San Diego Wins Large Municipality Sustainability Award

Promoting the use of clean energy is old news for Southern California’s “other” giant city.

San Diego is a California metropolis with a modest goal: Become, and remain, “America’s Finest City.” The Golden State’s second-largest municipality has promoted renewable energy since the release of its original Climate Action Plan (CAP) in 2015, then upped the ante with its 2022 version , which calls for net zero carbon emissions by 2035. 

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Carlsbad Desalination Plant helps San Diego deal with drought by converting 100 million gallons of ocean salt water into 50 million gallons of potable water every day. Credit: Courtesy San Diego County Water Authority

In 2015, San Diego became the nation’s first city to commit to a 100 percent renewable energy program (“100RE”)—it is currently at 40 percent. That’s a bit ahead of schedule, according to city officials; they’re not ruling out hitting the 100RE target by 2030 instead of 2035. Meanwhile, a 15 percent greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction goal was easily met before the 2022 update appeared (24 percent and rising, by that point)—leading to the net zero emissions status sought by 2035.

Other 2035 goals include reducing and diverting 90 percent of waste from the city landfill, restoring 700 acres of wetland as carbon sink, and beginning a mobility network that converts 50 percent of all trips to walking, biking or transit, and reduces vehicle use. This would be a huge change, as only 1 in 6 commuters are currently considered energy efficient, according to the 2022 CAP.

Broad Range of Energy-Saving Ideas

To help combat California’s frequent and extensive droughts, San Diego has invested in the Carlsbad Desalination Plant, which transforms 100 million gallons of ocean salt water into 50 million gallons of potable water, or about 10 percent of San Diego’s water use each day, according to plant officials. 

San Diego city officials note that because of its extensive process, desalination technology requires three times more energy than basic wastewater recycling, meaning an increase in GHGs. But thus far, the city has been able to more than offset the increase, given its steadily rising carbon emissions reduction success.

Other accomplishments include being one of the first California cities to mandate solar panels on all new construction, implement strict regulations pertaining to water consumption, and offer free composting services for residential customers, which means food scraps can go directly from a home into the ground to help fertilize soil rather than sitting in landfills or incinerators.

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The city’s Metropolitan Transit System now has a zero-emission, all-electric commuter bus line and plans to replace its entire fleet by 2040. Credit: Courtesy of San Diego Metropolitan Transit System

Goodbye to Fossil Fuels?

If San Diego lawmakers are successful, fossil fuels will be an endangered species in a few years. The city’s Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) recently debuted an all-electric commuter bus line capable of transporting 5,000 people per day. The zero emission buses replace low-CO2 compressed natural gas models, and they are the first step toward a completely electric public transit fleet by 2040, according to MTS Board Chair and San Diego City Councilmember Stephen Whitburn. 

San Diego’s public schools are joining in: According to a report in the San Diego Union-Tribune, the San Diego Unified School District plans to phase out all fossil fuels by the end of 2024. The district is also implementing a curriculum designed to prepare students for careers in electrification and clean energy fields. 

Another district, in neighboring Cajon Valley, has bidirectional chargers in some of its electric school buses that allow energy stored in the batteries to be directed back to the area’s electricity grid during peak demand hours.

Caroline Winn, CEO of San Diego Gas & Electric (SDGE), which provides energy to 3.3 million customers in San Diego and Orange counties, has a straightforward way of summing up the city’s sustainability efforts: Where there is a collective will, there is a way.

An SDGE study, The Path to Net Zero: A Decarbonization Roadmap for California, identifies a path where the city can help California meet its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2045—10 years later than San Diego expects to reach that same goal. 

“There is no question our climate is changing, but we are also beginning to get more clarity on what we need to do to transition to a net zero future,” Winn notes. “We are heartened by the fact that organizations and individuals across the public, private, nonprofit and academic sectors are coalescing around climate actions.” 

Key Sustainability Facts

Population: 1,381,162

Percentage of energy-efficient commuters (as of 2022): 15.9

Deadline year for 100 percent waste diversion: 2040