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SDG&E Reverses Stance on Solar Technology

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Aired 4/20/09

Consumer groups and San Diego Gas & Electric have been at odds for years over everything from rate increases to the need for the Sunrise Power Link. But now a deal may be in the works between one of those groups and the company on what solar technology might be the best for the region. An agreement could save consumers could save $125 million. KPBS Reporter Amita Sharma has details.
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(Photo: Engineer Steve Robbins displays a sheet of 'thin film' solar cells at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) March 3, 2009 in Golden, Colorado. John Moore/Getty Images )

Last summer, with great fanfare, SDG&E announced an ambitious solar project.  It was a plan to spend $250 million installing solar panels atop parking lots. The panels would generate enough power to serve 50,000 homes. That's about 2 percent of the company's demand.

Here's SDG&E's Jennifer Briscoe in August talking about the project.

"It's an exciting initiative here and I think you're going to see emerging technologies and the investor-owned utilities looking for a variety of answers to our future energy needs," Briscoe said.

But consumer groups and experts didn't believe SDG&E was pursuing the best available technology.  The company planned to use a method called solar tracking which experts say is outdated and too expensive. San Diego engineer and environmentalist Bill Powers said SDG&E  didn't want to make solar look too good.

"It is inconvenient for SDG&E to be demonstrating how inexpensively you can put PV on a roof," he says. "If it were me and my objective was climate change and addressing it, I would be paving the roofs of San Diego using the absolute lowest cost available to drive down the cost of electricity."

That is exactly what Southern California Edison did last year when started a process to place panels on 150 commercial rooftops covering two square miles. That project is expected to power 162,000 homes, triple SDG&E's goal. What's more, SCE used new thin-film technology which costs about half of  the older technology SDG&E had planned to use. And Edison's Mark Nelson says cost isn't the only benefit to thin-film.

"During the early morning and late afternoon when the sun is at a steeper angle, it still collects power pretty well," says Nelson. "So that's really one of the big advantages of thin film."

SDG&E's choice of a solar technology that is more costly and less efficient brought a former employee out of retirement to testify as an expert on behalf of San Diego's Utility Consumers Action Network. In January, David Croyle told regulators - in hundreds of pages of testimony -- that SDG&E wanted to spend 250 million dollars on what he called a "wrong-minded plot." Croyle also noted that under Public Utilities Commission regulations, the company earns more if it spends more.

"This, even though other solar technologies exist that are cheaper and more effective," Croyle says.   

But SDG&E's position appeared to change last month. In testimony submitted to the PUC, it indicated it was open to using thin-film solar technology. The company also said it would put the installation process up for bid. That could cut costs by 50 percent.  SDG&E refused to comment but the company's testimony represented a dramatic turnaround says UCAN's Michael Shames.

"I was actually really glad that I was sitting because I might have fallen," he says. "It's pretty unusual when SDG&E is as open as they were to alternative ways of doing things. So I thought it was refreshing and surprising. Those are huge concessions and it made what was clearly an unpalatable proposal and a very expensive proposal into something we think is in the public interest," he says. 

So what changed SDG&E's perspective?
 
"Apparently our testimony. We had formal expert testimony submitted by two reputable experts including one person who had worked at SDG&E prompted SDG&E to respond to our testimony by saying yeah you know they make some pretty good points," says Shames. "They really couldn't effectively rebut it and were open to the notion of revising their plan."

That plan is still being revised. Regulators have ordered both SDG&E and UCAN come up with a compromise solar proposal by today.

Amita Sharma, KPBS News.

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