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Solar Power in the City

Photovoltaic panels at Huntington Library supply area homes with electricity. Experts call project model for future.

December 13, 1996|NICHOLAS RICCARDI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hundreds of yards from a room in the Huntington Library holding the oldest Bible written in English is what energy experts hope will be the new form of urban energy in the 21st century--row after row of solar panels.

Affixed to a concrete slab over an empty reservoir, the photovoltaic panels generate 100 kilowatts that are dispersed into Southern California Edison's power grid, providing power to the Huntington and the stately surrounding San Marino neighborhood.

Southern California Edison officials say the Huntington project, part of a unique "solar neighborhood" program, will be a model for bringing solar energy to cities.

Still considered by many to be an expensive novelty, solar power is increasingly used in remote areas where it is cheaper than running traditional electric power lines through forests and desert.

But as costs affiliated with solar energy begin to drop, power companies are experimenting with installing solar panels in the most unlikely of places--on parking structures, schools and even roof shingles.

"It's clean, it's quiet, it's environmentally acceptable," said Paul Klein, a spokesman for Southern California Edison. "And prices will come down the more it is used."

Last year, Southern California Edison realized that it needed to augment the 90-year-old power lines running under the streets outside the Huntington.

The overtaxed circuits were built in an age when there was less demand for electricity, back before homes along Oxford Street contained computers, televisions, VCRs and faxes.

Rather than rip up the street and inflict hundreds of hours of nerve-jangling jackhammering upon the well-heeled residents of serene San Marino, Southern California Edison officials scouted the area for a place to install solar panels, which would supply the additional power. Their eyes landed upon the Huntington, a world-renowned art library and gardens with acre upon acre of leafy open space.

Officials at the Huntington were eager to accommodate. "It really is a logical thing for an organization that is environmentally concerned . . . to do," said Huntington spokeswoman Catherine Babcock.

The panels went up over an empty reservoir and began operating late in the summer. Installation costs were shared by Southern California Edison, the federal Department of Energy and the Electric Power Resource Institute.

The final price tag was about $1 million--half of what it would have cost to rip up the three miles of street and thread it with new wiring.

It is Southern California Edison's second "solar neighborhood." Last year it installed solar panels on the roof of Monterey Hills Elementary School in South Pasadena. The program targets areas with aging or overburdened subterranean power lines, which can be replaced with cheaper solar paneling. An essential element is finding enough open space to accommodate the panels.

"Rather than just pick an empty lot somewhere, you want to pick an area that has a dual appeal," said Stephen F. McKenery, a manager at Southern California Edison. Such sites, like the Huntington, are rare. Southern California Edison is looking at schools and parks in Orange County, Santa Monica and the San Gabriel Valley to find its next neighborhood.

The solar neighborhoods, which each serve about 1,000 customers, are not the only incursions of solar energy into metropolitan areas.

The Air Quality Management District in Diamond Bar has solar panels atop its carport, and Southern California Edison is discussing a similar project with San Marino, officials said. The company has also developed a "solar shingle" for roofs.

The Sacramento Municipal Utility District has recruited 250 homeowners willing to pay $6 a month to become experimental solar power generators.

These environmentally conscious customers have allowed the utility to install solar panels on their roofs to produce power for the utility--even though none of the energy goes directly to their homes.

Southern California Edison hopes that the solar neighborhoods catch on outside the state. It's possible--a Japanese executive toured the Huntington project last week to explore whether California know-how might translate to his country.

"We have no energy. We have to get all our energy from outside Japan," said Masruo Yamano, executive vice president of Sanyo Electric. "But we have plenty of sunshine."

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