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Ventura County Turns to Alternative Energy

Environment: Its fire stations are getting solar panels, and the official fleet now includes 'hybrid' vehicles.


In a major bid to plug into cheaper, "greener" energy sources, Ventura County has begun installing solar panels on fire stations and buying hybrid vehicles powered by gas and electricity.

Twelve of the county's 31 fire stations are at least partly run on solar energy, and another dozen may join them soon.

"As a result of the ongoing electrical crisis in California, the county looked at ways it can be both self-reliant and also be a good citizen by reducing its load on the grid in general," said county Energy Manager David Inger. "The California Energy Commission offers a very large incentive for solar, which basically cut the cost in half."

With rebates and state grants, it costs about $7,000 to install each solar system on a firehouse. They reduce a station's daily electricity use by up to 25%.

The stations were chosen because they are large, are open 24 hours a day and consume a lot of electricity.

In addition, most are in neighborhoods where people can see them and perhaps be inspired to buy a system, said Abbe Berns, administrative manager for the county Fire Department.

Libraries, jails, police departments or community centers may be future candidates, depending on funding availability.

Ventura County joins other communities around the country moving toward cheaper, cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

City and county buildings in San Francisco, San Diego, Oakland, Chicago and Los Angeles are being either totally or partly powered by solar energy, officials said.

Meanwhile, the county has purchased eight hybrid Toyota Priuses this year.

"We will explore any technology that will reduce emissions and enhance fuel economy," said Ventura County transportation manager Dennis Scamardo.

County Supervisor Steve Bennett, a strong supporter of alternative energy, will ask the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to buy several more hybrid cars to replace the Chevy Cavaliers in the county fleet.

"If we have a conflict in the Middle East, who knows what will happen to the price of oil?" Bennett said. "Energy use will be a security issue, not just an environmental and conservation issue."

The county's solar systems were built by BP, the British oil company that is also one of the world's leading manufacturers of solar panels.

"We do a lot of work in California because of the electricity situation," said BP spokesman Todd Foley. "Last year, our sales were up 35% in California. With solar, there is virtually no maintenance, no fueling and you can do it with almost no emissions."

Some 380 BP service stations around the world are powered by solar energy, and BP-owned ARCO stations are outfitting many of their 1,700 facilities with solar systems, Foley said.

The solar cells atop the county fire stations generate up to 25% of their daily electricity and are expected to save each facility an average of $1,000 a year on utility bills, Inger said.

"We could have put them all in one place or spread them around," he said. "We decided to parcel them out. Our target is to install another 12 systems."

Stations in Camarillo, Simi Valley and Ventura have received solar panels over the last four months.

The systems are unobtrusive, installed on areas of roof where the sun shines longest.

A fire station on Pacific Coast Highway just north of Ventura has 16 panels on its roof, producing about 2,500 watts a day.

"It would be nice to see every station have them," said Capt. Richard Lajoie, looking up at the cells.

Mark Irwin, president of Advanced Solar Electric of Agoura Hills, which installed the panels, said his company has focused on homes, but he is now seeing increased interest from cities and counties.

"This is really gaining momentum," he said. "The buzz is on that solar is a great thing and it's getting bigger."

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