San Diego restaurant Coasterra has around 9,000 square feet of solar panels over its patio, providing an alternative to umbrellas or an awning.

Restaurant of The Rising Sun

The cost of installing solar panels at Coasterra, which opened in San Diego last August, was through the (solar) roof, and it’s going to take eight to 10 years to see a return on the investment. Still, it was a really valuable decision, says David Cohn, president and founder of Cohn Restaurant Group, which owns the venue.

“It’s making the green statement we want to make,” he says. Green and healthy have long been important to the Cohn Group. Its restaurants were among the first in San Diego to eliminate plastic pick-up bags, and it banished smoking before it was the law.

Located on Harbor Island, which overlooks the downtown San Diego skyline, Coasterra is a 28,000-square-foot modern Mexican waterfront restaurant. It has around 9,000 square feet of solar panels over its patio, which contains 60 percent of the eatery’s 300 seats. The panels were a modern alternative to umbrellas or an awning. The purpose of the solar panels is four-fold: The panels Cohn chose are interesting to look at—“techie and a little unusual,” he says, both when viewed from underneath and from outside. They also use a cutting-edge technology, which means they can absorb energy from the sun and provide shade with a beautiful geometric pattern over the patio tables below. Additionally, the panels reduce costs—a big incentive given that California’s utility rates are among the highest in the country. Lastly, there’s that green statement.

The panels’ costs were substantial—around $1.5 million, or about twice as much as the price of standard solar panels. That’s a significant addition to the $15 million costs for the restaurant, which is the largest stand-alone dining complex on the San Diego tidelands, based on seating capacity. The eight-to-10-year ROI on these specific panels is longer than with other types of solar panels, where the ROI is closer to five years, simply because these panels are more expensive. Produced by Lumos Solar in Boulder, Colorado, they are fused 6-millimeter glass panels with LSX modules embedded, allowing light to shine through but also providing protection from San Diego’s rare rain showers. Traditional solar panels would have made the patio dark, Cohn explains. 

It was important, he adds, that the panels be local (they were installed by HMT Electric in San Diego). The solar power generated from the panels provides a third of the restaurant’s energy, and thus powers the kitchen, which uses 33 percent of the electricity. Later this year, Cohn will add a floating solar event deck to Coasterra. The pavilion will hold up to 500 people and will include 6,000 square feet of panels, which are included in his $1.5 million costs. The addition of that space will complete the project that has been nine years in the making. A series of dramatic and tragic events contributed to the lengthy delays, including the murder of the principal architect and the inopportune sinking of the vessel that was to be the pavilion. Ironically, those delays also facilitated the end result: Initially, Cohn wasn’t planning to use solar panels in the restaurant, and according to Lumos, they weren’t even in existence until 2010.