California dubs San Diego climate activist ‘godmother’ of 100% clean energy

San Diego was the first major city in the country to adopt a 100-percent clean energy mandate — an ambitious pledge subsequently embraced by California, numerous other states and now President Joe Biden.

San Diego’s target to phase out electricity from fossil fuels by 2035 is largely the result of one woman: Nicole Capretz.

The California Energy Commission recently announced that Capretz, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Climate Action Campaign, would be inducted into its recently established Clean Energy Hall of Fame.

The agency called Capretz the “godmother of 100 percent clean energy policy,” saying she helped inspire the state’s goal of establishing an all-green electrical grid by 2045.

“This, simply put, would not of happened without Nicole’s tenacity and leadership,” said David Hochschild, chair of the California Energy Commission. “She was the one who really started that movement.”

Capretz championed her vision from outside and inside San Diego City Hall, efforts that eventually led to the adoption of the city’s Climate Action Plan and its bold clean-energy target in 2015.

After working as an environmental justice advocate, as well as a staffer for former Councilwoman Donna Frye, Capretz was brought on by then-interim Mayor Todd Gloria in 2013 to draft the climate plan.

As the document’s lead architect, she fought to ensure the plan would have aggressive and enforceable targets. The blueprint’s linchpin is that it’s legally binding, a distinction that was hotly debated behind closed doors.

Hochschild said that San Diego’s embrace of a 100-percent clean energy future played a key role in helping to pass Senate Bill 100, the state law requiring that all electrical retail sales come from zero-carbon sources, such as wind and solar power, by 2045.

“I was in those conservations,” he said. “For a major city like San Diego to adopt a binding policy to get to 100 percent clean electricity was path-breaking, and it really gave the Legislature confidence.”

Ultimately, Capretz would leave the city to start her watchdog organization, formed to ensure the climate plan comes to fruition, while also encouraging other cities to follow suit.

Under relentless pressure from Capretz and her allies, Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer would eventually adopt the plan and, in 2018, embrace the creation of a government-run alternative to San Diego Gas & Electric in order to pursue the 100-percent clean energy mandate.

“Working with Nicole is truly inspirational,” said Mary Yang, a biotech entrepreneur who sits on Climate Action Campaign’s board of directors and who nominated Capretz for her recent award. “She is extremely focused. She is very thoughtful, very strategic and very generous.”

Since then, nearly all cities in the region have adopted some type of climate plan, many with clean-energy targets, include Chula Vista, Del Mar, Encinitas, Escondido, Imperial Beach, La Mesa and Solana Beach.

This summer, the county of San Diego joined the city’s so-called community-choice program, San Diego Community Power, which will also serve Chula Vista, La Mesa, Encinitas and Imperial Beach. Under the arrangement, the government-run alternative sets rates and inks purchase agreements with power providers on behalf of its customers, while SDG&E continues to operate the poles and wires that deliver that electricity.

“Nicole Capretz has been a huge champion of clean energy in San Diego, leading development of San Diego’s landmark Climate Action Plan and advocating for community choice energy,” said Masada Disenhouse, executive director of San Diego350.

Today, Capretz and her 13-person team continue to advocate throughout the San Diego region, issuing annual assessments that track local progress on slashing greenhouse-gas emissions. Climate Action Campaign, for example, recently released a report slamming the city of San Diego for lack of progress on a pledge to get people out of their cars and onto public transit.

Capretz’s tough tactics have routinely made elected officials as well as SDG&E bristle, but she said she’s dedicated to holding leaders accountable regardless.

“It’s never easy to go up against powerful interests, and it doesn’t make me a lot of friends,” she said, “but it’s not about me or my popularity. It’s about protecting our future.”

Gloria declined to comment for this story.