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Solar Revolution

Sun Will Power Santa Monica Ferris Wheel

June 18, 1998|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Going in circles has never been an efficient means of transportation, but that's about to change.

Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier and Edison Technology Solutions will announce plans today to create the world's first solar-powered Ferris wheel.

By the end of August, riders of the nine-story high Pacific Wheel still won't be going anywhere, but at least they'll be doing it in an energy-efficient manner. This revolution in revolving is expected to save the tiny but trendy theme park about $7,000 a year in energy costs. Its overall monthly energy bills currently range from about $6,000 to $13,000.

"What a cool thing to have on the pier," said Mary Ann Powell, chief executive and general manager of Pacific Park, the 12-ride carnival-style amusement park that opened two years ago as part of a $15-million renovation of the Santa Monica Pier. "It's a good, clean source of energy."

Converting the Ferris wheel to operate on a 50-kilowatt photovoltaic system will cost about $365,000 and is being funded by the California Energy Commission, the U.S. Department of Energy and Edison Technology Solutions as part of a program to bring solar energy to cities.

Solar technology has existed for decades and provides power to remote locations around the world for such things as roadside telephones and lighting for parks, as well as for residential use. But as solar power becomes more affordable, utilities are using it to strengthen the power transmission grid by sprinkling photovoltaic solar panels in urban areas.

The Pacific Park Ferris wheel is the fourth "solar neighborhood" project installed by Edison Technology Solutions, a subsidiary of Rosemead-based Edison International and an affiliate of Southern California Edison. The others are at schools, providing additional energy for campus use, and at the Huntington Library in San Marino, where hundreds of solar panels bolster the aging wiring in the surrounding neighborhood.

The Ferris wheel project is part of a program to turn Santa Monica into the first "Solar City," said Vikram Budhraja, president of Edison Technology Solutions.

"High-visibility sites are being selected in order to enhance public awareness and education of the benefits of renewable solar energy," he said.

The goal is to develop photovoltaic systems that will provide energy to the existing power grid for the benefit of businesses and residences, Budhraja said. Santa Monica began developing a policy in 1993--dubbed "Sustainable City"--that calls for a 16% reduction in citywide energy use by 2000.

Photovoltaic panels have been put to many interesting uses around the world, such as heating the swimming pool for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. But Edison is unaware of any other Ferris wheel--named after George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., who created the engineering marvel for the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition--that spin courtesy of the sun's rays, said Steve Taylor, Edison's manager of the Santa Monica project.

The Pacific Wheel project will employ 660 photovoltaic cells on five rooftops around the park, generating more than 71,000 kilowatt-hours a year of solar energy.

When the sun is shining, the photovoltaic panels will produce more than enough electricity to keep the Pacific Wheel's 160 riders in motion and its more than 6,000 multicolored lights blinking, with excess power flowing into the rest of the park's electrical system. Existing wiring will remain in place, and the system will automatically switch to conventional energy sources when the solar panels are not generating enough energy.

"That's the biggest crack everyone makes: 'What happens when it gets dark?' " Powell said.

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