updated 11/22/2006 11:36:39 AM ET 2006-11-22T16:36:39

Southern California is gambling its future power needs on its constant sunshine, wind and the ability of engineers to effectively harness those and other alternative energy sources.

Officials in Pasadena, Anaheim and several other large cities notified the Intermountain Power Agency this week that they would not be renewing their contracts for cheap, coal-fired power.

Those contracts expire in 2027. That leaves the cities two decades to secure the alternative energy sources they’ll need, from wind farms to desert solar power.

“It’s a huge change,” said Mayor Todd Campbell of Burbank, among the cities that decided Tuesday to not renew its contract. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power had already given notice to the Utah-based power agency. Glendale and Riverside also joined the group.

The moves could put the region in the forefront nationally of the commercial use of alternative energy in coming years, but researching and building the infrastructure to replace coal-fired power will be a costly, risky business.

“All of these technologies are still in their infancy,” said Phyllis Currie, general manager of Pasadena Water & Power. “We’re still looking at the fact that right now, the Intermountain plant is 65 percent of our energy.”

“It’s a serious issue when you tell us to walk away from that,” she said.

The cities’ decision came amid pressure from politicians and environmentalists.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation in September imposing a first-in-the-nation emissions cap on utilities, refineries and manufacturing plants, with a goal of cutting greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020. Burning coal releases carbon dioxide, among the biggest of the heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

Burbank’s city council initially planned to beat the clock and renew its contract with Intermountain until 2044 — the cities won’t be able to renew those contracts after the new greenhouse gas law takes effect Jan. 1 — but it changed course.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., wrote to an umbrella group for the cities last week saying she was “shocked and dismayed” by Burbank’s initial decision.

Reed Searle, general manager of Intermountain Power Agency, Inc., based in South Jordan, Utah, said the company was looking at ways to modernize its plants to bring them into compliance with California’s new greenhouse-gas legislation. Its current customers are mostly in Utah and Southern California.

The company is exploring burning biomass such as switchgrass, wheat straw and cornstalks instead of coal, or possible burial of carbon dioxide, he said.

Intermountain also extended its renewal offer for any sort of power from the plants until 2023. Utility officials hope state regulators will let them renew the contracts if greenhouse gases are reduced.

Greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere reached a record high in 2005, with the concentration of carbon dioxide alone rising by about 0.5 percent, the World Meteorological Organization reported this month. The U.N. agency described the greenhouse gases are the major drivers behind global warming and climate change.

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