California utility plans massive, $875M solar project

Southern California Edison plans to announce Thursday what it says will be the largest solar installation in the USA, spending $875 million to put 250 megawatts of solar energy on more than 100 buildings in the greater Los Angeles area.

The systems will cover 65 million square feet of rooftops and supply enough power to serve about 162,000 homes.

They will be owned and operated by the utility and will be embedded on warehouse buildings that use little electricity. The power they generate will flow into the power grid, supplying electricity to neighborhood homes and businesses without the need to build expensive transmission lines.

Travis Bradford, president of the Prometheus Institute, a research group, says he knows of no other utility owning rooftop solar systems.

Southern California Edison says there have been a few much smaller pilot projects in the state.

The systems are designed to supply electricity on hot summer days when the power grid is under the greatest stress and wholesale prices are highest. That's also when the sun is shining brightest, providing optimum solar energy.

"The biggest single challenge we have as a utility is meeting these high peak summer demands," says Edison CEO John Bryson.

The project will help Edison meet a state requirement to obtain 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2010. Edison has commitments to get 16% of its power from renewables.

The panels will also insulate customers from the effects of power outages miles away.

Edison plans to install systems on the first few buildings by August. It will add about 50 megawatts per year in the next five years.

The project was largely made possible by huge volume discounts that will cut solar panel prices nearly in half for Edison, Bryson says.