It's Cool to Be Hot : South Pasadena: Solar energy is being tapped to help supply power to a school and 300 nearby homes. The project is the most extensive of its type in the world, officials say.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a scorching summer afternoon, most people turn on their air conditioners to escape the sun's heat. Imagine that those air conditioners are powered by the sun and you have discovered two things:

Perfect irony and South Pasadena.

In a groundbreaking project, Monterey Hills Elementary School and Southern California Edison have teamed up to bring solar energy to the school and 300 homes in South Pasadena that were on the brink of an energy burnout.

"This is the first time in the whole world that solar energy is being used to this extent," said Edan Prabhu, Edison's project manager. In the past, Prabhu said, solar energy has been used to power individual homes. For the first time, solar energy will give a power boost to an entire neighborhood, he said.

Edison officials chose the 300-house neighborhood, which they call Hill Grid, because of increasing demands that new or remodeled homes have been putting on 30-year-old power lines.

Instead of tearing up the streets to rewire insufficient underground service, Edison placed 180 solar panels on the school's roof two weeks ago. When the sun is at its hottest, the metallic blue panels can harness 15 kilowatts--or 150 100-watt bulbs--worth of energy, which is then routed into the school's main power lines. Another set of panels, 125 kilowatts worth, will be assembled on the school roof in February.

Eventually, the $5-million project sponsored by the federal Department of Energy and Edison, will place solar panels on houses and possibly parking lots in the South Pasadena neighborhood and in areas of San Marino and La Canada Flintridge that face similar problems with inadequate power lines.

Edison officials said they hope that government-sponsored projects such as this one will help lower the cost of solar energy by generating increased interest in the industry, leading to widespread use of the technology in urban and suburban areas.

Practically speaking, most if not all of the power created by the first sets of solar panels will be used by the elementary school, Edison officials said. Still, that will reduce the load on local lines, freeing up more power for residences. In addition, they said, at times when the school is not using much power, some of the solar power will flow to the houses.

Robert Vanderwall, school director of maintenance and operations, said he approached Edison last year with the idea of using the school after he heard that the utility wanted to bring solar energy into the neighborhood. The school's large, flat roofs have unobstructed exposure to the sun and therefore made an ideal project site.

"We were looking for ways to economize our operations," Vanderwall said. "So, we looked toward utilities." The school will save about 25% in annual electric bills thanks to the sun's free rays, he said.

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At its peak, the school uses 180 kilowatts of energy; homes use from 6 to 10 kilowatts. Edison research engineer James Swanson said that Hill Grid has used up to 90% of its energy capacity at peak times and that demand is expected to rise.

"You don't want to wait until it's at 99% capacity until you do something," he said. "We'll be real happy with a 5% decrease."

Edison officials are also meeting with residents to see if they are interested in having the solar panels on their roofs. The school did not have to pay for its panels, but officials are not sure whether residents who participate in the project will be charged.

"Everyone who has been asked about it has been really impressed and totally supportive," said David Briery, an Edison spokesman. The project has also been endorsed by the AQMD and Union of Concerned Scientists, Prabhu said.

The panels, which are a little over four feet tall and rest at a 45-degree angle, have no moving parts and emit no chemicals. They are covered with thick glass to protect the wires within from such things as stray rocks and storms.

Although the panels are ineffective on rainy days or after sundown, people use fewer high-energy appliances, such as air conditioners, during those times.

"It's summer afternoons we're most concerned with," Prabhu said.

Currently, one kilowatt of solar power costs $7, as opposed to less than $1 per kilowatt for natural gas, but officials expect the price to go down as solar energy becomes more popular. It already powers everyday devices such as pocket calculators and highway emergency telephones.

School Principal Joe Johnson said he also liked the idea of using the panels as learning tools. "It actually dovetails with our science instruction," he said. "The kids will find more applications of how solar energy works."

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