San Diego County’s energy-saving strategies led to LEED Platinum

Borrego Springs Library is a 14,100-square-foot building built on concrete pilings. One end of the building is elevated two feet from the ground and the other eight feet. The design mitigates potential damage from flash floods, which are frequent in the area. The building is also LEED Gold and zero net energy.

San Diego County’s energy-saving strategies led to LEED Platinum

Fall 2019 | Written by Katharine Logan

Each year, delegates from the County of San Diego’s Energy and Sustainability Division head to Greenbuild to find out what’s new. Often, they find a few nuggets of information to work into their sustainability plan. At the 2016 conference, they heard about USGBC’s imminent launch of the LEED for Communities pilot. With the county’s record of progressive sustainability initiatives, they saw at once that the rating system would be a great fit.

“We knew we would score pretty well,” says Charley Marchesano, chief of the County of San Diego’s Energy and Sustainability Division. “I wasn’t sure we were going to get Platinum.” But that’s exactly where the county landed, becoming the first in the state of California—and only the second in the country—to achieve Platinum-level certification under the new program.

Of 14 key metrics for sustainability—including energy, water, waste, transportation, education, health, safety, prosperity, and equitability—the county’s great strength is energy. Its near-perfect score of 32 out of a possible 33 points reflects such initiatives as a zero net energy (ZNE) portfolio plan, a strategic energy plan, and an ongoing commitment to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. “We really are aggressive in that area,” says Marchesano.

The county’s Zero Net Energy Portfolio Plan, with several phases already well under way, for example, aims to reduce the energy footprint of its facilities by half, down from 1.6 billion kBtu/yr, by 2030. The plan entails a multipronged approach to improving efficiency and increasing renewable energy, with the expectation that some sites will be able to achieve ZNE.

Charley Marchesano is the chief of the County of San Diego’s Energy and Sustainability Division. Photo: Adeeb Howrani

The new 55,000-square-foot North Coastal Live Well Health Center, located in the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency building, is both LEED Platinum and zero net energy.

Ferguson Pape Baldwin Architects, C.W. Driver, and Architect Manuel Oncina designed the new 13,500-square-foot branch library for the County of San Diego. The Alpine Library achieved both LEED Gold certification and Zero Net Energy certification via Living Future Institute.

Initial efficiencies from low-hanging fruit—such as staff training and smart energy management technologies—are expected to get the ball rolling, saving between 5 and 10 percent. Installing large-scale photovoltaics at seven county sites will cut another 12 percent, with a ZNE requirement for all new county facilities bringing in another six. (The county has four ZNE buildings already and another six in the pipeline.)

For facilities that are too small to generate their own solar power, the County of San Diego coordinated a deal with its local utility, SDG&E, to purchase regionally produced 100 percent renewable energy—that’s another 5 percent of savings. It will then focus on its heavy users: detention, office, and health, which together account for 70 percent of the county’s energy bills; multiple efficiency measures in these sectors are expected to cut consumption a further 17 to 22 percent. Then, the final stretch will boost onsite renewables even further. “We have already purchased 100 percent renewable power from our local utility for all these sites via a limited program they have called Eco Choice. This has been in place for more than two years,” says Marchesano. “We are expecting to enter into another series of Power Purchase Agreements for additional photovoltaic power to be built on our properties. We’ll most likely start that effort around 2025. Currently, we are building several photovoltaic systems on our property, which is part of the initial onsite renewables piece of the plan.”

In addition to reduced environmental impact and improved resilience, the County of San Diego expects that reaching its energy efficiency goals will mean significant savings for taxpayers. County professionals also hope that leading by example will encourage similar efforts in local government agencies and private businesses. “We’ve been trying to practice what we preach,” says Marchesano.

Improving resilience county-wide, promoting more sustainable land conservation and development, and reducing water consumption represent additional areas of strength for San Diego county. Surprisingly, however, the county achieved only average results in the water conservation section of its LEED for Communities scorecard, earning four of a possible 15 credits.

Marchesano was taken aback at the numbers. “We thought we would do better,” he explains. With a slew of ambitious water conservation measures in place, that expectation wasn’t unreasonable. Water-based initiatives in the county include major landscaping changes to eliminate water-intensive schemes, as well as the retrofit of several chilled water plants to cut backwash and associated water loss, combining for savings Marchesano describes as huge. The county has also implemented a stringent water conservation ordinance. “So, it was just kind of odd that we didn’t score that well,” he says.

The problem, according to a performance summary published by the County of San Diego’s Communications Office, was that water use reporting under LEED for Communities is based on estimates of domestic use only, and is limited to the unincorporated area. Data extrapolated from water authority service area population totals excluded commercial and agricultural uses, which meant that many of the county’s water conservation efforts didn’t count. “It threatened to keep us out of Platinum,” says Marchesano, “but at the end of the day, my team figured out how to get there.”

In Marchesano’s view, the foremost benefit of certification is recognition for San Diego’s longstanding, ongoing commitment to sustainability. “I think it incentivized us to keep pushing,” he says. The accolade has also been valuable in raising awareness of the Energy and Sustainability Division’s efforts. “It really helped us get support—more support—from our board,” he says, “which is where the money comes from to keep the momentum going.”

Even with Platinum certification, the County of San Diego won’t be resting on its laurels. The county is moving forward on implementing its renewable energy program, building 13 megawatts of renewable power at its facilities, with projects already complete and several others under construction. At press time, a road map for converting a large portion of the fleet to electric vehicles over the next 10 years was scheduled to go before the board of supervisors in October, as was a proposal to form a community-choice energy entity to increase the availability of renewable power to county residents. “Sustainability’s a big topic,” says Marchesano, “and it’s keeping us very busy.”

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