Is Nevada ready for the Green Economy?

Nevada has the resources but may lack the leadership to take advantage of the new economy

Instructor Jim Nichols leads the Introduction to Renewable Energy class at Truckee Meadows Community College.

Instructor Jim Nichols leads the Introduction to Renewable Energy class at Truckee Meadows Community College.

Photo By lauren randolph

If it were solely up to nature, Nevada’s preparation for what’s hailed as a New Green Economy would be in the bag. Sun? Check. Wind? Check. Hot water boiling just beneath the land’s surface? Check and double check. So what’s the holdup?

There are other forces at work—political, industrial and educational forces that are very much overseen by humans.

Nevada boasts the highest per-capita solar and geothermal energy consumption in the United States, with wind projects literally on the horizon. At least 57 operating renewable energy projects produce 400 megawatts of electricity here—enough to power 200,000 homes. Nellis Air Force Base in Clark County has the nation’s largest photovoltaic plant, and Nevada’s 14 geothermal plants supply power to 150,000 homes and at least seven more plants are under construction. The Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center is also building a biofuels plant that would convert 90,000 tons of trash into more than 10 million gallons of ethanol per year. And NVEnergy’s RenewableGenerations program offers rebate incentives for residents and businesses to install solar, wind and, for farmers, hydro power.

At the National Clean Energy Summit last August, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said each new megawatt of geothermal power creates 10 new jobs, and each megawatt of solar-thermal and wind power creates at least six new jobs.

With a 10.1 percent unemployment rate in the state as of February, coupled with the promise of federal stimulus funds, the push is on for renewable energy and green job development.

If and when the Green Economy—which might better be termed the Clean Energy Economy—takes a significant hold on the nation, is Nevada, with all of its renewable energy potential, ready to take full advantage of it?

The short answer: Kind of.


President Obama’s American Resource and Recovery Act allocated about $103 million in stimulus funding for energy efficiency and conservation projects in Nevada. The city of Reno is planning to use some of the stimulus funds to install light emitting diodes on the Reno Arch, wind turbines in various parts of the city, and solar panels at the city Parking Gallery, Reno Events Center and other locations. The Desert Research Institute is eyeing stimulus money to expand its renewable energy programs, including research on algal-based energy systems. In fact, just about everyone in the education, government and energy fields hopes to get a piece of it, with new proposals and green jobs studies underway as this goes to press.

On a frenzied March afternoon, Tom Fitzgerald, CEO of Nevadaworks, had an intimidating stack of paper on his desk. Nevadaworks administers funding for workforce training in Nevada, and the deadline to request funding proposals had just ended at noon.

“We set that date last November,” he said. “Since then, the economic stimulus rolled in. Normally, we’d receive 10 to 15 proposals for workforce training. Now, we have, I’m guessing, over 100. We have about $6 million available, but we might get $30 or $40 million in requests—so I can’t fund everything. Some of them are in the green field. … And the state legislature is considering some bills that make sure we fund some of those even though we get zero dollars from the state—they’re looking at the federal stimulus.”

Solar panels take in the sun at Desert Research Institute.

Photo By Lauren Randolph

SB152, the Green Jobs Initiative sponsored by Sen. Steven Horsford, passed the Nevada Senate unanimously last week. Using stimulus funding, it’s designed to create renewable energy training programs for the state’s workers and students. An immediate action would involve weatherization projects for low-income homes and public buildings.

“Weatherization” may not sound as sexy as, say, “solar panels,” but according to Mary Winston, an energy auditor with Energy Masters in Reno, it’s a relatively inexpensive way to make a more efficient home or building, the costs of which are paid back in energy savings within about three years. While she’s encouraged to hear of support for weatherization in the stimulus bill, she says it will take some time to get people up to speed on home energy efficiency, especially since she says there are no real building science programs in the area. “Until people start learning how energy in houses works, we’re still going to get really poor workmanship. … It’s hard to tell a contractor that he’s been doing something wrong for the last 30 years. But there are a few people that understand.” She’d also like to see low- or no-interest loans available for the general public, not just the poor, to take advantage of weatherization services.

“It’s become very chic right now to become energy efficient, but what’s not there is the infrastructure to get it in a comprehensive manner,” she said.

Lost in transmission

Transmission lines are a big component of that infrastructure. No matter how many photovoltaic panels, wind turbines and geothermal plants you have, if they’re not interconnected to serve a broad population, they do little good. Nevada needs transmission lines connecting the northern and southern parts of the state to adequately provide renewable energy.

“You need transmission lines because most of these [geothermal] sites are in rural areas,” Lisa Shevenelle, director of the Great Basin Center for Geothermal Energy at UNR, said during a senate committee meeting in February.

NVEnergy has requested authority to begin construction on a 250-mile transmission line that would run just outside Ely to the Harry Allen substation northeast of Las Vegas. It could be in service by mid-2012.

Training days

At local colleges, universities, training centers and some high schools, one key element to the green job economy is beginning to develop—the workforce.

Truckee Meadows Community College has a new renewable energy program designed to help students become energy auditors, wind and solar technicians and geothermal plant operators, among other occupations. Classes are as likely to be filled with young people starting out on a career path as middle-aged workers looking to update their skills.

On a recent Monday night, twentysomething Nate Weigl was waiting for his Intro to Renewable Energy class to begin. He’s thinking about going into the solar field, or the geothermal field, or maybe both. “A lot of our pollution comes from fossil fuels,” he said. “I’m interested in helping the planet.”

“That’s way too Mother Earthy for me,” interjected Deb Rodich, a student and former realtor sitting near Weigl. “I’m in it for cash.” She’s thinking of going into energy consulting or sales. “I don’t see people buying new property,” she said. “They’ll be improving their homes and looking for more efficient ways to heat and fuel them. I’m trying to be ahead of the curve.”

Todd Burlingham, also in the class, is an unemployed carpenter. He’s been building with energy efficient principles for years. Now he wants to go into green building design and consulting. He’s just back in school for “the papers”—an associate degree and Leadership in Energy Efficiency and Design (LEED) certification—to do it. “It doesn’t cost any more to build an efficient house than an inefficient house,” he said. “I think it’s more dollars and cents than being green.”

“Green energy is perfect in this environment. We have sun, we have wind. We don’t seem to have leadership around it.” <br>Mike Hess<br>CEO of Mariah Power

Photo By Lauren Randolph

Currently, three courses are offered through the program—and they’re full. National certifications exams in solar installation and apprenticeship programs through local unions are also available. The program was set into motion about three years ago with help from the University of Nevada, Reno, DRI, a Department of Labor grant and $100,000 from NVEnergy to construct a solar lab, which is nearly complete, at the IGT Applied Technology Center on Edison Way.

“We thought we got a good look at what the future would look like,” said Ted Plaggemeyer, TMCC Dean of Math, Science Engineering and Technology. “Little did we know it would come so quickly.”

The lab is a working solar operation, and its data will be posted online for any student to access. The lab is across the street from the Academy of Arts, Careers and Technology, formerly Regional Technical Institute. With a new building scheduled to be ready by December, the career tech high school is switching from a two-year to a four-year school next year, with all classes held at its Edison Way campus.

“I went to a conference in town,” said AACT principal Janis McCreary. “One of the things brought up was if we do get a lot of renewable energy in Nevada, the workforce might not be there for it.”

After securing funding from private foundations and grants, the school is adding renewable energy training for their high school students. In addition to traditional skills training in machine tools, welding and autoCAD (computer-aided design), students can learn about geothermal, wind and solar, and the politics and ethics of those fields. The college credit they earn while at AACT can feed into TMCC’s program and UNR’s new minor in renewable energy.

The renewable energy minor at UNR officially launched in spring 2008. Its required introductory course has been full with 40 students each semester since. Jeff Ceccarelli of NVEnergy is a UNR alum who helped get the renewable energy minor off the ground. He said one of the program’s main attractions is a geothermal lab constructed on UNR’s Redfield Campus. It’s “a stone’s throw” from the Steamboat geothermal plant operated by Ormat Technologies, which has 10 power plants in the state and a handful more under development.

“I might not be able to give you a $50 million endowment,” said Paul Thomsen, Ormat’s director for policy and business development, “but I can give access to our people and to our power plant, and that should be a marketable tool—an infield, operating, renewable facility. I don’t know of another university in the country that can offer that to a student.”

But there’s still something that could interrupt student access to the geothermal lab: Money.

“The [Redfield] lab is built, they’re just figuring out how they’re going to use it,” said Thomsen. “Rumor is it could be set for the chopping block if current budget projections go through.”

Which way the wind blows

Nevada’s higher education budget could be slashed by as much as 60 percent at the very time, some opine, the state should be investing in education and its future workforce.

During a Senate committee meeting on Feb. 5, Ray Bacon of the Nevada Manufacturers Association said Nevada should look to Texas when discussing job creation. Texas created 85 percent of the new jobs in the country last year, he said, and were able to attract high-tech companies from Silicon Valley. Sen. Michael Schneider responded, “During this recession we need to put our money into education. The University of Texas was well-funded and that is why the Silicon Valley companies moved there. … The money to fund their university system comes from their energy; they are spending huge amounts of money on their university system. That is what we need to do here in Nevada. We have been fiscally irresponsible in the past for not funding our education system better.”

Paul Thomsen is director for policy and business development at Ormat Technologies, which operates 10 geothermal power plants in Nevada.

Photo By Lauren Randolph

This situation hints at one reason Mariah Power decided to locate its manufacturing plant—one providing 140 jobs—in Michigan. It’s set to begin production this month.

Mariah Power, makers of a spiral wind turbine, added 15 new Reno-based employees in the past year, bringing its total of local employees up to 19. Though headquartered here, when it came time for CEO Mike Hess to choose where to locate its manufacturing plant, he chose Manistee, Mich. Why didn’t he choose Nevada?

“I had a community in Michigan who came to me and said, ‘We can do your manufacturing for you,’ and they went to their government and got a $400,000 grant for us.” It was a federal block grant, which, Hess pointed out, Nevada had the same opportunity to apply for. “They did it not to buy me, but to create jobs in their community, and we don’t have that kind of leadership here,” said Hess. “Green energy is perfect in this environment. We have sun, we have wind. We don’t seem to have leadership around it.”

He added that cuts to higher education are not going to help the situation.

“No, Nevada is not ready for green jobs. You have no manufacturing capability, therefore you’re missing the talent to get any kind of volume,” said Hess. “To get those intellectual jobs here, where you’re doing design and development, we need to upgrade UNLV and UNR. You can’t fund them at 60 percent and expect to have talent available for startups or companies trying to get into the business.”

Hess is less concerned about training local workers than in providing the infrastructure for companies like his to thrive. “We need infrastructure before you’re ever going to get into job training,” he said. “Why train people for jobs that don’t exist?”

If we build it, will they come?

So let’s say we have the money, we have the workforce, we have a grid to connect it all and political will to carry it through—will we have enough jobs?

A Las Vegas Sun article pointed out that Nevada Solar One promised 28 permanent jobs at $19.61 an hour, El Dorado Energy promised one job at $21.63 per hour, and Powerlight Corp./SunPower said they’d hire one permanent employee at $21.45 an hour.

Those numbers don’t begin to touch Nevada’s unemployment rate of more than 10 percent. So is the Green Economy just so much pie in the sky?

“I think that well-intended individuals have created an error of expectation that reality tends to trump on,” said Fitzgerald of Nevadaworks. “I think we should try very hard to make it happen. But when you bring in reality, we’re not going to end the foreclosure crises the day after tomorrow … but you still have to look into the future. That’s where all the training these schools are working on and apprenticeships come in. We should support that. When that job opens up, that person with the certification will probably move to the head of the line rather than the people without it.”

Thomsen of Ormat gets a little miffed when he hears that renewable energy doesn’t create enough jobs. “My rebuttal is, first, it’s easy to create a lot of crummy jobs. It’s very hard to create a few high-impact jobs. Each power plant of ours has about six fulltime employees making on average over $60,000 a year, with full benefits, and it’s very high impact.” Those employees, he said, purchase goods and services in the community. And for each power plant, Ormat buys materials, like gaskets and pumps, from local vendors. “Don’t measure a company purely on the jobs it creates,” said Thomsen. “When we take our vendor list and look at what we spent in 2008 in Northern Nevada, the number is pretty staggering.”

Much obliged

Ted Batchman is director of the Renewable Energy Center, an operating geothermal lab, at UNR’s Redfield campus.

Photo By Lauren Randolph

Lest you think renewable energy development is purely an altruistic attempt to lessen Nevada’s carbon footprint while creating jobs—something that could be dropped from discussion if it doesn’t pan out—Nevada is legally obliged to increase renewable energy production. Because of the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio, 20 percent of Nevada’s energy production is to be from renewable energy sources by 2015. Currently, that figure is at about 9 percent.

“This is not just a wait-and-see,” says Ceccarelli of NVEnergy. “It’s something we need to make progress on every day. Those targets are aggressive. States with a renewable portfolio standard, like we have, have a legal obligation to meet those requirements.” He said getting that amount of renewable energy online by 2015 will require roughly $2 billion in capital investments.

“With the systems we know of and know enough about, geothermal could meet the current renewable portfolio standard by itself,” Shevenelle told a Senate committee in February.

Some of the most successful renewable energy projects in Nevada reside in Boulder City. It’s home to Nevada Solar One, the world’s third-largest solar thermal power plant, and the 130-acre Sempra Solar project. The town attributes its renewable energy success to the ease with which they’re able to approve such projects. The city completed an environmental impact study on a large chunk of land in the 1990s, when a gas-fired power plant was built on city property, so further studies aren’t required for projects on that land. Sempra Solar, for example, was approved in only six months.

Contrast that with the one to two years—or longer—it takes to get many renewable energy projects off the ground, particularly on public lands. In January 2008, the Bureau of Land Management had more than 150 applications pending for wind energy permits and more than 135 proposals pending for solar projects. The agency, unaccustomed to reviewing solar project proposals, put a moratorium on applications in May in order to complete an environmental analysis of the effects of solar power projects on the environment. The moratorium has since lifted, but it points to the lengthy process involved in renewable energy development.

“In this state it’s more complicated because about 85 percent of it is federal land, so most of the ventures won’t be on private land, but public,” said Fred Lokken, who co-teaches the Intro to Renewable Energy class at TMCC with Jim Nichols.

Green economy meets green community

In a somewhat ironic turn, some conservationists are concerned that the environment could be sacrificed in the crusade for clean energy. After Sept. 11, 2001, a number of laws—including the PATRIOT Act—were rushed through rather mindlessly in the name of fighting terrorism. Now, some think a similar effect could be taking place in the name of jobs.

“While everyone wants to put geothermal plants in places where we can get the most production, and the environmental groups agree this is the cleanest way to produce power, the same people do not want us to build the transmission lines to the plants,” said Sen. John J. Lee during a senate committee meeting in February. “Whether it is the National Environmental Policy Act standards or environmental concerns from both groups, we will have problems.”

The Nevada Wilderness Project has a “Smart from the Start” campaign underway that seeks to encourage renewable energy development in areas that are already ecologically compromised while protecting wildlife and resources. The group is creating working maps to determine where renewable development is desirable and where it’s not, and examining measures to protect wildlife in those areas.

“We want to reach out to energy companies to avoid the most sensitive areas and also identify areas that are ecologically really hammered and appropriate for development,” said NWP director John Wallin. “The idea is also to ensure we’re partners in this new energy economy rather than have arguments mountain range by mountain range over energy projects.”

Thomsen thinks that, for Nevada to take full advantage of the Green Economy, an open discussion among environmentalists and renewable energy developers is necessary, as is a streamlined permitting process and transmission lines.

“I think transmission is underway,” he said. “The BLM is starting to streamline permitting, and there’s the beginning of conversation between legislatures and local government to see where we can build these projects if we protect certain species that doesn’t negatively impact the environment around us.”

He said Sen. Reid has also created overlay maps for potential areas of transmission line. “Those could be a beginning point for serious conversations about how to preserve the beauty and species of Nevada and intelligently develop renewable energy projects.