L.A.'s two major power utilities are betting big on an unlikely source: wind energy.

For years, the utilities treated wind power more like a novelty, making token investments in a technology they considered not ready for prime time. But as prices for fossil fuels for conventional power plants have soared and the cost or availability of other forms of renewable energy remain out of reach, the cost for wind power has fallen and is now more competitive with traditional power sources.

That has prompted Southern California Edison, a subsidiary of Rosemead-based Edison International, and the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power to move ahead with two major wind projects as they strive to meet stiff mandates for renewable power in their portfolios.

Edison announced earlier this month that it would build a massive transmission line to carry power from existing and planned wind power projects in the Tehachapi Mountains to its Los Angeles-area power grid. Two months ago, the DWP broke ground on the largest city-owned wind farm in the nation, also situated in the Tehachapis, which are fast emerging as the prime wind power region in California.

"Wind power will now become a significant part of the Southern California marketplace," said C.P. "Case" Van Dam, professor of mechanical and aeronautical engineering at the University of California, Davis, and co-director of the California Wind Energy Collaborative, an industry research group.

Behind this push for wind power is a mandate that utilities in California have 20 percent of their power portfolios coming from renewable (non-fossil fuel) resources by 2010. Edison currently gets about 17 percent of its energy from renewable resources, most of it geothermal. Only 3 percent of its total electricity portfolio comes from wind power.

The DWP lags behind Edison, with about 8 percent of its portfolio coming from renewable sources and less than 1 percent from wind power. The agency has come under pressure from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and environmental activists to step up its pace of obtaining renewable energy sources. Villaraigosa has set a goal of 20 percent renewables by 2010 and 35 percent by 2020.

As these utilities come under increasing pressure to beef up their supplies of renewable energy, wind power has emerged as the new favorite. That's because improved technology has brought down the kilowatt-hour production cost, and it's also comparatively easy and quick to set up wind farms.

Production costs have plunged from 80 cents per kilowatt hour 25 years ago to well under 10 cents per kilowatt hour today as wind turbines have become much more efficient. That's now comparable with production costs from conventional natural gas-fired plants; those costs have been rising sharply as natural gas prices have soared.

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