Las Vegas Sun

April 30, 2016

Currently: 58° — Complete forecast

Solar power:

The one unknown about proposed solar field: Cost of energy

Energy cost elusive

Solar power is more expensive to generate than electricity from plants relying on coal, natural gas or geothermal energy because of the higher costs of solar technology. Isolating the costs consumers pay for solar energy is difficult because of the mix of energy sources.

Solar Test Site

Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, left, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), center, and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu wait to announce a Nevada Test Site solar power development zone during a news conference at UNLV's Greenspun Hall Thursday, July 8, 2010. Launch slideshow »

Just about everything to know about a proposed federal zone for solar power plants northeast of Las Vegas is available for public inspection except for one vital detail — how much consumers must pay for the renewable energy.

That calculation isn’t in the draft environmental impact statements for 24 proposed “solar energy zones” on federal land in the West that were announced last week by the Energy and Interior departments. Why? Because the cost of electricity, no matter how it is produced, is normally negotiated between the power plant operator and the utility that purchases the energy for its customers.

But there is plenty of other information on the proposed zones, seven in Nevada, part of a strategy by both departments to develop what they said would be renewable energy “in the right way and in the right places.”

The draft document for Nevada's proposed solar energy zones can be found at: http://solareis.anl.gov/documents/dpeis/index.cfm#vol5.

One zone is Dry Lake, 15,649 undeveloped acres 13 miles northeast of Nellis Air Force Base. Three zones are tabbed for Lincoln County, two are in Esmeralda County and one is in Nye County.

All are on Bureau of Land Management acreage where federal agencies expect minimal disruption to the environment, yet close enough to civilization to deliver electricity to households and businesses.

Absence of environmental harm means the government can act faster to approve at least some proposed solar projects.

Still, figuring the cost of energy to consumers remains elusive.

One expert told the Sun that solar power is far more expensive to generate than electricity from plants relying on coal, natural gas or geothermal energy because of the higher costs of solar technology. Because solar power is mixed with other forms of energy on the grid that delivers electricity to homes and businesses, isolating the costs consumers pay for solar energy is difficult. But that’s something the state Public Utilities Commission is trying to determine in an investigation of the effect solar power and other renewable resources have on utility rates and economic development in Nevada.

Solar power advocates have argued that the sooner communities can convert to solar power and other renewable energy resources, the quicker the United States can limit reliance on fossil fuels that contribute to pollution.

The announcement of solar zones by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Energy Secretary Steven Chu culminated a nearly two-year study by the Obama administration. The government will take public comment of the environmental impact document through mid-February.

A final environmental impact statement is expected next fall, then the BLM will choose the actual zones. The soonest the agency could approve power plants would probably be early to mid-2012, with power produced as early as 18 months later.

“Our country has incredible renewable resources, innovative entrepreneurs, a skilled workforce, and manufacturing know-how,” Chu said. “It’s time to harness these resources and lead in the global, clean energy economy.”

The Solar Energy Industries Association, a Washington trade group, praised the proposal. President Rhone Resch said the plan would help the solar industry by providing “a more predictable review and approval process for projects on public lands.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada also hailed the announcement as a way to create clean energy jobs.

“These projects will help Nevada lead the nation in clean energy production and further diversify our economy,” he said.

Reid also announced $50 million in federal funding for a solar demonstration zone at the Nevada National Security Site to test solar technologies.

The BLM has approved eight large-scale solar projects in Nevada and California over the past three months that are expected to generate 3,572 megawatts of electricity. One megawatt can power 600 households in the valley, where air conditioning use is heavy, but as many as 1,000 homes where there is less reliance on cooling systems.

The government hopes the solar energy zones will speed approval of some of the 104 other solar power plant applications nationally that could deliver an additional 60,000 megawatts of electricity. The BLM could standardize and streamline its approval process, including mandating design features for power plants in the solar zones.

As Salazar said, “Smart from the Start” planning “will help us site solar projects in the right places, and reduce conflicts and delays at later stages of the development process.”

One reason for the application backlog is developers have approached the BLM by the droves to grab a slice of the solar power action, including selling renewable energy to potentially lucrative markets in California.

“This is kind of like a land rush,” said Tom Fair, NV Energy’s vice president of renewable energy. “It’s very competitive, and some developers will make applications on numerous sites.”

Another reason for the rush is that solar power developers have applied for tax credits and loan guarantees by the government.

“Especially with the emphasis this administration is placing on renewable energy, it’s a popular field to get into,” said Erin Eastvedt, the BLM’s renewable energy project coordinator in Nevada.

Eastvedt estimated it takes one to three years to process an application, depending on the complexity of the project and the environmental issues. Of the applications pending, five are in or adjacent to Dry Lake.

Fair said the utility supports a solar energy zone for Dry Lake.

“The terrain at Dry Lake is very flat and it’s not too far from Las Vegas,” Fair said. “And it probably has as good of solar resources as anywhere in Southern Nevada.”

Dry Lake abuts portions of Interstate 15 and U.S. 93, and the Moapa River Reservation. It could feed electricity to the Las Vegas Valley through existing transmission lines.

Over 20 years, as much as 2,500 megawatts of solar power could be developed at Dry Lake, enough to power 1.5 million to 2.5 million households.

Government planners estimate the zone could create up to 3,500 construction jobs, and up to 5,800 permanent jobs. But the megawatts and jobs produced could be much lower depending what kind of solar technology is used.

Dry Lake has limitations should it get approved for solar plants.

Nellis officials told project planners that approaches and departures from runways may be adversely affected by solar towers or other tall structures at Dry Lake. Nellis also says that structures higher that 50 feet may present electromagnetic concerns for its test mission at the Nevada Test and Training Range north and west of Dry Lake.

Solar power plants there would have minimal effect on many animal and plant species, but there are exceptions such as the Pahrump poolfish, Moapa White River springfish, Southwestern toad and the birds Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and Phainopepla, all of which could be affected by any groundwater withdrawals by solar developers.

There also may be potential problems for the desert tortoise, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. As many as 213 tortoises reside at Dry Lake. The draft environmental impact statement said effects may be small because Dry Lake represents less than 1 percent of the species’ potentially suitable habitat where desert scrub exists.

But the report warns that any plans to move desert tortoises should include consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because “these actions, if done improperly, can result in injury or death,” to the tortoises.

Another potential issue is how solar plants at Dry Lake may affect cultural resources. Dry Lake is home to the Old Spanish Trail/Mormon Road, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, as well as six other sites determined by the government to be eligible for listing.

The report recommends that Native American tribes be consulted to identify potential archaeological sites and historic structures.

Join the Discussion:

Check this out for a full explanation of our conversion to the LiveFyre commenting system and instructions on how to sign up for an account.

Full comments policy