Solar panels on a home
Solar panels on the rooftop of a home in Southern California. Courtesy LA Solar Group

San Diegans recently reached two unpleasant milestones that create economic challenges for our region’s families and employers: We now live in the nation’s most expensive housing market, and residents are paying the nation’s highest utility rates.

These two costs have tremendous impacts on the region’s ability to recover from the ripple effects of COVID.

Monthly utility bills are part of calculations businesses, homeowners and renters make to determine what they can afford in wages, office space and housing. Higher heating, lighting and cooling costs exacerbate the pain of expensive leases, mortgages and rents.

And while property costs are at least partially attributed to fluctuations in the market (low inventory, high demand), fees and rates for electricity and gas are set by decisions at the California Public Utilities Commission.

Unfortunately, San Diegans were locked into an expensive, de facto 20-year utility franchise agreement approved last year by the City Council. We will see no respite from higher rates for gas and electricity negotiated by industry lobbyists in proceedings far from San Diego. And since local ratepayers are adding an estimated $1 million in profits every day to our investor-owned utility — San Diego Gas & Electric — in essence consumers are paying for SDG&E’s lobbyists to negotiate against our economic interests at PUC hearings.

In contrast, most household incomes cannot keep pace with rapidly escalating monthly bills. This creates housing and food insecurity for many San Diegans who struggle to pay high rents and heating bills during an unusually cold winter. These payments mean fewer disposable dollars available for discretionary consumer spending, and make it more difficult for the region’s employers to attract and retain workers and pay competitive salaries.

We’ve heard these stories for years — while serving as chair of the California Assembly Housing and Community Development Committee and as board members of the Protect Our Communities Foundation. The foundation advocates for locally generated, clean, sustainable energy. We explore solutions to climate change that can also address rising housing and utility costs. This includes incorporating energy efficiency and onsite generation into all affordable housing projects.

If more low- and moderate-income residents have access to clean and sustainable energy generated onsite via solar panels, they will have more money left after paying bills to spend on other necessities.

This is why, via public comment to the San Diego City Council on Feb. 7, we suggested the council add requirements for solar energy systems to three 50-year lease agreements up for renewal, that provide affordable housing on city property in Pacific Beach and the Midway area.

We outlined the benefits of on-site solar power generation:

  • Tenants will have lower personal utility bills
  • The management firm will pay less for lighting and heating etc. in common use areas
  • San Diego will have a higher return on investment from these properties

Councilmember Joe LaCava recognized the value of these suggestions. After finishing his prepared remarks, he referenced the public comment and proposed an amendment to the lease agreements: Require installation of solar panels on all three properties as a condition of the 50-year lease extension.

The developer’s representative agreed to this condition. In the coming years, hundreds of tenants will not only pay lower rents but also lower utility bills.

Given how easy it was to get this developer to agree to these terms made us wonder why so many city properties, from City Hall to lifeguard towers, lack solar panels.

Rooftop solar reduces energy costs. Parking lot panels provide shade and cooling to reduce the “heat island” effects of direct sun on buildings, asphalt and concrete.

The San Diego region already generates the most photovoltaic electricity in the state. We have ample sunshine to provide clean, sustainable, local power for much of our needs.

Likewise, many residents work in the “Innovation Economy.” They are early adopters of new technology, including hybrid and electric vehicles. Many have installed rooftop solar and “power walls” to reduce household and transportation costs and greenhouse gas emissions, and protect air quality.

Combining free, clean and locally generated solar energy into all future housing designs will help mitigate some — but not all — of the higher housing costs facing San Diegans. Many more policies, including density regulations and zoning laws, will need to be modified to improve housing affordability.

But an essential step is for the City Council to think outside the current energy generation framework and take advantage of the abundant sunshine that makes San Diego so attractive, and use it to make life a bit more affordable.

Lori Saldaña, a former Assembly member, and engineer Bill Powers are board members on the Protect Our Communities Foundation.