S.F. Envisions a Solar City

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Officials in the city that all but trademarked fog announced Wednesday that they want to build the biggest solar power network in the country.

Taking a cue from Tony Bennett--”The morning fog may chill the air; I don’t care”--Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano said the city would like to contract for “50 megawatts of solar generation capacity on residential and commercial rooftops in the sunniest areas of the city over a projected seven to 10 years.”

The effort would cover 140 acres with solar panels, which could power 50,000 apartments or 50 huge commercial buildings on the scale of a Wal-Mart store. The plan is still in its infancy and won’t be presented to the supervisors until Monday, and there is no price tag for it yet.


Alternative energy advocates applauded the San Francisco proposal, calling it “a really big deal” and “an aggressive program” to harness a clean and renewable energy source. In addition, they said, it would make more power available at peak times in the afternoon and would offer a big boost for the solar power industry.

“To put it in perspective,” said Bentham Paulos, program officer for the Energy Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes renewable energy, “the annual production of the United States photovoltaic industry is about 80 megawatts for the entire country.”

Sacramento, Los Angeles and Chicago, among other cities, already have some solar power capabilities. Sacramento, which pioneered such programs, currently has the largest solar network in the country. The San Francisco network, if approved and completed, would be six times as big as Sacramento’s.

Announcing the solar plan at a City Hall press conference, Ammiano and other members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors said the plan has the potential to help the city dodge future blackouts, as well as to increase local control over the power system, lowering costs at peak times and improving the environment.

A response to the current energy crisis, it has been in the works since January.

On Monday, the supervisors are scheduled to consider the plan’s first steps: A charter amendment for revenue bonds to raise the money for the program, and a request for proposals so the city can get bids for the network.

If the plan is approved, this is how it would work as currently envisioned:

The city would like a single master developer to contract for everything from the manufacturing and installation of the panels to their operation and maintenance.


Using the bond process, the city would raise money to finance the bulk purchase of the solar panels, to lower their price for those who want them. It now costs about $30,000 to outfit a house, said Paul Fenn, director of an energy advocacy group called Local Power and author of the San Francisco plan. The city hopes to lower that price by 50% or more.

For residents and owners of commercial buildings who want to participate in the program, the city would send out an engineer to make sure the neighborhood is sunny enough and the roof is strong enough.

Through economy of scale, the city would win participants a 50% volume discount on the equipment. It would offer them a low municipal rate on financing and qualify them for state funds to help lower the cost. Participants would be billed monthly for the capital costs, which would be defrayed over time by savings in power bills.

Once the panels are installed on the roof, they would power the house or commercial establishment involved. If there is any power left over, it would probably be put back into the power grid for future use by the panel owner. Eventually, the city hopes to be able to buy it back for resale.

The proposal, if approved, would be a giant leap forward for solar energy, but it wouldn’t do that much to appease California’s insatiable energy appetite, cautioned Staci Homrig, spokeswoman for Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the utility that supplies power to the region.

“The Independent System Operator is forecasting shortages of between 600 and 3,700 megawatts this summer, so small solar units don’t contribute a lot,” Homrig said. “But every little bit helps.”


Her first response to the idea of a solar power network, however, was a bit less diplomatic: “In the city of San Francisco where it’s never sunny? God bless them.”

To be fair, federal weather statistics show that there are many, many cities with fewer sunny days than San Francisco. Places like Nome, Alaska, and Little Rock, Ark., Boise, Idaho, and even Hilo, Hawaii. In fact, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration figures that San Francisco has sunshine an average of 66% of the time.

And even if it didn’t, said Daniel Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at UC Berkeley, “you don’t need full-time, direct sun for a photovoltaic panel to generate power.”

Still, the architects of the city’s solar energy proposal are sensitive to the difficulty of siting photovoltaic panels in a metropolis where wool is the fabric of choice for much of August. And July. And June. And April. And that’s not even counting winter.

Finding the right roofs for the proposed panels “will be the engineering challenge,” said Fenn. “It’s neighborhood by neighborhood.”