Long Live the Sun!

coppermountainsolar01print.jpgIs the sun frowning on Nevada? The promised boom in solar energy development has sounded more like a pop in popular conversation. Where are the jobs? The revenue? Photovoltaic manufacturer Amonix closed its North Las Vegas plant in July after barely a year of operation. It’s all over, right?

Not so fast. Solar development is a slow process that will come to fruition over the next decade, says Lydia Ball, executive director of the Clean Energy Project, a Las Vegas education and advocacy organization. On the bright side, she says, much of the groundwork is laid, and the 2013 legislative session will bring an opportunity to make even more progress.

The Clean Energy Project’s 2011 progress report details four large-scale solar energy projects in Nevada. And the report doesn’t include some major recent developments, such as Sempra U.S. Gas & Power’s Copper Mountain Solar 2 and 3 projects in Boulder City. When completed in 2015, Sempra reports, these will have a 400-megawatt capacity, enough to power 125,000 homes. (Those homes aren’t in Nevada. Sempra is selling its energy to California utilities, as is K Road Power, owner of the Moapa Solar Project on the Moapa Indian reservation.) Other new projects keep power at home: Enel Green Power’s Stillwater geothermal-solar plant near Fallon, Solar Reserve’s Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project near Tonopah and Enbridge’s Silver State North Solar Project near Primm.

But what about the economic impact? None of the companies behind these projects is based in Nevada, and each plant creates fewer than 100 permanent full-time jobs. But that shouldn’t chill us on sun power’s economic potential, Ball says. Nor should whether a company is based here, or whether it exports the power it generates. The real boon for Nevada is the taxes, which, according to the Clean Energy Project’s research, have totaled $248 million since 2010. Each project also creates several hundred temporary jobs for the duration of construction—typically six months or more. And it can’t hurt for Nevada to use more of its own natural resource—sunlight—and send less money out of state for coal and natural gas.

On the national front, the feds are trying to re-energize post-Solyndra solar development. In October, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar finalized a plan to make utility-scale development on public lands easier in so-called “Solar Energy Zones” in six Western U.S. states, including Nevada. The plan offers a blueprint for streamlining permits, environmental mitigation and economic incentives. It encompasses 14,000 acres and more than 1,500 megawatts of capacity in Southern Nevada; more than 60,000 acres and nearly 7,000 megawatts in Nevada overall.

None of this includes smaller-scale projects or distributed generation. “We’ve seen a decrease in that, mainly because NV Energy hasn’t run a rebate program for more than a year and a half, and people wait for rebates to put solar in their homes,” Ball says. “We’re hopeful that in the next legislative session there will be investment in smaller distributed-generation projects.”

Recent stumbles aside, rumors of solar’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. U.S. and Chinese investment, along with technological advances, have already helped push the business toward viability. Photovoltaic cells are cheaper than ever—and our demand for energy is as voracious as ever.

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