Power by the people

More about feed-in tariffs at www.fit4nv.org.

Schools with solar panels could make money to fund student activities. Universities could get paid for renewable energy production. Businesses and factories might turn industrial waste into power.

A plan headed to the Nevada Legislature creates a structure to pay institutions, companies and individuals for generating electricity. Advocates say the plan could create potentially a couple of thousand jobs and lure companies—folks who manufacture, say, solar panels—to the Silver State.

“It would be a big signal to the green energy industry that we’re serious about renewable energy in Nevada,” says Bob Tregilus of FIT4NV, an advocacy group for “feed-in tariffs” or FITs in Nevada. “We’re overlooked all the time as a potential hub for renewable energy equipment manufacturing. We don’t even come up on people’s radars.”

A FIT plan in Germany allowed the sun-starved European nation to kick U.S. ass when it comes to solar power. In a football game, Tregilus says, Germany would be ahead by about 186 to 7, based on per capita solar capacity.

A FIT program in Ontario kicked off last year. “They’re going great guns now,” Tregilus says.

The idea allows anyone to compete and sell energy. In doing so, it creates a robust market for renewable energy, eventually lowering the cost of solar and wind power technology.

“If we send a signal like this, oh my God, companies will say, ‘Nevada! California’s next door, and it’s a whole lot cheaper to do business in Nevada. We can ship our product to the nearby states.’”

What exactly is a feed-in tariff?

It’s not net metering, in which you install solar panels, connect to the Nevada power grid and start a calculated energy exchange at retail prices. When the meter runs backward, you’re making more juice than you’re using. On a cloudy day, the grid kicks in, and the beer in the fridge stays cold. No money changes hands.

A feed-in tariff allows makers of power to earn dough at fair, steady wholesale energy rates locked in for 20 years. A FIT plan could attract interested small-scale energy makers from schools to businesses to community co-ops—anyone with space for solar panels or wind turbines or geothermal generators. Industrial heat waste could generate energy. So could landfill rot. Or even, um, anaerobic digesters at “the poop plant” (a.k.a. water reclamation facility). All these small contributors add up to a large, powerful—and green—energy source.

OK, the name’s a bitch. Bill Draft Request 229 by Sen. Mike Schneider (D-Las Vegas) “creates a feed-in tariff in Nevada.” Tariff sounds like “tax,” and there’s no dirtier word in Nevada.

Tregilus, lobbying for the bill since 2008, reiterates a key point: A feed-in tariff is not a tax or even a subsidy. It costs citizens nothing. It costs governments nothing. It merely opens up the energy market to a wide array of potential power-makers who’d otherwise balk at a 200,000-acre wind farm (like one proposed by T. Boone Pickens that failed for lack of transmission line funding).

For a few years, the plan would cost utility ratepayers about 78 cents a month, Tregilus says, comparable to the cost of a jelly doughnut.

After about 10 years of rising fossil fuel costs and dropping renewable energy costs, ratepayers should see savings. Free doughnuts! And cleaner, greener power.

Tregilus is a feisty electric-car-lovin’ environmentalist who keeps a copy of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire in his commode.

He lauds decentralized, community-based green energy production over plans for humungous wind farms or giganto solar plants in the desert. A FIT plan keeps energy production closer to home.

“The sun shines everywhere, the wind blows everywhere … garbage dumps are everywhere,” he says. “You’re taking advantage of energy where it’s available.”