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[Energy]

The 1 percent solution

In a state with so much sun, why are Nevada’s solar standards so dim?

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Nevada is lucky enough to have a renewable energy standard that mandates that 20 percent of our energy must be met by renewables by 2015. On the surface, our standard compares favorably with other Western states. Arizona is trying to generate 15 percent of its energy from renewables by 2025; in New Mexico the goal is 20 percent by 2020; in California—the vanguard of most green efforts—the goal is 20 percent by 2010.

Still, the picture grows somewhat more anemic when you pull solar out of the pie and consider it by itself. Right now, according to the Nevada Office of Energy, Nevada is seeking only about 1 percent of its total energy from solar power. The solar power plant at Nellis Air Force Base and the large Nevada Solar One array near Boulder City have us well on our way to hitting the mark.

But … it’s 1 percent. In a state where the sun shines so often a rainy day is cause for celebration.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the trade association of the solar-energy industry, Ohio’s solar standard is 0.5 percent by 2025, but in Arizona the standard is 4.5 percent and in New Mexico, 4 percent by 2020.

Not much better, but better than 1 percent.

“We think we can do so much better,” says SEIA spokesperson Monique Hanis. “We’re much more bullish.” How much more bullish? SEIA is discussing supporting a policy that pushes for up to 50 percent of all new energy to be solar-generated.

Most observers point to the higher costs of manufacturing solar panels in explaining the low solar goals. “Utilities are trying to balance a more green portfolio without affecting customers’ energy bills too much,” says Brian Lips, a policy analyst with the North Carolina Solar Center, which studies the solar industry across the country.

“The 1 percent standard is the floor and not the ceiling,” says Hatice Gecol, director of the Nevada Office of Energy. “I am sure we will meet it well before 2015. I expect that Nevada will see a larger percentage of solar energy as technology lowers the price of harnessing and storing solar.”

Still, setting more ambitious goals may bite the state in the butt. Lips notes that California doesn’t have specific requirements for solar but has more solar capacity than anyone else. On the other hand, Colorado has a requirement that 0.8 percent of its power be generated from solar by 2020; the goal is close to being met, and so utilities are starting to scale back.

And energy generation is only one issue. “The transmission infrastructure is really lacking,” says Lips. “Even if we started exploiting Nevada’s sun, there would have to be a massive amount of new transmission lines built to get the energy where it’s needed.”

While this will prove a challenge to maximizing solar resources here, it threatens to really derail tapping Nevada’s enormous geothermal resources—the richest in the country—which are concentrated heavily in the northern part of the state. The problem is that there’s no north-south transmission line to get geothermal energy to Southern Nevada.

However, a Provo, Utah, firm called Raser Technologies last week opened up a geothermal plant in Beaver County, Utah, in the southwestern portion of the state. Geothermal taps superhot water from beneath the earth to generate electricity, and Raser’s plant is one of the first to generate energy from much cooler water—say, about 160 degrees Fahrenheit, about the temperature of a cup of Starbucks coffee.

The Raser plant is selling 10 megawatts of power to Anaheim, California—enough for around 10,000 homes, where it helps meet California’s renewable energy needs. On the one hand, it’s an encouraging sign that more renewable resources can come online within striking distance of the power grid—Raser’s plant was less than 10 miles from a connection—but disappointing that it has to pass through Nevada, where the clean energy won’t be used, to get to Anaheim.

“Interest has been expressed by Nevada utilities,” says Raser’s director of geothermal, Mike Hayter. “The dynamics of the market have influenced where those conversations have gone.” Meaning that, so far, California utilities have more resources to outbid rivals in other states for new energy, including ours. A spokesperson for Nevada Energy had no comment on whether the utility attempted to purchase energy from the Beaver plant.

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