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Environmentalists sue to overturn San Diego County climate plan

An environmental nonprofit is suing San Diego County to reverse its climate change plan after officials falsely awarded a no-bid contract to a University of California, San Diego graduate school that it says has hidden financial ties are between one of its researchers and utilities.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in San Diego Superior Court by the Protect Our Communities Foundationclaims the county report, co-produced with researcher David Victor, seriously understates the promise of locally generated solar power.

Instead, the “regional decarbonization framework” Victor helped write for San Diego County focused on large-scale projects requiring a multibillion-dollar investment in new power lines, the suit says.

“The technical report was prepared by a consultant who has not disclosed his close ties to the investor-owned utility industry, and specifically San Diego Gas & Electric Co.,” the legal complaint adds.

Utilities such as SDG&E are downplaying the role of solar for homes and rooftops in favor of large-scale solar parks because the industrial systems need new and improved power lines that generate greater profits, the lawsuit alleges.

“The investor-owned utility sector benefits financially from the construction of capital projects such as transmission lines, but does not benefit from such profits from rooftop solar and parking lots,” it states.

The suit argues that the county evaded its own bidding process when it submitted the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy to make the framework.

It is asking a judge to order the county to withdraw approval and implementation of the plan and outsource the study to a competing bid.

County officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit or allegations.

The Regents of the University of California — who are named as genuine parties with an interest in the matter because they oversee UC San Diego and its research groups — also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

SDG&E also did not immediately comment, although the company has publicly committed to working towards achieving carbon neutrality by 2045.

David Victor

(Courtesy of UC San Diego)

Victor, a professor of innovation and public policy at UC San Diego, said in an email that the university does not comment on pending litigation.

In addition to his academic work, Victor also chairs the community engagement panel set up by Edison in Southern California to oversee the decommissioning of the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant.

The power plant north of Oceanside was shut down after a radiation leak caused by a flawed plan to replace the steam generators. Majority owner Edison said the upgrade would add decades of life to the plant; instead, taxpayers were charged about $3.3 billion in closing costs.

Victor has previously said his work is based on the panel strictly on science and the safe storage of nuclear waste.

The UC San Diego researcher is also a longtime advisor to the Electric Power Research Institute, a research group funded by investor-owned utilities.

The Protect Our Communities Foundation said it uncovered documents showing San Diego Gas & Electric donated more than $840,000 to the Electric Power Research Institute in 2021, the same year UC San Diego was awarded the contract for the provincial climate change plan.

The contribution for 2021 was about six times the amount donated by SDG&E over the past two years, the lawsuit said. At the same time, the research group agreed to donate $900,000 to UC San Diego “to support research being conducted by David G. Victor,” it said.

The lawsuit alleges that UC San Diego withheld information from the county about its financial ties to the electric power industry when it accepted the no-bid contracts.

“GPS has not disclosed that Victor has had a long-standing involvement in the research and development arm of the investor-owned utility company, the Electric Power Research Institute,” the lawsuit said.

“Most of EPRI’s members are electric utilities that fund EPRI for specific research projects.”

San Diego County awarded the contract without a bid to UC San Diego to create a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the county. The 522 page report released in 2021 said local governments should take a leading role in achieving what is called net zero carbon – the point at which the amount of carbon removed from the atmosphere equals the amount emitted.

County officials last year increased the original contract with UC San Diego from $430,000 to $641,000 to suggest ways to implement the framework, which the Protect Our Communities Foundation claims was falsely skewed toward utility-scale renewables — large commercial wind and solar fields.

The lawsuit alleges that Victor and other researchers failed to factor in the $3.9 billion cost of new transmission lines — and the 10 years or more the project would take to develop.

According to the lawsuit, the report also underestimated the production potential for rooftop solar, pegging rooftop solar capacity at about 3,400 megawatts, while Google software put the potential production level above 14,000 megawatts.

“The technical report completely and irrationally failed to quantify the benefits of customer-generated solar energy, and also arbitrarily reduced the potential contribution of rooftop solar and parking lots to decarbonization,” the lawsuit said.

The issue of developing large-scale wind and solar projects instead of rooftop solar that doesn’t require long-haul transmission upgrades has been vexing policymakers for years.

In 2021, an East County community group called Save Jacumba sued San Diego County regarding the Board of Trustees’ approval of a 600-acre solar and battery storage project at Jacumba Hot Springs.

The project would cause serious environmental damage and make Jacumba “an ugly, foreboding industrial eyesore,” the lawsuit said.

Plaintiffs lost their case in September but promised to take their case to a state appeals court.

And in November, a San Diego Superior Court jury awarded $6.5 million to two Valley Center landowners who claimed that a nearby solar park had damaged their property values.

The Protect Our Communities Foundation’s lawsuit comes two weeks after more than 100 UC faculty members and graduate students signed a letter to UC Regents objecting to a spate of company-sponsored research published by a UC Riverside center.

The five-page open letter questioned the academic value of the work presented by the UC Riverside School of Business Center for Economic Forecasting and Development, which is operated by a for-profit consulting firm called Beacon Economics and pays royalties to the university.

“Beacon co-owner and center director Christopher Thornberg identifies himself as a UCR adjunct professor, but he does not appear in the UCR business school faculty directory or UCR profile directory,” the letter said.

“In fact, none of the Center for Economic Forecasting staff are UCR faculty,” it added.

In recent years, the UC Riverside center released a Lyft-funded study in support of Proposition 22, a 2020 ballot measure that sought to classify delivery and rideshare drivers as independent contractors, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The center also released a report paid for by the California Restaurant Assn. conclude that restaurant owners had been adversely affected by increases in the state’s minimum wage.

Thornberg defended the center’s work.

“We don’t sell answers. We sell analysis,” he told The Times. “I insist on 100% control of our findings, period.”

A spokesperson for UC Riverside said administrators requested Beacon Economics to amend a recently published report. The school’s agreement with the company expired in December, but a new agreement is being negotiated, The Times reported.

The Protect Our Communities Foundation lawsuit has yet to receive a hearing date.

McDonald writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.