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Southern California Edison Leads the Way in Renewable Energy



California is arguably the nation's trailblazer in curbing greenhouse gas emissions. The state has set an aggressive goal of requiring 20 percent of the energy sold here to come from renewable sources within two years. Yesterday, we heard how San Diego Gas & Electric is struggling to meet the target. Today, KPBS Reporter Amita Sharma reports on how the state's largest utility Southern California Edison has made huge strides in finding clean energy.


Under a stifling sun, workers hoist racks atop a warehouse in Fontana. The racks will soon hold 33,000 charcoal colored-solar-panels made of glass. 


Nelson: From mid morning until mid-afternoon, they'll have a very, very strong ability to catch the sun, convert that energy into electricity. And then that will be put directly on the grid at a transformer that will be right out in front of the building that the panels are on top of."


Southern California Edison's Mark Nelson says the company plans to lay solar panels on 150 commercial rooftops covering two square miles. Those panels are expected to generate 250 megawatts of solar electricity….enough to power 162,000 homes.


Nelson: This is the first rooftop solar project that's been done by a utility in California.


It's also the largest solar panel installation program in the country.


Nelson: We saw that there were a lot of very large distribution warehouse roofs in very sunny areas like the Inland Empire.   The power comes in on peak with solar. We found that in very large projects, we could do it and we could do it very cost effectively.


Edison is paying half the cost of older solar technology. ($3.50 a watt)

Bill Powers is a San Diego engineer and environmentalist.


Powers: What we need is for our utilities to be embracing this mass production, lay it everywhere as simple and inexpensive as possible.


Powers wants San Diego Gas & Electric to replicate Edison's project. That makes more sense, he says, than the company trying to build the controversial 1.5 billion dollar, high-voltage transmission line called Sunrise Powerlink. SDG&E recently announced a solar initiative similar to Edison's but when complete, it will serve fewer than one-third of the homes Edison's project will.


Powers: It's a start and while it may not meet the mandate on its own, it's part of the solution.


SDG&E's Jennifer Briscoe says Sunrise PowerLink will connect it to renewable resources in the Imperial Valley.


Briscoe: The Imperial Valley has been designated as a real place that has sources of solar, wind, geothermal and it's untapped. It's just waiting for the mechanism and the transmission to be able to bring it out of that valley.


But Edison is spending almost half a billion dollars less on its solar project than SDG&E wants to spend on the Sunrise Powerlink.


Edison is relatively close to meeting the state's 20 percent deadline on renewable energy. San Diego Gas & Electric is not. Edison gets 16 percent of its energy from renewable supplies. San Diego Gas & Electric gets 6 percent.


Stuart Hemphill is Edison's vice president of alternative power. He says Edison shifted its focus to renewable energy 28 years ago.


Hemphill: We were a pioneering company back then. We developed some of the first large-scale solar projects. We were actively involved in geothermal projects at the time. And we did research and development in wind and other technologies.


Many of Edison's clean energy contracts were signed in the 1980s. So Edison may have an edge over other utilities. And Hemphill says the remaining 4 percent to meet the 2010 target will be difficult to meet. Under its best case scenario, SDG&E will arrive at the deadline with no more than the 16 percent Edison has already achieved.


Amita Sharma, KPBS News.


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