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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
EARTH DAY = EVERY DAY: For the rest of us, it's April 20.Cari and Pat Ferraro have taken advantage of San Jose's progressive green-building policies by creating a solar-run 'farm' a mile from City Hall.

Solar Power Play

Mayor Reed puts some political muscle behind his vision with a push to make green building mandatory

By Erin Sherbert

MAYOR Chuck Reed's stated plan to make San Jose into California's green-tech capital has largely involved a bunch of inspirational speeches and feel-good proclamations. Now, the idea may be growing some teeth.

On Monday, a team of city staffers traveled to Tucson, Ariz., to attend the first annual meeting of Solar America Cities, where they received an award for the city's solar initiatives—and a slice of a $2.4 million federal grant, which will be divvied up between 12 municipalities. Four days earlier, the mayor had wowed the crowd at another green-energy event—the Clean Tech Open—when he challenged solar energy companies to figure out a way for residents to install solar panels on their homes for free.

Neither of these developments will likely allow Reed to make good on his far-reaching pledge to build or retrofit at least 50 million square feet of green buildings by 2022.

But this proposal might: Reed is also pushing for new policies to make green- building mandatory.

Forcing private developers to build green homes and offices is certain to meet with some opposition, but Reed says he believes the policy would just be catching up to a growing demand for more green buildings.

"The market has already moved to green building in many cases," Reed says.

If the City Council signs off on this proposal this summer, it truly would make San Jose among the leaders in green building policy in California. Until now, most cities have limited their efforts to greening their own city halls, libraries and other public facilities.

But that's starting to change.

With global warming concerns penetrating the public conscience, cities are starting to feel pressure to do their part in cutting back on emissions and energy usage, and green building is quickly emerging as a trend. In Silicon Valley, Palo Alto is set to approve green building mandates next month. But San Jose's green building proposal is by far the most comprehensive in the state.

The city is proposing that commercial developments that are at least 25,000 square feet meet the third-highest standard for energy efficiency set by the U.S. Green Building Council in its Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) program.

By 2011, that requirement would expand to include any commercial project 10,000 square feet or larger. Also, housing projects of 10 or more units would be judged according to the Build It Green rating system, which is a report card that exceeds the state's building codes, requiring improvements from compact fluorescent lighting to solar panels.

The average green building saves energy by 50 percent, cuts CO2 emissions by 40 percent and reduces solid waste by 70 percent, according to the U.S. Green Council.

Builders Push Back

If there's anything that makes developers cringe, it's the prospect of government mandates. In this case, some home builders here say mandates are not needed, because they are already incorporating green building designs into their projects.

These new mandates are perhaps more unwelcome because of their timing—San Jose is already pushing new policies that will force residential developers to build more affordable housing citywide.

"I think any mandates deter developers," says Jenniffer Rodriguez, executive director of the Home Builders Association of Northern California, which represents more than 1,000 builders in the region. "In the current environment we don't want to do anything that will discourage development."

The city will meet with developers over the next month to work out this conflict. Until then, Rodriguez says the home builders organization hasn't taken an official position on the city's proposed green building mandates.

But Reed is moving ahead with his plans to make San Jose the model of green technology in building. In fact, that program is just a sliver of his overall green vision for San Jose.

Earlier this year, the City Council adopted Reed's Green Vision plan, which has aggressive energy-saving standards and clean-tech commitments that raise the bar for green policy for California cities.

Under his plan, Reed wants the city to cut its energy usage in half and rely entirely on renewable energy sources within the next two decades. A critical component of the energy standards is creating a solar-powered city.

Reed is demanding more solar rooftops throughout San Jose; not just on commercial buildings, but homes, too. Yet, the price of installing solar is still a barrier for homeowners. It can cost on average about $30,000 for a homeowner to install solar systems, Reed says.

The city has already worked to smooth out the permit process, making it quicker and much cheaper for residents who want to go solar. Reed also wants the city to work with companies to provide buying packages, where residents can purchase blocks of solar panel systems at a discounted price. And the mayor upped the ante last week, when he challenged solar companies to come up with ways to make installation a no-cost proposition.

(Reed says that two solar companies told him they are up for the challenge, but wouldn't say which companies because they aren't quite ready to announce plans yet.)

"The race is on to see who will be first," Reed said. "Lots of people would be interested if they didn't have to write a multithousand-dollar check to get started."

Another big piece of the solar problem is that it can take several months for residents to actually start using their solar systems once installed. In one instance, city officials said a San Jose resident waited six months before the electric company flipped the switch on his solar system; he was waiting for Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to do the required inspections as well as the paperwork to process through the state so that the solar company could get its rebate.

Power Surge

City officials are working out ways to get state and federal lawmakers on their side to help push solar and wind industries here forward. They want to create a Bay Area–wide Green Vision to elevate the political clout in Sacramento and on Capitol Hill. For instance, if the Bay Area can go to Washington, D.C., to lobby lawmakers for solar and wind tax credits, it's probably going to have a greater effect than if San Jose went at it alone, said Jeff Janssen, the mayor's senior policy adviser.

San Jose is also creating alternative energy alliances with cities that are hotbeds of developing solar and wind technologies, including Austin, Texas, and Portland, Ore., to help boost the political voice for solar and wind, Janssen said.

"I think there is enough renewable business and green business to go around for all of our cities," Janssen said. "If we work together to make sure the laws passed are conducive to those companies starting here and growing here, then San Jose and the Bay Area will win."

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