SF Mayor Changing Building Codes to Permit Wind Turbines

San Francisco’s Climate Action Plan aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 25% of 1990 levels by 2012. To accomplish this goal, Mayor Gavin Newsom is now focusing on small scale wind generation and strengthening local building codes. This could be an effective strategy, since according to the U.S. Green Building Council, buildings account for 38% of CO2 emissions in the United States. Over the next 25 years, CO2 emissions from buildings are projected to grow faster than any other sector, with emissions from commercial buildings projected to grow the fastest. Buildings also consume 70% of the electricity load in the U.S., so the installation of local, renewable energy will ease energy demand and lower energy prices, as well as contribute to lowering greenhouse gasses.

Although solar panels may be installed on buildings in San Francisco, wind turbines are not currently allowed under local building codes. In the past, with the noise and space required by most wind turbines, there has been little demand for installing them in an urban setting. But wind power technology is changing, and it is now feasible to use small wind turbines to power your home or business. A few locals are starting to take advantage of that, such as Robin Wilson, who just finished building a green home called “La Casa Verde” in San Francisco’s Mission district. The home is powered with a combination of wind and solar thermal power, and is one of the 12 greenest homes in the world according to an upcoming series on the Discovery Channel.

Wind provides up to 40% of her home’s power, and as a complement to solar it can help San Francisco move further towards its goal of energy independence. Robin installed Southwest Wind’s Skystream, which only needs .5 of land, plugs into the regular grid, and is quiet and safe for wildlife. Other home and business-based wind turbines are also becoming a reality, such as Helix Wind’s turbines, which can sit on top of lampposts.

Unfortunately, the process of getting permission to install the turbine wasn’t easy. Robin had to appeal to her Supervisor to create a special use district. She then needed the help of staff at SF Environment to walk through a hearing process which has resulted in her being granted permission to do so only as a 1-year pilot program. She is also required to report back to the Building Inspection Commission on any neighborhood complaints, as well as on the system’s effectiveness.
At a tour of the home last Friday, Mayor Gavin Newsom announced that he was forming a Residential Wind Power Working Group under Director of Climate Protection Initiatives, Wade Crowfoot. The goal of the group is to change San Francisco’s building codes so that businesses and residents can install wind turbines without having to go through the lengthy, painstaking process that Robin did.

The task force will be comprised of 15 people including representatives from the SF Public Utilities Commission, SF Environment, and other renewable energy experts. The Mayor is hoping that with 3 – 4 months, they will have a recommendation for new building codes that permit the installation of wind turbines. This is a challenge, given that there is no precedent for changing codes in this way. Based on their recommendations, the city attorney will draft language that will then be reviewed by the SF Building Commission. If approved, this language would be codified with the Board of Supervisors, and then signed into law by the Mayor. The Mayor ended his remarks by saying “it is time for wind to make a public appearance.”


Janine Kubert is a sustainable management consultant for local businesses, government, and nonprofit organizations. She recently helped SF Environment develop a proposal for a San Francisco Waste Offset Fee, which will be included in the carbon tax legislation on the ballot this fall. Janine is currently pursuing her MBA at Presidio School of Management.

6 responses

  1. Isn’t it true, though, that power works even more effectively if it doesn’t go into the grid? I mean, it’s fine to sell back excess, but I’d always heard that the grid itself wastes a lot of power.

  2. I think overall, on average it loses about 10% in transmission. But these things aren’t generating megawatts of power and attempting to send it hundreds of kilometres. They’ll only make enough to benefit the immediately neighboring houses. Any Loss in transmission will be negligible.

  3. We have been following a similar discussion in our forum at land8lounge.com. You can see it here: http://www.land8lounge.com/forum/topic/show?id=2025679%3ATopic%3A5341
    To add to the discussion here, my wife and I have been commenting on the potential use of wind turbines on our street. We live on California street and experience extremely strong winds coming off of the ocean. I would classify it as a wind tunnel! A great opportunity for the use of turbines. My question is this: What happens when there is no wind- Do we use a combination of wind and solar?

  4. The alternative is to store in batteries which also lose power – in the 18% range. At least with the grid you have a constant supply when there is no wind generating power.

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