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By Eric Wesoff

A quick summary of a talk by PG&E:

Utilities tend to be portrayed as Mr. Burns rather than Mother Theresa. People often display a knee-jerk reaction to the idea of a utility — distrust and suspicion.

And that reputation might have some root in reality; most people think of a blackout or a rate hike or a poor customer service experience. But U.S. utilities manage to keep the grid up and running 99.8 percent of the time. The electrical grid has been called one of mankind’s greatest inventions, akin to stuff like the transistor or space travel and deservedly so — it animates our society just as the Web connects our world.

Without being too obsequious or sycophantic here — the utility-people I encounter, admittedly most of them on the renewable side, are good people motivated to change the world for the better.

Which brings us to Chuck Hornbrook of Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and the talk he gave at PARC last night for the Silicon Valley Photovoltaic Society. Hornbrook is the Senior Manager, Solar and Customer Generation at this renewable energy-friendly Northern California utility.

Hornbrook understands PG&E’s mission. The key thing it has to do is to: “Make sure that beer stays cold, and homes stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer.”

PG&E provides electrical and gas services to 15 million Californians and while doing that it has also managed to connect more solar customers than any other utility in the country. It is expecting 500 MW of cumulative installed solar by early 2011 and is responsible for something like 50 percent of the grid-tied solar in the U.S.

But reality intrudes here. “Even thought solar exists, the peak in the PG&E service territory is between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.,” Hornbrook said. ” Solar helps but it doesn’t meet the peak. And those last few megawatts are really expensive.”

And that’s why energy efficiency is at the top of PG&E’s loading order.

While energy usage has steadily climbed in the U.S, California’s energy per capita has remained flat over the last 30 years. What that means, and it’s important, is that California has avoided building 20 natural gas plants.

This has been achieved through policies like “de-coupling” (giving utilities a fixed rate of return on equity and not allowing them to profit by selling more power or building more plants), and through regulations, codes and standards.

“Energy Efficiency is the thing to do first,” according to Hornbrook and that’s why an energy audit is required before PG&E provides incentives for a solar roof. Duct work, insulation, efficient furnaces have to be installed and are the low hanging fruit in the energy equation.

PG&E is easily one of the more progressive utilities with regards to renewable energy. In solar alone it is working with almost every available solar technology — crystalline silicon from SunPower, amorphous silicon from Optisolar (maybe), CdTe from First Solar, and solar thermal in a variety of formats from Brightsource Energy, Greenvolts, and Ausra (maybe).

Definitely more Mother Teresa than Mr. Burns.

Source: PG&E: Solar Not as Important as Energy Efficiency