Projects to amp up solar power

Times Staff Writer

Solar energy is getting a big boost in Southern California with the unveiling of two projects that will be capable of generating a total of 500 megawatts of electricity, enough to serve more than 300,000 homes.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Southern California Edison plan to announce today the country’s largest rooftop solar installation project ever proposed by a utility company. And on Wednesday, FPL Energy, the largest operator of solar power in the U.S., said it planned to build and operate a 250-megawatt solar plant in the Mojave Desert.

The projects would help California meet its goal of obtaining 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010. In 2006, about 13% of the retail electricity delivered by Edison and the state’s other two big investor-owned utilities came from renewable sources such as sun and wind, according to the California Public Utilities Commission.


Energy experts were struck by the size of the two projects, which would bolster the state’s current total of about 965 megawatts of solar power flowing to the electricity grid.

“Five hundred megawatts -- that’s substantial,” said spokesman George Douglas of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “Projects of that size begin to show that solar energy can produce electricity on a utility scale, on the kind of scale that we’re going to need.”

The Edison rooftop project will place photovoltaic cells on 65 million square feet of commercial building roofs in Southern California. The cells will generate as much as 250 megawatts of electricity -- enough to power about 162,500 average homes, based on the utility’s estimate that one megawatt would serve about 650 average homes.

“These are the kinds of big ideas we need to meet California’s long-term energy and climate change goals,” Schwarzenegger said in a statement. “If commercial buildings statewide partnered with utilities to put this solar technology on their rooftops, it would set off a huge wave of renewable-energy growth.”

The project, subject to approval by state utility regulators, will cost an estimated $875 million and take five years to complete, Edison spokesman Gil Alexander said. The utility, a subsidiary of Edison International, plans to begin installation work immediately on commercial roofs in San Bernardino and Riverside counties and spread to other locations in Southern California at a rate of one megawatt a week.

The first of the solar rooftops, which will use advanced photovoltaic generating technology, is expected to be in service by August.

“This is a breakthrough. This is hugely accelerating to a scale that is the largest in the country -- a kind of virtual solar generation facility,” John E. Bryson, chairman and chief executive of Edison International, said in an interview. “It’s a big deal for the state of California; it’s a big deal for the renewable-energy sector.”

Rosemead-based Southern California Edison provides power to 13 million people in a 50,000-square-mile area of Central and Southern California.

FPL Energy’s proposed 250-megawatt plant, dubbed the Beacon Solar Energy Project, will be situated on about 2,000 acres in eastern Kern County.

More than half a million parabolic mirrors will be assembled in rows to receive and concentrate the sun’s rays to produce steam for a turbine generator -- a process known as solar thermal power. The generator will produce electricity for delivery to a nearby electric grid. Construction is scheduled to begin in late 2009 and will take about two years to complete, the Juno Beach, Fla.-based company said.

“At a time of rising and volatile fossil-fuel costs and increasing concerns about greenhouse gases, solar electricity can have a meaningful impact,” FPL Energy President Mitch Davidson said in a statement. “We believe that solar power has similar long-term potential as wind energy, and we are well positioned to play a leading role in the growth of this renewable technology.”

Longer term, the company aims to add at least 600 megawatts of new solar by 2015. FPL Energy currently has facilities with a capacity to produce 310 megawatts of solar power.