Regional Report : SOUTH PASADENA : Solar Panels to Serve School and Homes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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 rewiring 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's 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 will help lower the cost of solar energy by generating increased industrial and residential demand. 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 make an ideal project site. The school will save about 25% in annual electric bills.

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 will be charged.

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.

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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