A couple of months ago I went to San Diego for work. I decided to take some vacation time and go out early. It’s a beautiful place and there are lots of things you might do there on your day off. You could go to the mountains, the ocean, their famous Zoo. But… I am a geek so I went out early to try to get interviews for my podcast. I searched for solar conferences and found one that was going on while I was there, the Solar Power Finance and Investment Summit, which sounds pretty intimidating. I went ahead and emailed them to ask if I could get a press pass. I was a little afraid of getting laughed at since I had only done two episodes.
The night before my trip I still hadn’t heard back from the conference organizers so I needed a backup plan. I googled “San Diego solar” and found some people that I wanted to interview. I emailed a few of them. I even emailed the mayor’s press office. Then it was time to head to the airport. I was afraid that I was going to strike out. Once I arrived I started calling people. I was starting to get worried.
But then I heard back from Nicole Capretz, founder of Climate Action Campaign. And right after that the conference organizers called back and registered me over the phone. They were really nice and they didn’t laugh at me. So, I lucked out and got some great interviews that I can share over the next few episodes.
NC: I’m Nicole Capretz with the Climate Action Campaign. We are a climate watchdog organization based in San Diego. I had the opportunity to work for the mayor of San Diego and draft the city’s 100% clean energy climate action plan.
DB: And that was the current mayor?
NC: The previous mayor. The previous mayor. So obviously we didn’t know what the new mayor would do. He’s a republican and we’re not always on the same page about some fundamental issues but after some time he did decide to fully support the draft climate action plan that I had drafted.
DB: So he wasn’t the initial instigator for the plan. He inherited it?
NC: Correct. It was a council member named Todd Gloria who became the mayor after a tumultuous period in politics for San Diego and he’d been working with me a long time on climate change issues and once he had that opportunity to be the mayor and kind of drive policy he drafted me in essence and said please come work for me and let’s get this climate plan across the finish line because it had been basically stagnant.
DB: I have to admit that I haven’t had a chance to read the entire plan. I had good intentions but there was a cub scout campout and I had to drive my daughter back to college. So fill us in on what the goals of the plan are.
NC: Yeah, they’re pretty ambitious. We are trying to cut the entire city of San Diego’s carbon footprint by almost 50% by 2035. That’s kind of the overarching goal of the plan and the two major drivers for hitting that target is to basically green our grids so that we have 100% renewable electricity by 2035 powering all our buildings in San Diego, our whole lifestyle obviously, and also to basically transform our streets, repurpose our streets, so that we are reducing our vehicle miles travelled and we’re having more people during their work commutes that are using public transportation, biking or walking. So those are, to me, the kind of two signature arenas that the climate plan focuses on. I think the other lynchpin for making this plan as groundbreaking as it is is that it is a legally binding plan. So when the city of San Diego says reducing our carbon footprint, it’s 49% but we say 50%, it’s not just some aspiration or a goal we hope to achieve. It’s a goal we’re sort of legally binding ourselves to achieve.
DB: And what happens if you miss milestones along the way.
NC: I think a couple of things. One is it allows the community and organizations like mine to hold the city accountable for actually reaching different milestones on the way, we have 2020 and 2035 benchmark goals. Also we do allow in California for private citizen lawsuits under our environmental, it’s called the California Environmental Quality Act. So those goals are subject potentially to private outside litigation. But you know, we don’t want to, the goal is to avoid any kind of litigation, but we do feel that in order to make sure the city invests in the necessary resources to implement this plan sometimes you need that kind of leverage to make the plan legally binding to insure that it is prioritized and implemented effectively.
DB: The transportation and the renewable energy goals both sound really optimistic, and they’re kind of exciting and I would think if you’re in charge of implementing them they would also be terrifying.
NC: I think if you were speaking to someone who works at the city, they might, they wouldn’t say terrifying but they might say challenging. If they were being diplomatic. Yeah, we are really pushing the envelope. It’s not going to be easy. We are talking about paradigm shifts but we are also talking about climate change, which is a crisis we’ve never confronted before so the way I look at it is we have to do things we’ve never done before. That means yes, we are doing land use and transportation fundamentally in a different form and manner than we have before and we have to set up that vision about how we’re going to get there incrementally over time and the same with making our grid 100% renewable. And yes, that’s going to change the existing paradigm of how we transport and supply electricity but this is the world we’re in right now. These are the times we’re in and thankfully we have people like Elon Musk out there and others who are driving the technological changes that are gonna allow us to make these goals possible.
DB: So one of the ways that you might be able to get people involved is with community aggregation.
NC: Um huh, we call it community choice energy.
DB: I like that. That’s a good word. Because, who could be against community choice?
NC: Oh! SDG&E. The existing monopoly utility. I mean they don’t say that publicly but certainly it is in their opinion a somewhat existential threat to their current business model. We view it as a perfect public private partnership because it’s this hybrid solution where SDG&E would still be in charge of delivering the energy so they would benefit from maintaining a reliable energy service over their infrastructure, their pipes and wires, and the city would be in charge of the supply, right? Making sure there would be green energy on the grid rather than dirty energy. So, to us, it’s a seamless solution and partnership. Both sides are benefitting but it’s based on historical events including last year during a legislative battle it seems they don’t view this as the same kind of public private partnership that we do.
DB: Well certainly as the world changes, business models change all the time and companies that don’t embrace that change go out of business. Now this is a slightly different scenario because the companies on the other end of these changes are regulated monopoly utilities and maybe that gives them the power to be resistant for a little longer, but in the long run they’re going to have to change.
NC: I agree. I fundamentally agree. I believe that if they don’t adapt their business model or figure out how to survive in this new climate, technology is just going to leapfrog over them and people are going to go eventually to the point of going off the grid. Right? I mean that is another project of Elon Musk’s. You know developing these storage systems that are for homeowners. That’s not really where we’re trying to head as a city and we’re trying to work in partnership with the utility but we have to do what we have to do to protect the health and future quality of life of the people of San Diego. It’s not about protecting the corporate bottom line of SDG&E.
DB: In my opinion utilities were originally given monopolies for efficiency’s sake. You don’t want two companies putting up wires and poles or five companies putting up wires and poles throughout the city, that would be a ridiculous waste of money.
NC: Still true
DB: It seems they’ve forgotten that maybe.
NC: Yeah, times change, business models change. I think historically if you look at industry sectors you do see the need for those industries to adapt sort of like the telecom industry. Yeah, the telecom industry is a good example. There’s always going to be disruptors, creative disruptors in large marketplaces like energy and I think you’d like to believe that it’s incumbent on the players to figure out a new way to make themselves viable. So I think they’re at a critical crossroads and we’ll see what they decide to do. I agree with you. They can choose to fight us tooth and nail and create up all sorts of barriers and challenges to moving to a new energy system, a new paradigm but ultimately I think people who are forecasting the future would say that we’re going to a have more locally controlled, decentralized energy system that allows communities to be more energy independent and have a more viable, secure energy supply source.
DB: That sounds good.
NC: Yeah, it does.
DB: Has SDG&E invested in solar on their own supply side?
NC: Well Yeah, so in California we have a renewable portfolio standard so they have 33%, maybe a little more I think, renewable energy in their supply currently.
DB: A renewables portfolio standard, or RPS, is a law that requires utilities to get a certain percentage of their power from renewable sources. Usually the percentage goes up over time. California’s RPS is one of the most aggressive in the US. It requires utilities to purchase 33% of their power from renewable sources by 2020. As of 2013 SDG&E was at 23.6% and they have 38.8% under contract by 2020.
NC: But you know we need to get even farther than that. So, I think the fundamental question for the community, cause again it’s not about what’s best for SDG&E, it’s about what’s best for the people, the residents of San Diego, is how do we accelerate greening the grid and how do we do it in a way that positively benefits consumers and residents. This community choice program is the mechanism that is proven just through data of existing community choice programs is the method that has proven to be the most cost effective and successful way of accelerating green energy on the grid and protecting the costs, you know, keeping the costs down.
DB: Instead of being the victim of rising fuel costs year after year after year?
NC: Or just rising costs of maintaining a large institutional utility, like we have right now with our big three monopoly utilities. The overhead costs that they maintain get passed on to us through our rates and we have some of the highest rates in the nation in San Diego, which doesn’t make any sense really just because of our moderate, temperate climate.
DB: According to the San Diego Reader, SDG&E’s rates are often the highest in the country, and by a wide margin. When they’re not number one they’re in the top 5.
NC: And yet because they’re keeping this beast alive, this large institutional beast, it’s more efficient and more consumer friendly to have choice and competition in the marketplace and frankly smaller, more flexible, more nimble agencies that are purchasing energy for all of us.
DB: Why do you think the rates are so high here?
NC: I think it’s a combination of factors. We are in this cul-de-sac in terms of how we can import energy into the region, but I just think fundamentally that monopolies are not efficient and that they are large institutions that just have a hard time adapting and changing and being flexible and nimble, the way they need to be in order to keep costs down. They have a large system to maintain. It’s very expensive. And there’s also a lot we don’t know. It’s not a transparent process. It’s not accessible to the public, how they purchase energy and why the costs are so high. It’s still kind of a mystery. They have their narrative about why the costs are so high. They conveniently blame the state and the state’s regulations, but at the same time that hasn’t been shown to be true by any independent evaluators so I think it’s a combination of multiple factors but the point is at the end of the day the costs are high. So to me the only really relevant point of conversation is what’s the solution. And the solution is not the status quo. The solution is finding alternative ways of supplying energy that benefit all customer classes and accelerate the clean energy economy.
DB: Do they blame the high rates on the RPS?
NC: Yes. And I did research on that and the most independent evaluator that I knew was at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. I was directed to her by the California Energy Commission and their response was that there hasn’t really been an independent evaluation done by an independent evaluator about why the rates are so high. It’s easy for them to have their own studies that they’ve funded that would support their position about why the rates are high, but I don’t think there is data that’s independent that really let’s us know what’s really behind the high rates. It’s the American way to have competition in the marketplace. It just doesn’t make sense to maintain a monopoly at this point in history. Like you said, it made sense 130 years ago when we were just building up the infrastructure, when we didn’t have any pipes and wires and we needed to figure out how to make the system work. I understand why that made sense then, but the world changes right?
DB: Have you seen rates go up as you’ve reach your 33% renewable portfolio standard.
NC: We’ve seen rates go up since the beginning of the existence of SDG&E.
DB: They just go up anyway.
NC: They just go up. It’s an upward trajectory. Again, I think that’s the utility narrative, that costs are going up because of the renewable portfolio standard. We would argue that costs are going up because they’re a monopoly and inefficient and they’re a large institution that has a large overhead cost that they pass on to us.
DB: Of course fossil fuels are becoming more expensive all the time.
NC: Yeah. The cost of fossil fuels, their decisions about where to purchase energy and infrastructure they need to build to bring that energy into San Diego also factors into cost.
We personally believe that if we had a community choice program that agency, I mean again it would be up to the people running that agency, they would have the opportunity to look at the landscape and evaluate whether it made more economic sense for rate-payers to develop local clean energy supplies using existing infrastructure like existing rooftops and existing parking lots and existing disturbed land instead of going far away and building new transmission lines. I think those are some of the calculations that a community choice program would enable us to explore that we’re not exploring right now.
DB: So you’ve been going around to businesses in the area and trying to raise support, what has the reaction been.
NC: Well we’ve been going out to planning groups, town councils, to Rotary clubs, I mean, we’ve been on a road show presenting the entire climate plan and I must say that the initiative that gets the most interest and support is the community choice initiative. It doesn’t matter whether you’re left, right, conservative, liberal, or even a-political, the idea of having choice in the marketplace for electricity is appealing to everybody because like I said it’s the American way.
DB: It seems American to me.
NC: It’s a palpable shift in the audience when they hear about it. It’s just, the partisan politics go away and it just becomes about what makes sense.
DB: A lot of people say that it’s going to be impossible to get renewable energy to 100% or I don’t even know what they would say the limit would be based on the fact that it’s an intermittent supply. But of course there are ways to deal with that issue. Is SDG&E doing anything now with regard to storage? Are they forced to deal with storage at the 33% level?
NC: There was a big decision that came from our public utilities commission that does require all the monopoly utilities to procure storage so we are pushing the envelope in California around battery storage and the idea is of course again the state sets the policy and it drives the market. It sends a signal to the market and drive the technological innovation. And I think we’re seeing that just to raise the obvious example that everyone knows is Tesla and Solar City with their battery storage systems and so that’s happening. It’s working, that positive feedback loop. So I think again, projecting out when you listen to Elon Musk or other experts in the field who are on the technical side, they truly believe, it’s just a matter of time. We’re looking at getting to 100% by 2035. We’re not talking about tomorrow. But I think technology’s advanced so fast, so far, in the last ten years, let alone twenty years, which is the timeline we’re talking about, that to me it seems inevitable. I bet in ten years we’ll be like “remember when we thought, no one thought storage would be mainstream or could be the backup source of power” and everyone will be like “oh yeah, ha ha ha”. It seems obvious to me. I’ve been doing this long enough. When I started talking about solar, when I was working in city hall in San Diego, SDG&E representatives used to laugh at me and say “solar will never become mainstream, it’s so expensive, you have no idea. You just don’t know. You’re not the expert, we are. And we’re just letting you know. It’s never going to hit that tipping point. It’s never going to hit grid parity, it’s never going to become cost competitive with fossil fuels.” I remember that vividly.
DB: Well I tell you what, I think that conversation is going on right this second in lots of other places. You’re in a very different part of the world. There are very conservative states that are still thumping away at that mantra, and saying, “Oh, it’s always going to be too expensive.” And that ship has already sailed.
DB: So tell me a little bit about yourself Nicole. What drives you? What made you interested in energy and the environment?
NC: Fortunate circumstance. When I was in college, having no clue about what I wanted to do in life or what I wanted to do in my future, my Dad was not pleased with my grades or the fact that I was meandering with no focus or goals, he said, “You must do an internship this summer.” He basically placed me at an internship. I had no previous experience or interest in environmental work but it was with an environmental non-profit and in particular with somebody who happened to be an expert in renewable energy. And this is in the 90s so this is way ahead of the curve and I didn’t even know what solar energy was or wind energy. So I just go schooled but I was also inspired probably more than anything and it really just galvanized my interest and I then went back to school and I got straight As and I took environmental classes and I went to environmental law school. I just, suddenly I had purpose and I always give credit to the guy I worked for in D.C. and he’s this kind of curmudgeony activist, you know and he’s not well liked by people, you know, he doesn’t have a lot of social skills but he was just so passionate and determined and he just inspired, you know for a 19 or 20 year old kid, he helped me, he helped shape my life, which is pretty incredible but, and he probably doesn’t even know that but it worked and so that kind of passion for renewable energy never went away. I’ve worked on a variety of different environmental issues because I just feel passionate in general about protecting our quality of life and this amazing planet that we live in, but I’ve always had a special interest in renewable energy because of the early experience I had when I was a late teenager.
DB: So do you think your dad’s plan to get you an internship, did it backfire a little bit? Did he want you to go into the nonprofit world?
NC: Yeah, that’s a great question. That’s what he always says. “Ugh, why don’t any of my kids make money?” Cause we all seem to have like different passions but we’re also just do-gooders. I have three brothers and sisters. We’re all do-gooders. So, yes, he jokes about that. I think ultimately he was just so excited to see that I finally had, you know, focus and I was interested, in anything. DB: Is there anything else you can think of that you would like to, any funny stories along the way?
NC: Funny stories or depressing stories?
DB: You can make a depressing story funny.
NC: Yeah, they all are. Of course. Just overall being an outside agitator, if you can use that term, always trying to push the envelope, always trying to bend status quo is very challenging and draining and exhausting and many times demoralizing because it’s easy for the establishment to always try to marginalize you or suggest that you’re an extreme person. You belong on the outside. So I always encourage people to dismiss that and if they truly believe in what they are doing, not only will their path open for where they should be and who they should be in life but in my experience the path also opens for the change that you’ve been seeking. I truly believe that but it’s a roller coaster ride. It’s never smooth but what else are you here on earth to do except to make a difference. That’s the way I look at it. Instead of just being sort of a corporate drone or just somebody who’s just going day to day or you know not really enjoying what they’re doing or following their personal passion I believe so strongly that you have to just fight for what you believe in. I mean it’s not a funny story.
DB: That’s a horrible question. Nobody can think of a funny story on the spot. You’ll think of one later.
NC: Oh! Okay. I have a funny story. My best story with SDG&E is that, so I’ve been pushing them to embrace solar for years and eventually, this was when I was an advocate on the outside working for a non-profit organization, they did start having meetings and they wanted to, they expressed an interested in collaborating to figure out how could we get more solar on the grid. And I knew part of it was just them checking off a box and being able to tell the regulators and decision makers, “Oh we’re with the environmental community, we’re working with them.” You know that aspect. Of course, I’m not naive I knew that was part of the drill but at the same time you don’t want to not pursue it and see maybe, yeah maybe we’ll be collaborating. And one of the mantras of one of the executives, he was always, “solar’s just so expensive, even I can’t afford it, I’m sending my kid to college. That’s where my dollars are going.” You know, just identifying with the common man. And how solar is just for certain people and you know it’s too elitist and that kind of narrative and I was in the parking lot after one of these meetings with somebody else. We were just chatting after the meeting with somebody else who had heard that same narrative, more than once, we heard it frequently. About he too cannot afford solar on his house and he drove up in his $100,000 Porsche, convertible Porsche and he just stopped to say goodbye and I just looked at him and I said, “Oh, you’re the common man huh? And you can’t afford solar but you can afford a $100,000 Porsche?” And so we laughed and he was like, “Well this is used. It’s a used car.” But I’ll never forget it because it’s just incredible. I don’t know to me, there’s so much in that little story.
DB: Well tell me where can people find out more about your organization or find you online.
NC: Pretty easy. Google my name, Nicole Capretz, you’ll find it. but also it’s www.climateactioncampaign.org. We have an active website and we’re updating it almost on a weekly basis we’re updating it and making sure everybody’s on the same page and we’re all sharing information and then we’re actively seeking volunteers and collaborating with our allies and friends.
DB: And donations maybe?
NC: Oh of course, financial donations are always welcome and accepted.
DB: And you can find Climate Action Campaign on twitter and instagram. Look for @SDClimateAction
DB: Well thanks for listening to another episode of Clean Power Planet and thanks to my engineer, producer and daughter Keaton Butler.
Keaton: Special thanks to The Brands from Bloomington, Indiana for the featured music on this episode.
DB: We’d love to share your renewable energy story on our blog. Just email a couple of paragraphs and a photo or two to email@example.com. Let’s flip the switch.
Guitarroni -Kiki Mcgee
Chip of a Star – Chatham County Line
Unknown Man – F J Blues
Words – The Brands