Renewable hope

Despite setbacks, the Silver State’s green-power advocates remain furiously optimistic

The Ormat geothermal facility south of Reno at Steamboat Springs supplies some power to Sierra Pacific Power Company.

The Ormat geothermal facility south of Reno at Steamboat Springs supplies some power to Sierra Pacific Power Company.

Photo By Dennis Myers

Two years ago, Nevada Power signed a deal with MNS Wind Co. for 85 megawatts of power to be generated by 60 wind turbines atop Shoshone Mountain at the Nevada Test Site. That’d be enough clean energy to meet the needs of about 50,000 people.

Sen. Harry Reid lauded the project. Nevada, he said, was setting an example for the rest of the nation.

Tim Carlson, the head of a development corporation charged with exploring ways to develop the test site, was pleased. He’d worked for two years to attract a renowned wind company, obtain permits and line up stakeholders.

At the last minute, though, the U.S. Air Force nixed the plan. The turbines would interfere with radar, it said. A wind farm wasn’t conducive to security.

Now the wind project slated for the test site is just one of about a half-dozen failed or delayed renewable-energy projects in Nevada.

A planned 50-megawatt solar-trough facility planned for a site 10 miles out of Boulder City hasn’t yet received financing. Though it was supposed to be in operation by 2005, the project’s been delayed at least nine months.

The Cielo Desert Queen Wind Project, a proposed 80-megawatt plant 30 miles southwest of Vegas set to be in operation this year, died when the U.S. Congress didn’t renew federal production tax credits for wind projects.

Just outside Reno, a 44-megawatt geothermal power facility was planned for a site near Steamboat Springs. The company never even managed to pay a security deposit on the site. Now the company’s out of business, though the project was sold to Ormat Industries, a Sparks company that has a long-term agreement to generate some of the power Sierra Pacific Power Company uses.

Of the seven “Renewable Energy Power Plants Under Contract” listed at the Nevada State Office of Energy Web site, only one—a 20-megawatt geothermal plant being built near Fallon—will be developed on time.

It’s disappointing, agrees Dick Burdette, director of the Nevada State Office of Energy. A brochure put out by promoters of alternative energy shows a 100-mile circle of central Nevada—the sustainable energy sources in that area alone could provide enough power for the entire United States.

“Nevada doesn’t have any natural gas, no coal and precious little petroleum,” he says. “What do we have? We have renewables—world-class geothermal, world-class solar.”

Carlson was furious when the military halted wind development at the test site. The military had been in on the renewable-power plan since its conception.

“After two years and millions spent in research and development, we got two weeks from issuing a record of decision and the Air Force said, ‘By golly, we don’t want you out there.’ And we said, ‘Why didn’t you tell us that two years ago?'”

Now the wind developers are suing the feds in federal court to recoup costs.

“I don’t think it was kosher and certainly not aboveboard,” Carlson says. “I think that the Air Force didn’t think we’d get this far. … We would have had an 85-megawatt wind farm performing there this day if we hadn’t been stopped. When it came down to it, they didn’t want us playing in their sand box.” (The Air Force announced its decision at the moment Nevadans in the U.S. Senate were trying to kill the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project, suggesting federal reprisal.)

Carlson and his partner, John Johansen of San Diego, aren’t quitters. They formed a new company called Nevada Wind and recently purchased a 50-megawatt wind project proposed for an old mining site outside of Ely. The project had also been delayed for lack of financing.

The defunct and delayed renewable projects put Nevada utilities in the precarious position of not complying with state law.

Green-power advocates were giddy with delight last year when Nevada lawmakers increased the percentage of renewable energy Nevada utilities are required to purchase from 5 to 15 percent by 2013.

In northern Nevada, Sierra Pacific Power Company met its 5 percent requirement for 2003. Its southern counterpart, Nevada Power, didn’t make the goal.

Sierra Pacific is seeking a temporary exemption from the rquirement and scrambling to line up sources of renewable energy to meet standards in the future.

One solution involves the utility developing renewables on its own dime. That would be a twist. A few years ago, the company was trying to unload power plants. Solar installations owned by Sierra Pacific Resources were donated to the Desert Research Institute and Animal Ark.

“We’ve been trying to get out of the generation business,” says Colin Duncan, a staff consultant for Sierra Pacific. “Now it’s come full circle. … We’re looking at ways to build more. We’re making our best efforts to fulfill portfolio requirements, given our other financial difficulties.”

In Carson City, the state energy office is also doing what it can to finagle renewable projects. Burdette won’t divulge details.

“The governor is confronted with a law that’s not getting enforced,” Burdette says. “We’re trying to find ways to make that work. We’re having informal discussions with different people … but at best, it’s stopgap. The only way really to do this is with a financially healthy utility.”

Finding investors for renewable projects is difficult. Any solar or wind power developer must partner with Nevada utilities to sell power. Since the credit ratings of Nevada Power and Sierra Pacific are in the toilet, investors aren’t exactly lining up to do business.

Another solution to the utilities’ renewable lack is already in place and involves homeowners, schools and small businesses.

Since mid-April, sizeable rebates of $5 per watt are being offered to folks who install small solar arrays on homes or businesses. An individual installing, say, a one-kilowatt solar system on her home would receive a check for $5,000 to help pay for the installation. In return for that investment, the utility gets to count that kilowatt toward its portfolio requirements.

Nevada Power and Sierra Pacific hope for as much as five megawatts of green power over the next three years through this program. (More info at www.sierrapacific.com/takecontrol/alternative/pv.)

“It’s a lot of solar,” Duncan says. “If we have that many sign up, and they all come online, that would go a long way toward meeting the solar requirement.”

Carlson’s confident about Nevada’s sustainable future.

“You have to be optimistic in this business,” he says. “It’s not an easy business to be in. There are many unforeseens. Renewables are a start-up industry, but they’ve come a long way in the past five years.”

Given the increasing costs of fossil fuels, he believes, the market for renewables can only increase.

“People are starting to say, ‘What else is out there?'"