Could county follow lead of utility's solar project?
Union Tribune (2008-04-13) Dean Calbreath
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by Dean Calbreath
April 13, 2008
The billboard on the freeway shows a pair of stark alternatives: a dark, grimy, smoke-belching power plant versus a shiny white windmill, twirling in a field of green.
“Your choice,” the caption says. “Sunrise.”
It's safe to say that never has an ad for a power line been so classy.
But is this the true choice facing San Diego County? Must we really decide between the pollution-emitting behemoths that now provide the vast majority of our power and the Sunrise Powerlink, which would import solar, geothermal and wind energy from Imperial County? Or should we be taking a closer look at other alternatives?
San Diego Gas & Electric and its allies in the business community certainly believe Sunrise is the way to go. The Community Alliance for Sunrise Powerlink – a group made up of Chamber of Commerce types – is spending $45,000 on billboards and other ads to promote the project's benefit. They say that only with Sunrise can the utility hope to meet its state mandate of having 20 percent of its power come from renewable energy sources by 2010. (Actually, even if Sunrise comes on without a glitch, it won't be up until 2011 – though SDG&E might be able to meet the state requirements by using credits for future activity.)
But the people who most like that image of the windmill surrounded by greenery are the people who are most opposed to Sunrise. Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club object to the power line because it will cut a swath through San Diego County's backcountry. For several years, they have been arguing that there should be easier, cheaper and greener ways of generating power locally.
Their arguments gained a little more credence recently when Southern California Edison launched the nation's largest solar cell installation, which will generate the same amount of energy as a small power plant.
Edison's project, launched with fanfare two weeks ago, will put solar panels on 65 million square feet of rooftop area – totaling more than two square miles – on 125 commercial buildings in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
When the project is completed in five years, it will be capable of generating 225 megawatts of alternating-current electricity at peak hours – enough to serve 162,000 homes.
“These are the kinds of big ideas we need to meet California's long-term energy and climate-change goals,” said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has been a proponent of solar power. “I urge others to follow in their footsteps. If commercial buildings statewide partnered with utilities to put this solar technology on their rooftops, it would set off a huge wave of renewable energy growth.”
Edison already generates 16 percent of its power through renewable resources, compared with 5.5 percent for SDG&E. Pacific Gas & Electric, the state's other major utility, expects to hit 14 percent this year.
John Bryson, Edison International chairman and chief executive, noted that once the project is completed, the sunlight-dependent panels will be generating their peak power on the hottest days of summer – exactly when air conditioning and fans put the greatest strain on Southern California's power supplies.
“This is exactly like a utility power plant,” said Edison spokesman Gil Alexander. “We'll have an engineering firm draw up the specs; we'll buy the panels; we'll contract to have them installed; we'll own them; we'll operate them; and we'll connect the power to the nearest distribution circuit so it can benefit everyone in the region.”
Edison's solar array costs $875 million, or about $3.85 per watt. In comparison, Sunrise Powerlink will cost $1.5 billion for the power lines alone. And then SDG&E will buy energy from a number of sources. Its primary solar energy supplier in Imperial County is planning to use solar dishes, a technology estimated by the California Public Utilities Commission to cost about $6 per watt.
So why don't we try putting Edison-like solar arrays in San Diego County?
SDG&E officials say San Diego is not suitable for that kind of project. San Bernardino and Riverside, they say, include concentrations of industrialized space on sun-drenched land, making it perfect for solar panels. In contrast, much of San Diego's industrial space is along the coast, which is often plagued by the marine layer of low-lying clouds.
“The landscape where Edison's doing this is really good,” said SDG&E spokeswoman Christy Heiser. “We don't really have the same makeup as they do. What we have is typically closer to the coast, where we have the marine layer.”
But wait a second. Isn't “sunny” our middle name? This isn't London or even San Francisco. Don't we have plenty of sunny industrialized areas a couple of miles inland?
A climate map maintained by the California Energy Commission shows that such communities as Escondido, San Marcos, Rancho Bernardo, Ramona, Poway, Lakeside, Santee and El Cajon share the same climate zone as Riverside and San Bernardino. In addition, during periods of peak energy demand, such as midsummer afternoons, doesn't the marine layer typically burn away?
But we don't have the same kind of buildings as Riverside or San Bernardino, SDG&E says.
“The entire area that they're putting flat-roof solars on, that's mostly in the warehouse areas,” Mike Niggli, SDG&E's chief operating officer, said at a Public Utilities Commission hearing last week. “We don't have anywhere near as many warehouses as they do in terms of square footage.”
OK. But warehouses aren't the only places you can put solar panels. In 2005, the San Diego Regional Energy Study Group took an inventory of buildings in San Diego County capable of handling solar panels.
The study – written by SDG&E engineer Tom Bialek and Scott Anders, San Diego Regional Energy Office policy and planning director – estimated that by 2010, nonresidential buildings will have the capability of holding solar installations that could generate 1,575 megawatts of alternating-current electricity. Residential buildings will have a capability of 2,539 megawatts.
Bill Powers, a local energy consultant, estimates that putting solar panels in parking lots – such as an array at the Kyocera facility in Kearny Mesa – could generate an additional 3,000 megawatts of electricity. Installing solar panels on all nonresidential buildings and parking lots would come close to meeting the highest hourly demand San Diego County has ever had: a 4,636-megawatt peak last September.
Powers, a green energy advocate, suggested that strategically placed solar arrays could obviate the need for Sunrise.
During last week's utilities commission hearing, Administrative Law Judge Steven Weissman repeatedly asked Niggli why the company wasn't doing more with solar.
“Is there any reason SDG&E couldn't pursue a project like (Edison's)?” Weissman asked.
“It's possible for us to do that,” Niggli said, though he estimated that the company could get only 15 to 25 megawatts, compared with the 225 megawatts Edison is claiming.
“Why size it down so far?” Weissman asked. “Couldn't you use a project of that size?”
“Well, we could,” Niggli said.
“But you haven't pursued anything like that up to this point?”
“We pursued smaller developments.”
And so it went. Given the fact that SDG&E does not seem to have seriously pursued locally built solar energy as an alternative, it's hard to say whether it would be a cost-effective solution for San Diego. But Edison's success suggests that maybe there should be a third picture up on that billboard, with the bright sunshine of locally generated solar power vying with the pristine windmill and that smoky old power plant.