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San Francisco Could Lead US Cities In Solar Power

Editor’s Note: This article is one submission in a live Masdar blogging contest (find out the entry requirements here). Very simply, the focus of the contest submissions is to: “Describe your city in 2030: what will occur due to changes in energy, transportation and water technologies, and how will they transform how you live?” We are sharing this submission here on CleanTechnica because we think it’s awesome and because Masdar is sponsoring CleanTechnica in order to raise awareness about this great competition. I have personally engaged in the contest in previous years, and I hope one of our readers wins this year since it would be great to meet you in Abu Dhabi!

San Francisco is a city that many people love. You can visit just once and see why. It might have something to do with the stunning views when you look north from China Town or Pacific Heights and see the bay bordered by green slopes in Marin. The varied light due to fog and bursts of clarity… the list of sensory beauty is great.

In 2010, mayor Gavin Newsom said he had an initiative that could provide 100% renewable energy for San Francisco by 2020. Newsom is no longer mayor, and it doesn’t look like the city will be able meet a 950 MW peak power demand with renewables in five years. But it could still be a leader.

About 20% of electricity in San Francisco is produced by Hetch Hetchy. The utility company PG&E is the main provider of electricity. The city also has a little bit of its own renewable energy production.

The current mayor has been said by some to have a too cozy relationship with PG&E. The SF CleanPower initiative could be the one project to try bring 100% renewable energy to San Francisco, but one thing standing in the way is PG&E… and politics.

One misperception in San Francisco is that, due to the fog, the solar power potential for the city is not good, but this is not true. “Many residents were unaware that San Francisco actually has very good solar potential. San Francisco receives solar radiation equivalent to 93% of that seen in San Diego, and cooler temperatures during clear months allow for more efficient energy production than in hotter areas, because PV systems operate more efficiently at lower temperatures.”

San Diego is a national leader in solar power among American cities. If San Francisco receives almost the same amount of sunlight on average, then it too could be a leader. San Jose is located about an hour south of San Francisco and it has been ranked as a solar leader too. (San Francisco was ranked 9th.)

So, San Francisco has ample sunlight, but the limiting factor seems to be more about politics.

However, not all solar power has to be grid-scale to be significant. The cost of home solar power PV systems has dropped very much in recent years. This means more and more home and business owners are and can invest in them.

The city of San Francisco currently only has about 26 MW of solar power, according to a recent article from a local paper. A city proposal would increase that amount to 50 MW by 2020. However, the solar power potential in San Francisco appears to far greater than most people know, including San Francisco residents.

Rooftop solar could be adopted here in much greater numbers, especially considering the high level of technology literacy in San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

Three things can happen in San Francisco to greatly increase solar power:

  • more awareness of the very good solar potential
  • understanding that solar power is a good investment, not only a green thing to do
  • the combination of high green awareness in the population and a sense of both innovation and embracing of technology.

Is it ridiculous to imagine that homeowners and business owners using solar power could produce about half of San Francisco’s electricity? At the current moment, yes, but we have seen huge technological changes in the last 14 years with Google, social media, and Tesla, so there is no enduring reason why San Francisco can’t be become the leading solar city in America. Leading solar panel manufacturer SunPower is located in San Jose, innovative solar financier Mosaic in Oakland, and SolarCity is on the peninsula in San Mateo. Surely, there is some potential for innovation in solar power in San Francisco to vault it into first place among the top American solar cities.


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