S.D. turns on to solar power Plans for sun-fueled subdivision fit mayor's vision of energy future

By Roger M. Showley

February 18, 2001

San Diego, which has traded on its climate and beach culture for decades, is going solar in more ways than sun-bathing as the energy crisis deepens across California and the nation.

Shea Homes, the top-selling home builder in San Diego County last year, is developing a Scripps Ranch subdivision that will become the largest in the nation outfitted with solar-powered fuel cells.

And the city of San Diego is considering building one or more solar energy farms on landfills. The goal, said Mayor Dick Murphy, is energy independence, and solar power will play a key role in the future of sunny San Diego.

"My vision for San Diego is to become 'Solar San Diego,' " Murphy said. "If there ever is a city in America, with the possible exception of Phoenix or Tucson, that could head toward energy self-sufficiency by dramatic uses of solar power, it's got to be San Diego."

The technology that Shea and the city are employing uses silicon-based photovoltaic cells, which absorb the sun's rays and convert them to electricity.

A parallel technology, solar water-heating panels, has been in use longer to provide hot water for homes and to heat pools and spas.

Murphy said he hopes photovoltaic cells and solar water heaters eventually will occupy the roof of every house, business and government building in the county.

"We have a wonderful opportunity here to use a renewable source of energy to solve our energy crisis and develop a much more environmentally friendly source of energy," he said.

'Energy czar'
City Manager Michael Uberuaga, at Murphy's urging, appointed an "energy czar" last week to oversee the city's efforts to promote solar power and other conservation and production efforts.
But even before that initiative got under way, Shea Homes was making Scripps Highlands, just east of Interstate 15 at Scripps Poway Parkway, the most energy-efficient subdivision anywhere.

The 306 single-family homes in the Tiempo and San Angelo projects haven't been advertised since sales began last fall. The company has been marketing the homes through the Internet, and sets up appointments with potential buyers at the project. No model homes are planned.

Sixty-three homes already have been sold, and buyers say they are partly drawn to the project because of Shea's energy-minded program. The homes, ranging from 2,222 to 3,900 square feet, are priced from about $440,000 to $600,000.

All the houses are outfitted with solar water heating systems by Arizona-based Sun Systems Inc., have windows that filter out the sun's heat, and have tightly sealed air conditioning and heating ducts. Adding other features, including energy-saving appliances, the cost per home is about $6,100.

Together, these energy-saving steps are expected to save the typical household about 30 percent, or $316.26, off an estimated annual electricity bill of $1,031.94 at current SDG&E rates.

In addition, Shea will begin to install 12-panel photovoltaic cell arrays on 100 homes under construction in the project, and will offer most other buyers the option to add the systems for about $4,000 each.

The panels are made by AstroPower Inc. of Newark, Del., whose spokesman said a panel-manufacturing plant may be built in California if demand warrants.

Buyers also can double the size of the solar systems, at a cost of about $6,000, and add a battery backup for $2,000.

A 12-panel system, generating 1,000 kilowatts at peak performance, would save the typical household about $258 annually in electricity costs at current rates, bringing the bill down to about $458, and a 24-panel system would bring the annual bill to $189.

Any solar power not used flows into SDG&E's power grid, reversing the electric meter and lowering the bill. AstroPower experts said the typical household would produce about 750 watts per day of excess power during the hours when no one is home.

Solar option
Tom Day and his wife, Doris, both 37, came across the Shea project while driving around Scripps Ranch, where they already live with their two young daughters, and decided it was time to move up to a 3,400-square-foot home at San Angelo.
They learned about the solar power option later and jumped at the chance to add it to the home, which they expect to occupy this spring.

"We had already budgeted for all of our upgrades before solar became an option," said Day, a business development manager at the Wind River software company in Sorrento Valley. His wife is a surgical nurse at Children's Hospital.

"We justified the additional money by the fact that we'd be saving more a month than we'd be spending" on the solar option.

Shea Homes San Diego President Mark Brock said he wants to set his projects apart from the pack by offering state-of-the-art innovations. Solar water heating, photovoltaic cells and other energy-conserving features fit that strategy.

"No other large-production builder is doing anything like it," Brock said, "but we really developed it because it's the right thing to do for the environment and for our customers. It's all about comfort, performance and adding value to their investment."

Not all Shea buyers are choosing to go solar, according to Pam Beaird, Shea's sales associate at San Angelo and Tiempo.

She said one buyer is spending $21,000 on hardwood floors and $5,000 on other features, but construction was too far along to add solar panels to the roof design.

"They got a super price, so they're not complaining," she said of the early buyers. They could add solar systems later, she added.

Lauded by mayor
Mayor Murphy said the city should find ways to entice other builders to follow Shea's lead. "Shea Homes' housing project should be applauded and embraced by the city," he said.
However, Paul Tryon, executive vice president of the San Diego County Building Industry Association, said that most home builders are taking a wait-and-see attitude on adding solar power and other extra energy-saving features, while striving to meet toughened energy-code requirements.

"It's not been a subject of great consumer demand or desire or interest," he said. "They don't come in and talk about what kinds of windows we're putting in or what energy bills they can anticipate."

Nationally, George James, program manager for the U.S. Energy Department's Building America program, agreed that Shea's program is the largest at one site in the United States.

"This is a good marketing thing for Shea," James said.

Meanwhile, San Diego's Environmental Services Department expects to complete a study within two weeks of a proposal to build solar power plants on landfills at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station and in Balboa Park and Chollas Heights.

About $2 million Department Director Richard L. Hays said the cost of each facility would be about $2 million for a one-megawatt system, enough to power 500 to 1,000 homes. State funds may be available to underwrite some of the cost, he said.
"The basic idea is to take land that has limited use, such as 'brown fields' (polluted with hazardous waste), and turn them into 'bright fields,' " he said.

Hays plans to present his findings to the City Council in a few weeks with the hope for a go-ahead on installing at least one system in time for the late-summer heat.

He also will meet with the Marines soon to explore buying solar power from the Miramar facility. The Balboa Park museums and the Naval Hospital are obvious customers for a plant in the park, he said, and the Navy housing project in Chollas Heights could tap into a facility there.

Heather Mulligan, western regional director of the federal government's Brightfields initiative, said Chicago is building such a brown-field solar system, and San Diego is one of about a dozen other cities heading in the same direction.

Murphy said he will look into retrofitting the San Diego Convention Center with photovoltaic cells and including them as part of the planned Padres ballpark downtown.

"I am very enthusiastic about this thing," he said. "I see an opportunity really for PVs (photovoltaic systems) being on every house and every commercial building."

Copyright 2001 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.