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Edison on front lines of greenhouse gas effort

Its CEO talks about the firm's projects and the state's outlook as power demand keeps rising.

September 24, 2007|Elizabeth Douglass and Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writers

During the state's energy crisis more than six years ago, the primary mission for Edison International Chief Executive John Bryson boiled down to this: Keep the lights on and keep the Rosemead company's Southern California Edison subsidiary out of bankruptcy.

Today, the state's second-largest electric utility could hardly be more different. It is posting record profit, spending billions of dollars on transmission and power projects and delivering record amounts of electricity to more customers than ever.

But in some ways, the challenges Bryson and his utility colleagues face now are tougher than dealing with the chaotic, disastrous electricity market meltdown that hit in 2000 and 2001. How do you provide more power to a growing state without worsening global warming? How do you meet the state's renewable energy goals if the public opposes the necessary wind farms and transmission lines? How do you upgrade an aging power infrastructure and keep customer rates in check?

Bryson discussed those issues as well as plug-in hybrid cars, energy efficiency and other matters last week in a wide-ranging interview.

The state has committed itself to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and that has included new energy efficiency and fuel programs as well as the goal of having 20% of utility power come from renewable sources. Is it really possible to stop the accumulation of greenhouse gases while we maintain our current lifestyle?

The short answer is I don't know. I would never say that the ingenuity of our best technological people . . . wouldn't take us to some new special place. It would be a great thing if it did. Wind turbines are so much better than they were. Solar, we hope, can do more. . . . We see our role as being an encourager of these things.

California holds itself up as the leader in tackling greenhouse gas emissions. But how can the state take that stance when it hasn't made the hardest choices yet?

There's nothing in the country like what's been done in California for the last 20 or 30 years. There's no parallel. Energy efficiency, development of alternative energy, lower environmental impact in the aggregate. All those things.

The steps we're taking now are big. We need to proceed urgently but deliberately, and not mess it up. The last thing we want is to do what was done, for example, in the deregulation experience in California, where a lot of people saluted deregulation, assuming competition was going to do everything. The state just did it, and the costs were pervasive, gigantic, and so on.

Doesn't having so many players involved in this increase the odds of messing it up?

There's certainly a lot at stake. There are a lot of participants. A lot of affected people. It depends, as almost everything does, on having reasonable processes for bringing forth the best information to make the decisions. It's a messy process at best. But it's my nature to think a little more on the glass-half-full side than the glass-half-empty side.

Where are you with the goal of getting 20% of your power from renewable sources by 2010? Are you going to reach it?

We have the largest percentage, and always have, among the utilities in the state of California. We're at 17%. We think it's going to be a big challenge. We're not at all certain we will make the 20% by 2010. . . . Something like one-sixth of the renewable energy in the country is on the Southern California Edison system. Ninety percent of the solar energy in the country is on the Southern California Edison system. Regrettably, that's not a big number. There's so little there. For wind, and to an important degree, solar, the biggest issue is transmission.

Southern California Edison and the state's other big utilities are exploring the use of plug-in hybrid cars, which would draw power from the electricity grid at times when the grid is largely idle. You've cited a recent study that said 73% of the cars on the road today could be fueled by the existing electric grid. What's the outlook?

This is really a big deal. It ought to be part of the national response to greenhouse gas emissions. There would be vastly lower emissions in the context of a large power plant compared to the individual combustion engine in a car.

We've got this joint venture with Ford in which they're going to bring their first 30 plug-in hybrids to us. Southern California is the logical place in the country to lead the way because of our huge air-quality challenges. Something like 40% of the greenhouse gas in California -- much higher than the national average -- is associated with just plain light-duty cars and trucks.

How do we get there?

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