Bright Idea: SoCal Edison Installs Solar Atop Urban Warehouses

Southern California Edison, one of California's two biggest utilities, is moving to become the renewable energy guinea-pig for the rest of the country. The company has finished blanketing the first two warehouses out of over a hundred planned with solar panels, with the eventual goal of covering 1.5 square miles of urban roof-space with solar.

Satellite cities around Los Angeles are playing host to the project, with their thousands of sprawling warehouses, shipping hubs and big box stores. When SCE first came up with the plan a couple years back, it was unique: the utility will build and own the projects itself, striking deals with the property owners to allow use of the rooftops.

Now it's proving to be a popular idea. Building owners certainly like it; they get rent for a previously unused space, without having to worry about the operation or maintenance of the panels, which is SCE's responsibility.

Meanwhile, utilities like warehouse roofs because they're expansive enough to allow for economies of scale, but they're also privately owned, meaning that some of the bureaucratic song-and-dance required to get regular solar farms going can be avoided.

Still, none of those positives mean that this utility-scaled form of rooftop solar isn't still a risk. And SCE in particular has stepped far out of line with typical utility conservativeness in its quest to comply with California's strict renewable energy targets.

That means plenty of renewable projects, but also a distancing from tried-and-true fossil fuel formulas. A few days before SCE's announcement that it had completed its first warehouses, New America Media reported that the company had taken the first steps to drop its stake in the last coal plant it still owns any part of.

SCE probably wouldn't make that move on its own -- California has put pressure on its utilities to get out of coal entirely. But as many have pointed out, coal is still the biggest single energy source for the US, accounting for over half of all generation. Without it, SCE is truly heading into uncharted territory.