The Revolution Should Face the Sun

By Frank Landis, Chairperson Conservation Committee

As you read this, I'll be working on a comment letter for the Newland Sierra EIR. That project inspired this essay because one of the things they're doing is trying to make the Newland Sierra development carbon neutral. This is a wonderful aspiration, but I'm not so sure that it shows up in the project design, and that's the subject of this month's essay. Unfortunately, carbon neutral developments aren't as simple as writing a few pages in an EIR and specifying that it should be possible to mount solar panels on otherwise conventional tract houses in a conventional development.

Newland Sierra is the latest development in a tract of land just north of Deer Springs Road and just west of I-15. Two previous development proposals (the last was called Merriam Mountain) have died on that site, and Merriam Mountain was voted down by the Board of Supervisors 4-1 a few years back. In what seems to be a common pattern, the old Merriam Mountain land was sold (presumably) cheaply to a foreign investor, (presumably) under the notion that they'll make so much money that they can afford the necessary legal battles. Given who's already in opposition to Newland Sierra, I suspect it will also go down to defeat, having made some money in fees to the developer in the meantime. Then the land will be sold to another foreign investor and the cycle will begin again. That seems to be how these bad developments keep popping up over and over and over again, like B-grade movie vampires. If you're moving into a new neighborhood, it's worth getting to know your neighbors, to find out if there's one of these undead properties nearby. Then you can learn from your neighbors how they defeated it, so that when new blood revives it, you can stand beside them to banish it again. But I digress.

The Newland Sierra site is mostly a south-facing little valley, with some grassland in the center and steep slopes covered in fairly old chaparral. It's a critical piece of wildlife corridor in the County's proposed North County MSCP, and the Newland Sierra development would bisect the wildlife corridor. That's why the environmental groups are upset about all this. That, and that Newland is proposing over 2,000 homes in a place that's zoned for 100 homes. And they've got to widen all the roads leading in. And they're going to mess up the I-15, because there's no plan to deal with that massive influx of traffic, because it's not part of the general plan. And so on.

But this all depends on getting solar power. The fundamental problem with solar is that the sun doesn't shine through mountains, since rock is opaque (as is chaparral). Therefore, if a developer depends on putting solar panels on all the houses to meet climate action plan goals, they're missing a good chunk of the horizon, which means there's less sun, which means that the solar panels need to be aimed south to southwest to maximize their energy intake to make the whole thing work.

Unfortunately, Newland Sierra is laid out like any development, all curving streets and small parcels pointed in every compass direction. There's also a block of apartments and condos. While it's nice that they're trying to put in a bit of affordable housing, where are they going to put the solar panels for all this?

Yes, they can put solar panels on any roof, but if they're serious about powering houses entirely by solar, it's better to have all the roofs pointing south, not shading each other, and not being shaded by all those nice street trees they want to put in, to go with that great urban forestry initiatives that is also underway.

It gets worse when you start adding in electric cars. This spring, we installed 18 panels on our house, one we recently bought because it had a big south-facing roof. So far, we generate 20-40 kWh per day, far more than the house actually needs. The reason we're generating so much is that we're going to get a Chevy Bolt this year. This little car gets 238 miles on a single charge (if you drive like my wife does, probably less if you drive the way I do). The catch is that the Bolt has a 60 kWh battery, so it will take 2-3 days worth of solar power to charge the car. Unfortunately, they don't sell 60 kWh house batteries yet, but by the time they do, we'll be ready for it. That's the kind of planning and investment that needs to go into running a house 100% solar energy. We figure it will take about five years and a kitchen remodel to retrofit our 1980s house for 100% renewable electricity. To reach 100% renewability, every home in San Diego will have to go through this.

That's also the point for Newland Sierra and for every new development. Renewable power is not just about powering homes, it's mostly powering people's vehicles. That takes a lot of solar panels. Then again, the county believes that 55% of greenhouse gases emitted in the County come from cars and trucks, so it's critically important to make this switch.

If any developer, not just Newland, is going to run a development on rooftop solar, it's going to need to design the development around that goal. Streets will need to be laid out so that buildings can have a south or west facing roof, and every roof will need to have big, sun-facing surfaces, even more so when they're on slopes or in valleys, as is Newland Sierra. Most of the solar panels will need to be dedicated to charging vehicles, not powering homes, and trees will have to be planted and maintained in ways that don't shade panels. This last isn't just a good idea, it's the law: to be precise, it's Public Resources Code Division 15, Chapter 12. Solar Shade Control [25980 - 25986], passed in 1974.

The lesson to this point is that we'll know that developers are getting serious about sustainability when new buildings and developments change substantially, as solar will affect everything from the way streets are laid out to the way parcels are delineated, buildings are oriented, rooflines are designed, and where and what trees are planted. None of this is rocket science, but none of it is business as usual, either. Fortunately, it's a challenge that at least some architects have been craving for decades, so we might actually get some good-looking homes out of this, too.

Fortunately or unfortunately, it doesn't end there. To  quote an article by Joshua Emerson Smith in the July 13, 2017 Union Tribune, "SANDAG officials have said that while sprawling, car-centric planning currently has negative environmental impacts, technologies such as electric vehicles may make such concerns largely irrelevant in the future." ( ment/sd-me-sandag-ruling-20170713-story.html ). Yes, it looks like the agency tasked with overseeing transportation development in the County sees only wider roads and increased sprawl, but they're okay with that, because electric vehicles like the Chevy Bolt will magically vanish all problems. Yeah, right. Let me run through the Chevy Bolt's stats again: it's a subcompact that costs about as much as a mid-sized car, and if driven conservatively, it gets 238 miles out of 60 kWh charge that's held in a 960-pound battery. This, above all else, illustrates the trap that gas has put us in: a gallon of gas weighs about 6 pounds, and I could go 238 miles in my 1992 Camry on 54 pounds of gas. Current electric vehicles are much smaller and more short- legged than their gas powered counterparts are, because gas stores more energy per pound than batteries do. SANDAG's assumption that electrified sprawl will be environmentally friendly is as stupid as developers assuming that putting solar panels on conventionally designed homes will be enough to power the cars for those roads.

If we're going to transition successfully to a 100% renewably powered society, everything's going to have to change. Some of it will be cool, some of it will be ugly, some of it will be square miles of solar panels reflecting sunlight into the eyes of every airplane pilot flying in, and some of it will undoubtedly be powered by solar and wind plants elsewhere. If there's an ultimate lesson here, it's that San Diego is designed around petroleum, and rebuilding it around renewable energy is not a trivial task. I applaud every developer who takes steps to make this happen, but they need to realize that what they build to meet this challenge will be revolutionary 21st Century buildings, not more 20th century designs. And their buildings will have to face that perfect sun we live under here.