195 nations approved the strongest climate agreement in history, setting the world on the long-term path to get off fossil fuels this century. But the boldest action of all may be at the local level.

Last month, San Diego became the largest city in the United States to adopt a binding and enforceable 100 percent renewable energy mandate for the city by 2035. The policy is part of the city's new climate plan which will cut the city's greenhouse gas emissions in half over the next 20 years.

San Diego's leadership is particularly significant given the role cities play with climate change. It is estimated by the United Nations that, while occupying just 2 percent of the world's land, cities are responsible for up to 70 percent of greenhouse gases. The need for cities to lead has never been greater. In what has become known as the "airpocalypse," Beijing officials recently issued a red alert, the highest possible, in response to the threat to public health posed by toxic air pollution.

UCSD a Model Campus

The stakes are high indeed but so are the opportunities In the years ahead, California can lead the way forward and send a postcard from the future to the rest of the world by showcasing the best practices in carbon reduction strategy and technology. To do this, our state's campuses can plan a critical role as laboratories of projects and policies that can be scaled up. UC president Janet Napolitano has gotten the ball rolling by setting a goal for the entire UC system become carbon neutral by 2025.

UC San Diego, in particular, has been a pioneer. Today, the campus is covered with solar panels, has a microgrid, self generates 85 percent of its own electricity and 95 percent of its heating and cooling requirements and has the largest electric energy storage system of any university in the world. UC San Diego does this at approximately 40 percent of the cost that a comparable utility customer would pay and a GHG emission rate well below the average California energy mix.

On-campus wind and solar installations alone cannot meet all the energy needs of the school. So in collaboration with the City of San Diego, UC San Diego and the private sector entered into an agreement in 2010 that captured the surplus methane at the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant and utilized it to demonstrate the world's largest commercially available fuel cell project which also captures the waste heat to produce an additional 350 tons of chilling capacity to service its Jacobs Medical Center.

Renewable Energy Drives Economy

UC San Diego has built one of the state's largest electric vehicle charging networks for the workplace. Students, faculty, and staff will have access to more than 75 EV charging stations at competitive rates and attractive leases from auto manufacturers.

Taken together, these steps strengthen our state and create the building blocks for the economy of the future. Critics of California's clean energy policies once said that starting down this path would lead to a failed economy, increasing unemployment and rolling blackouts. But over the past five years as California has ramped up to 25 percent renewables, the economy is growing, unemployment has been cut in half and, for the first time, there are now more Californians working in the renewable energy industry than for all the state's electric utilities combined. Meanwhile, the state has not experienced a single rolling blackout due to renewable energy.

Entering the race toward a clean energy future has proven to be a smart investment. Our state is now the pace car in this race and we must accelerate even faster. With the leadership of campuses like UC San Diego and cities like San Diego, California can lead the way forward to a cleaner, healthier energy era.

David Hochschild is a commissioner at the California Energy Commission. Byron Washom is director of strategic energy initiatives at UC San Diego.

This commentary was originally published in the San Diego Business Journal on January 7, 2016.


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The California Energy Commission is the state's primary energy policy and planning agency created by the Legislature in 1974.
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