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EARTHWATCH : On the Bright Side : The Middle East crisis is making solar energy an even better bargain for electric companies.

September 06, 1990|RICHARD KAHLENBERG

This column is about boycotting Saddam Hussein and hooking up to solar power. Impossible? Never happen in Ventura? Well, it's already happening here--and the only way Iraq could cut off that energy source would be to invade the sun.

As usual with this column, I've got an environmental slant on a current news story. The Middle East crisis, frightening as it is, may be provoking America into environmental virtue.

Locally, our electric power company, Southern California Edison, has rather quietly been putting together the wherewithal to survive the oil shock of the '90s, not by security stockpiling fossil fuels but by cutting deals for solar-generated power.

Before you send them a big Valentine, please know that for Ventura residents, solar energy is the source of only 2% of electric power. (It's zero percent in the city of Los Angeles, by the way.) It's going to be 6% here in 36 months, thanks to a deal SCE has with Luz International, a privately held California company with solar facilities in Daggett, Cramer Junction and Harper Lake, all communities in the Mojave Desert. This schedule was in place before the Iraq mess. And it can be accelerated, I'm happy to report.

My remark about waiting with the Valentine is based on the history of the solar hookup between us and the sun, courtesy of SCE, which had to be coaxed into virtue. The oil crunch of the '70s had prompted utility companies in the direction of natural gas. Sacramento, in cahoots with Jimmy Carter, mandated price supports for new companies that went into solar generating. (Technically, it's just rigging big reflectors to heat the boilers to run steam turbines--smokeless heat instead of oil flames.)

These solar producers had to sell directly to the local utility (no separate connections to your corner solar generator). And the private utilities had to buy it. Well, science and history marched on. Oil and gas prices went up and down, but solar generation prices only went one way. For oil-dependent, smog-choked Venturans, it was the good way--down--to 8 cents per kilowatt hour. That's nearly what oil- and gas-generated power cost right now. In other words, Saddam Hussein has made solar competitive with oil- and natural gas-generated power. And we are never going to run out of sun.

SCE has two plants in the county (rigged to oil or gas, depending on which is cheaper at any given time) with wires running to your house. And there are wires running from the Luz facilities in the Mojave Desert. These steam generators run on superheated liquids (a giant oil radiator, really) piped in from a field of giant curved mirrors that catch the sun and focus it on the liquid-filled pipes.

Are you still with me? We're still in the Mojave now, rigging something to wire over to Ventura. One square meter of reflectors means the Middle East sells us one less barrel of oil this year. So far we've got almost half a million reflectors in the California desert. SCE has contracted to buy power from a new Luz facility that will be three times as vast--1.7 million square meters.

In 36 months, with only 6% of the county's power coming from solar, we'll be non-importing and non-burning 2 million barrels a year.

Now, if for some reason (and I can think of about 20 right away) SCE should tell its supplier Luz, "You're so competitive price-wise, why not go all the way to 100%," well, it takes only nine months to rig such solar facilities--not nine years, as with conventional generating rigs.

The day before yesterday, at the request of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Luz submitted a proposal to begin supplying L.A. SCE may beef up its already existing deal as well. Is there a trend here? Stay tuned.

DR, DAN HUBIG / For The Times

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