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Some green proponents such as U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid contend that Nevada has the potential to become the “Saudi Arabia of renewable energy,” an analogy to the Middle Eastern country’s leading role in the oil industry.
Photo: PR (above); Rachid Dahnoun (middle); iStock (bottom)
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It’s late August in Boulder City, and there’s not a cloud in the sky. I open the passenger door of our air-conditioned Toyota Yaris rental car, and I’m floored by the Southern Nevada sun. It isn’t quite 10:30 a.m., and it’s easily 110 degrees. Any other day, I might say forget it, let’s head back to the Las Vegas Strip and find the nearest pool—immediately. But then I’m reminded of why we’re here. That sunlight, which consistently shines on Nevada, no matter the season, could be a fundamental link to life as we know it in the 21st century. It’s natural, abundant, and free—well, sort of.
ASSOCIATE EDITOR CHARLIE JOHNSTON AND I meet Kevin Gillespie and Elizabeth Trosper in the parking lot for our tour of Sempra Generation’s El Dorado Energy Solar, a 10-megawatt (a MW is equal to 1 million watts, or 1,000 kilowatts) thin-film, photovoltaic solar-cell installation. The company, a subsidiary of San Diego-based Sempra Energy, plans to add another 48 MWs by late 2010, which would make the site the largest operational photovoltaic power facility in North America. Even the existing production seems vast—rows and rows of panels soaking up the sun’s rays. The panels are comprised of several individual cells that act as semiconductors by collecting solar radiation from the sun and directly converting it to electricity.
If it’s as simple as putting a bunch of panels in the desert, why the global dependence on natural-gas and coal power plants? There has to be a catch, right? “A lot more power can come from turbines and a steam generator,” says Mike Allman, president of Sempra Generation, referring to the company’s 480-MW natural gas-fired power plant that sits adjacent to the El Dorado project. With natural gas, virtually the same amount of land is producing 48 times the amount of energy. Plus, in Sempra’s case, the solar panels would probably not exist without the natural-gas plant and its accompanying transmission lines.
Perhaps the main challenge to implementing solar (in addition to needing a good chunk of land, of which Nevada has plenty), Allman says, is integrating it to the grid. That’s why you find a lot of large-scale solar installations next to natural-gas plants. In an age when the global-warming debate is as heated as ever, the carbon dioxide emitted by natural-gas power plants represent a fraction of the emissions produced by their coal-fired counterparts. “Natural gas is an enabler for these green-energy projects,” Allman says. “It’s the cleanest-burning fossil fuel.”
As governments continue to put pressure on energy companies to come up with alternative sources, natural gas has become a parent to solar. “California has set a renewable-energy standard of 33 percent by 2020,” Allman says, pointing out that California’s Pacific Gas & Electric has contracted for 100 percent of Sempra’s Nevada output for the next 20 years. Sempra Generation’s planned 48-MW expansion would bring its total number of solar cells to nearly one million. “We’re going to need all the renewable energy we can get,” Allman adds. In the next few years, Sempra Generation hopes to add 500 MWs of solar power as an extension to its 1,250-MW natural-gas plant, Mesquite Power, 40 miles west of Phoenix.
As we drive away from El Dorado, we pass Acciona’s Nevada Solar One, literally across the street. The 400-acre, 64-MW plant uses a different kind of technology called concentrating solar power. Thousands of mirrors are scientifically angled to concentrate maximum sunlight onto solar receivers, which heat a transfer fluid to more than 700 degrees Fahrenheit. The intense heat turns water into steam to drive a conventional turbine connected to a generator that produces electricity. Nevada Solar One, which sells its power to NV Energy, is the third-largest concentrating solar power plant in the world. In September, it was reported that BrightSource Energy has plans for a 900-MW concentrating solar project in Coyote Springs Valley, located at the convergence of U.S. 93 and the Clark/Lincoln County line. Construction could start as early as 2010.
For now, El Dorado and Nevada Solar One, neighbors on Southern Nevada’s solar-energy block, represent the two methods by which we harness energy from the sun. The cost for solar power is less with photovoltaic panels, but concentrating solar is more efficient in that a greater percentage of sunlight can be converted to electricity. The advantage of panels is that they can easily be implemented outside of the plant structure, say on rooftops of businesses or homes, and they do not require water, a precious resource in the hot desert climate.
ON A CHILLY SEPTEMBER MORNING IN SOUTH RENO, I’m standing on a hill alongside Paul Thomsen, director of policy and business development for Ormat Technologies, and Nevada Magazine intern Sydney Johnson. Thomsen has seen the view a hundred times, so he doesn’t miss a beat while informing us about Ormat’s six-part geothermal operation. Johnson and I, on the other hand, are dumbfounded. Our thoughts are similar: There’s a power plant here? How have I never noticed it? How did I not know about it?
I snap out of my mini trance and tune into Thomsen. “It produces enough power to support the City of Reno’s residential load [about a quarter of energy consumed],” he says. He points to the hundreds of cars passing by on U.S. 395 to the east, then to The Summit Reno mall and the freeway-bridge construction project to the north to demonstrate just how close to civilization the power plant is. Our idea of power plants, especially the conventional image of smokestacks that comes to mind, is that they’re in the middle of nowhere. “No sound. No emissions. It’s virtually benign,” Thomsen says. “It’s a very small footprint for the amount of power we produce.”
The 100-MW operation—the first project was built in 1985 and the latest in 2008—might be unknown to most residents of Reno-Tahoe, but it’s huge on Nevada’s geothermal-energy landscape. While solar operations are expanding in the south, geothermal is picking up steam in the north. As opposed to solar and wind technologies, geothermal is a 24/7 process (known as base load power) and produces three times the amount of energy, according to Thomsen. In addition, there is very little wasted output. He says the six plants run at 95-percent capacity. Ormat’s power is also sold to NV Energy.
Ormat Energy Converters utilize natural hot water (or brine) or steam, or both, to create electrical energy. The fluid flows from a wellhead through massive pipelines to heat exchangers. Here, the geothermal fluid heats and vaporizes a secondary fluid, usually organic hydrocarbon with a low boiling point. The vapors drive the turbine, which powers the generator, and then are cooled by air or water in a condenser. The condensed fluid is recycled back into the heat exchangers via a pump. Finally, the cooled geothermal fluid is reinjected into the geothermal reservoir. “The best thing to see here is what you don’t see,” Thomsen says. However, it’s also what we don’t see that makes implementing geothermal power so difficult. “The biggest hurdle is drilling,” Thomsen says. “There’s a high cost, and it’s risky. The permit-ting process is time consuming, too. Once you have the resource, putting in the plant is the easy part.” When professing the advantages of solar, Allman echoes that sentiment, comparing geothermal “mining” to drilling for oil. “It’s not a perfect analogy, but you drill a hole, and you either find oil or you don’t,” he says. “[Geothermal] is only available where the resource [exists].”
Although the resources are sparser than sunlight, there are new geothermal projects popping up in Nevada. Ormat oversaw the construction of and built the equipment for Nevada Geothermal Power’s Faulkner 1 power plant at Blue Mountain in Humboldt County, near Winnemucca. Thomsen emphasizes Ormat’s dedication to Nevada workers. “We used a construction company out of Elko and an electrical company out of Carson City,” he says. Expected to be on line in October of this year, it is projected that the plant will produce nearly 50 MWs. “NGP has acheived an enormous milestone with the completion of Faulkner 1, and we are excited to embark on a program of scalable growth in Nevada,” says NGP president and CEO Brian Fairbank.
NGP has two other projects in the works. Pumpernickel, close to Blue Mountain, could produce as much as 30 MWs (enough for up to 24,000 homes) once the test-well phase proves successful. The Black Warrior project (not yet in the test stage), in Churchill and Washoe Counties, would link to existing power lines and could bring as much as 37 MWs on line in the next few years. As with solar, none of these outputs come close to a 500- or 1,000-MW natural-gas plant, but there seems to be electrical strength in numbers.
DENNIS AUKERMAN, MANAGER OF PREMIER MECHANICAL metal shop in Las Vegas, knows his company can see higher profits if he institutes dayshifts and nightshifts. The only drawback is the costly electric bill he has to pay each month. So, in August, he had NV Energy install a 30-foot wind turbine outside his business to take advantage of the Las Vegas Valley’s consistent air stream. Whenever the wind blows, Aukerman’s business automatically converts to wind energy, amounting to an energy cost savings of about 10 to 12 percent. The initial investment of a turbine is high—about $20,000—but Aukerman will get $6,000 back from NV Energy (the company’s RenewableGenerations program provides such discounts) and an $8,000 rebate from the federal government. The idea is that the $6,000 out-of-pocket-investment eventually becomes profit based on the energy savings.
Premier Mechanical provides an example of how renewable energy can be utilized in a more domestic sense (the same concept could be applied in a residential setting), but where does wind fit in on the large-scale utility front? Currently, there are no fully active wind-generation facilities in Nevada, but it’s only a matter of time before there are. According to windpowernevada.com, “The largest contiguous lower elevation areas of good-to-excellent resources are located in Southern Nevada near Las Vegas and in eastern Nevada near Ely. Good-to-excellent wind resources are also located on the higher ridge crests throughout the state.” In May 2005, the Nevada Commission on Economic Development issued a report that looked at the economic impact of wind farms in White Pine County in eastern Nevada. It concluded that it “could be a good economic event for the community.”
In February, Las Vegas-based Nevada Wind Company was approved by the Washoe County Planning Commission for the construction of a 65- to 150-MW wind farm about 20 miles northeast of Sparks (Reno’s neighbor). According to a 2009 article in the Las Vegas Sun, the company hopes to have the project completed and on line by the third quarter of 2010. Permits are always a challenge, but opposition is not always related to land use. Some residents contend that the wind turbines, some as tall as 300 feet, will ruin their mountain views. After all, many choose to live in Nevada because there is so much open land. Nevada Wind Company also has its eye on land near Ely for potential future projects.
NV Energy and Renewable Energy Systems Americas Inc. are seeking regulatory approval to construct a 200-MW wind project near Jackpot along the Nevada-Idaho border. The Bureau of Land Management is leading the environmental review process for the proposed China Mountain project (the environmental impact statement should be out by next year). Each of the large wind turbines would produce two to three MWs of electricity.
IF YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE A LUNCH DATE WITH TOM CLARK to discuss the future of green energy in Nevada, you might error on the side of caution and figure you’ll be back in the office in two hours. The man knows his green Nevada. Clark has been a non-lawyer lobbyist for Reno’s Holland and Hart since 1995, specifically for renewable-energy companies since 2000. On this day, we’re having lunch at Mom and Pop’s Diner, a cozy establishment across the street from the Legislative building in Carson City.
Clark knows that building all too well. The 75th Regular Session of 2009 is about to wrap up, and you can tell he is well rehearsed: “You hear Harry Reid say that Nevada could become the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy, but I say we’re going to become the Silicon Valley of renewable energy.” Green-energy initiatives dominated this year’s Legislature. Among the resolutions passed are the creation of a Nevada energy commissioner, who will help move along the cumbersome process of leasing land for development, and other bills meant to improve tax abatements for large-scale solar operations (important because these incentives can tip the scale for new companies in determining location). Surprisingly, the property tax abatements don’t extend to geothermal companies. SB395 requires that 25 percent of electricity sold to consumers by energy companies in Nevada come from renewable resources by 2025.
Although he’s been fighting tooth and nail as a proponent of green energy for four months in Nevada’s capital, Clark is realistic about the obstacles that lie ahead. “The first hurdle [for new companies] is who to sell to,” he says. “But the big one is transmission. Nevada doesn’t have the power lines necessary to get the energy to the marketplace. There’s no transmission line that connects the south to the north. The state is too rural.” So it’s easy to understand why a company such as Sempra, with existing lines, can make a solar project work so well. In addition, Boulder City sees major economic benefits from taxes and leasing funds (even though the power goes to California).
Of course, Nevada’s transmission conundrum is being addressed. NV Energy plans to construct a high voltage electric transmission line from the Ely area to a substation north of Las Vegas, linking Nevada’s northern and southern electric systems for the first time. The proposed power line will provide greater access to wind and geothermal resources for Southern Nevada and better access to solar energy for Northern Nevada. Pending regulatory approvals, the company hopes to have the project completed in 2012.
On a national level, U.S. Senate Majority Leader and native Nevadan Harry Reid is selling green energy as not only environmentally friendly, but a way to create jobs and help solve the state’s unemployment crunch—a 13.2-percent jobless rate was reported in August, the second highest of any state next to Michigan. “Harnessing our state’s clean-energy resources will provide jobs for decades to come, just as mining our hard-rock resources has continued to provide jobs throughout our history,” Reid says in a recent statement. Former president Bill Clinton and president Barrack Obama joined Reid on separate occasions in Southern Nevada this year, and recently U.S. Senator John Ensign toured Evergreen Recycling in Las Vegas. It seems as though all eyes are on Nevada to be at the forefront of green-energy production.
But Nevada’s green-energy push is rife with competition. Many states in the West—Arizona and California especially—are right on Nevada’s heels in hopes of greening up not only the planet, but their state’s struggling economies.
NEVADA’S GREEN MOVEMENT isn’t all about energy.
• The Best Bag: High-quality reusable shopping bags. thebestbag.org
• EcoFriendOnline: Green consumer products. ecofriendonline.com
• Evergreen Recycling: Provides green initiatives, sustainable business solutions, and custom recycling programs. evergreenlv.com
• The Green Academy of Training and Technology: Facilitated by Big Brothers Big Sisters and Building Hope Nevada, it prepares youth for “green-collar” careers by allowing them to work under the supervision of people who have green jobs. 702-468-8929
• Las Vegas Regional Clean Cities Coalition: A public-private partnership aimed at expanding the use of alternatives to gasoline and diesel fuels. lasvegascleancities.org
• Nellis Air Force Base: Currently home to North America’s largest solar photovoltaic power plant, covering 140 acres and producing 14 megawatts of electricity. nellis.af.mil
• Black Rock Solar: Educates communities on how to install renewable energy at low or no cost, putting funds in the hands of communities typically not served by the renewable-energy industry. blackrocksolar.org
• Great Basin Center for Geothermal Energy: Promotes the development of geothermal energy as a clean-energy source. unr.edu
• Nevada Business Environmental Program: Specializes in cost-effective strategies to reduce hazardous materials and waste generation, conserve water and energy, minimize air emissions, and maintain compliance with environmental requirements. envnv.org
• Regional Transportation Commission: RTC’s new 4th Street Station in Reno will incorporate green-building technology. rtcwashoe.com
• Truckee Meadows Water Authority: Encourages homes and businesses to water responsibly. tmwalandscapeguide.com
• Calculate your carbon footprint. carbonfootprint.com
• Green Living Nevada: Known as “the premier magazine where green meets life.” greenlivingnevada.com
• Green Living Project: Educates individuals and communities to live a more sustainable lifestyle. greenlivingproject.com
• Green Pro Systems: Provides commercial clients with smart technologies and proven solutions that significantly reduce energy costs and pollution. greenprosystems.com
• Nevada Grown: Your resource for Nevada’s rich selection of locally grown food. nevadagrown.com
• NV Energy: The company’s incentive program, RenewableGenerations, helps customers offset the installation costs of renewable-energy systems (see opposite page). nvenergy.com/renewablegenerations
• TravelGreen: Eco-friendly vacation options from the U.S. Travel Association. travelgreen.org
• Vote Solar: A national initiative that works at the state level to implement policies to build robust solar markets. votesolar.org
How to Live Green
Some inexpensive—and not so inexpensive—measures you can take to reduce your carbon footprint.
BY CHARLIE JOHNSTON
Rising energy costs and environmental awareness have the country turning its attention to renewable energy with fervor unseen since the Carter administration. And though large-scale alternative energy use remains tantalizingly out of reach, it’s easier than you might think to reduce your energy costs—and fossil-fuel consumption—with solar and electric power.
The entry-level solar option is a solar hot water system, and considering that water-heating costs represent 20 to 25 percent of energy costs, the savings are realized relatively quickly. A basic system from The Solar Store in Carson City starts at about $3,000 before a 30-percent tax credit. A solar hot water system will pay for itself in three to nine years. It is also possible to convert to solar radiant heating or full solar electricity. The larger, more complex systems are understandably more expensive and will generally pay for themselves in 10 to 20 years and 11 to 26 years respectively. The Solar Store in Carson City can provide all the necessary instruction and components for any of these conversions, or install the systems for you. rainbowconservation.com, 775-841-9225
A growing global dependency on oil has pushed many people to turn to hybrid cars. The initial cost of a hybrid is anywhere from $3,000 to $6,000 more than a comparable all-gas model, but annual fuel savings are around 30 percent. At this rate it would take most drivers 10 years or more to recoup the initial expense of a hybrid. While some federal tax incentives have dried up, certain models are still eligible for credits up to $1,000. In short, if your primary goal is saving money, a hybrid is probably not for you, but if your objective is to lessen your impact on the environment and dependency on fossil fuels, a hybrid is a great step. hybridcars.com
New cars and solar hot water are understandably out of a lot of peoples’ budgets, but don’t fret. There are many inexpensive ways to live greener, and most of them will even save money. Try a few of these to get started:
• Recycle. Plastic bottles and packaging, glass, aluminum, metal cans, newspaper, printer paper, cardboard, ink cartridges, some clothing, cell phones, electronics, and even Christmas trees can be recycled. Try to purchase items made from recycled material.
• Compost fruit and vegetable waste, eggshells, coffee grounds, and more to keep these items out of landfills and contribute to a productive backyard garden, which will save on grocery bills and encourage healthier eating habits. Full Circle Compost in Minden and Interpretive Gardens in Reno are great resources for composting information. fullcirclecompost.com, 775-267-5305; interpretivegardens.com, 775-747-2222
• Switch to reusable grocery bags. According to The Wall Street Journal, the U.S uses 100 billion plastic bags annually, more than 80 percent of which end up in landfills. Reusable bags are cheap, about 99 cents each, and stronger than plastic or paper.
• Use reusable plastic or aluminum water bottles and tap-water purifiers. Purifiers average $20 to $40, and reusable plastic or aluminum bottles are $10 to $25. Compared to the cost of 100 gallons of bottled water, more than $130, the switch saves $65 to $100.
• Plan errands and shopping to coincide and reduce driving—buy groceries on the way home from work or do your holiday shopping in one location. Walk or ride a bike for shorter trips when the weather allows.
• Replace incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs. Fluorescents last at least three times longer and require less than 20 percent of the energy.
• If your refrigerator is 10 years old or older, upgrade to an Energy Star-qualified model for up to 40 percent greater energy efficiency. Keep your refrigerator and freezer full to save even more energy.
• More than half of the average household’s energy costs are from heating and cooling. Turning the thermostat down in the winter and up in the summer saves one to three percent of your heating and cooling bill per degree. Take advantage of the cool nights in Northern Nevada by opening windows and trapping the air in the morning.
• Switch to non-toxic, biodegradable soaps and cleaners. Eco Reno in Reno sells these and many other green products. goecoreno.com, 775-324-6326
• Wrap gifts in recycled or recyclable paper, or reuse gift boxes and bags. Consider sending Christmas postcards instead of regular cards to reduce waste—better yet, cut waste completely by sending e-cards.