Nevada’s Solar Progress Report

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Nevada, one of America’s sunniest states, has slowly but surely been making steps to shift from its coal-intensive ways. Although Nevada is not lacking in the means or support to go solar, there is still a ways to go.

Nevada’s Goals for a Solar-Friendly Future 

Nevada has a history of setting goals that will promote the use of renewable energy sources, and a number projects—many of which are still in the development stages—have gone toward meeting these goals.

Nevada’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard requires Nevada to get 25% of its energy from renewable sources by 2025, 6% of that energy from solar. A little over a year ago a bill was put into place that required NV Energy to eliminate 800 MW of coal-fired power generation, mandating 350 MW of renewable energy development and utility ownership of a 550 MW power plant.

Projects in Development

One step the state is taking toward becoming more solar-friendly is the Crescent Dunes project, owned by SolarReserve at the concentrating solar power plant in Tonopah, 200 miles northwest of Las Vegas. It is a 110 MW plant that is expected to become live this year, and power up to 75,000 homes during peak electricity periods. It has a 25-year power purchase agreement with NV Energy and a development agreement with Nye County, complete with an agreement to fill 90% of the construction jobs it will create with Nevada residents.

Another project still in its construction stage is Mountain View Solar, which is located near Apex, north of Las Vegas, also expected to be fully functioning in 2014.

SunEdison Inc. has also entered into a 20-year power-purchase contract with the Southern Nevada Water Authority to build a 14 MW solar plant in Southern Nevada. The project is expected to be operational next year, giving Southern Nevada Water 18% of its electricity from solar.

Along with these projects, SolarCity has brought its solar service to the state, allowing homeowners to save money by going solar.

However, despite these projects, there are still challenges that have complicated how much and how quickly Nevada will progress in terms of fully being able to embrace solar. One is that solar installations there tend to be utility-scale projects, aimed specifically at meeting the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard. Although this is good business for Nevada solar installers and manufacturers, it means that commercial solar projects are generally prioritized, making it harder for homeowners to go solar.

New rules issued by the state Public Utilities Committee cut Nevada’s solar incentive program by more than half, going from $2.80 last year to 80 cents this year. The program had set a goal of 250 MW of solar installed by 2025, costing $255 million. So far, $190 has been spent and 44 MW installed, mostly with the help of government and nonprofits. Rich Hamilton, the business director for Black Rock Solar, told Capital Public Radio that nonprofits will suffer from these cuts the most. With fewer projects and fewer funds, going solar will be less affordable.

The reason for these cuts, according to NV Energy, is so that the remaining funds could serve more applicants and install more solar. The NV Energy budget was also approved by the PUC for a $500,000 increase in funds for handling more solar applications.

Harry Reid and FERC

Nevada’s Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been interested in growing the renewable energy industry in Nevada for a while. For example, the $1 billion project, Crescent Dunes, would not have happened without a $737 million Department of Energy loan guarantee, Kevin Smith, CEO of SolarReserve, told Trib Total Media. To support the project, Reid had protected the loan guarantee program provided by the Energy Department, and worked with the air force to find the right location for the project. Smith recognized Reid’s efforts, saying that it was his help that had made the project possible.

So when it came to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, his support for Norman Bay as Enforcement Director and Cheryl LaFleur as Acting Chair for a five-year term on a five-member commission was based on their friendliness toward renewables.

Reid’s support carries weight for several reasons (besides the environmental benefits). One is to generate jobs in infrastructure in Nevada, where the governments owns more than 80% of the land. “It’s jobs. It’s development. He thinks that’s something that congress should be, and is, responsible for,” says Chris Miller, an energy industry lobbyist. He advised the senator on energy for eight years.

Another is political: much of Reid’s campaign was built off of—and depended on—his support for renewables. Solar and other energy company executives have helped fund Reid’s campaign since the 2010 election cycle.

And, according to Janine Blaeloch, director of the Western Lands project, a Seattle-based nonprofit that aims to keep federal land public in Nevada, Reid is interested in seeing land there become developed because the government owns so much of it. “The politics of public land are a big factor. Reid wields a huge amount of power … he is someone who has selectively done good things for the national environmental groups so that he keeps their support.”

Attorney Jon Wellinghoff, who chaired FERC for four years until November, also said that his support is tied to supporters of coal wanting to “use FERC as leverage against the EPA” in order to oppose increased regulation over power plant emissions. “They’re trying to say there are reliability issues if they shut down coal plants,” Wellinghoff explained.

On July 15, Norman Bay was confirmed Enforcement Director by a vote of 52-45, and Cheryl LaFleur confirmed Acting Chairman with a vote of 90-7.