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Foggy San Francisco Sees Bright Future in Solar Cells

The city unveils the first of several projects intended to ease reliance on fossil fuels for electricity.

November 22, 2002|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — This famously foggy city, home to cold, cloudy and often capricious weather, now wants to lighten its image to something decidedly sunlit: as the nation's leading municipal producer of solar power and renewable energy.

On an unseasonably bright Thursday, Mayor Willie Brown unveiled what officials hope will be the first of several solar power refurbishment projects to make the city less reliant on aging fossil fuel-burning generators.

Capitalizing on a $100-million public solar power bond issue passed by voters in 2001, officials soon will begin installing thousands of photovoltaic panels atop the Moscone Convention Center.

The $5.2-million project, which includes a retrofit of existing power and heating systems, is expected to save the city $200,000 in energy costs and enough power annually to generate electricity for more than 1,000 homes.

Claiming that such solar power conversions eventually will pay for themselves, officials hope to set an energy-saving standard for other cities nationwide.

"San Francisco voters have spoken," Brown said of last year's bond measure, which passed by an overwhelming 73%. "They want cleaner, greener sources of energy that reduce our reliance on polluting power generated out of the area."

Brown said officials have heard from 15 cities -- including San Diego, Denver and New York -- that may seek to emulate San Francisco's precedent of publicly funding a transition to renewable energy, which eventually could bring down the cost of solar power.

Singer Bonnie Raitt -- a longtime advocate of renewable energy -- drew raucous applause from a crowd of about 200 when she described the solar power movement as a foreign policy alternative to waging war in oil-producing regions of the world.

"Solar power is the most patriotic act we can commit," the singer said in her signature raspy voice. "It makes our country less dependent on foreign oil and less likely to go to war."

Referring to last year's statewide energy crisis, Raitt called the solar project an insurance policy so that "no gas or power company can ever hold our state for ransom ever again."

Supervisor Tom Ammiano likened the solar power push to a song in the movie "The Wizard of Oz."

"San Francisco is often referred to as Oz," Ammiano said. "The movie includes a little ditty that goes, 'Step out of the woods, step out of the dark and into the light.' Well, San Francisco has stepped out into the light on its journey down the yellow brick road."

Ed Smeloff, assistant general manager for power policy at the city's Public Utilities Commission, said solar power and San Francisco are not incompatible concepts.

"There's this misconception that we're all fog," he told the City Hall gathering. "We need to recast San Francisco from the foggy city to the sunny city."

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