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November 30, 2015

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Report: Nevada should be hub for clean-energy innovation

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In 19th-century America, the government awarded land grants to start what would become the transcontinental railroad and establish universities such as Rutgers and Michigan State.

Now, Brookings Mountain West, a research group, is calling for a similarly ambitious effort based on the model of land grants to shift the nation from fossil fuel to cleaner energy.

In a report to be released today, Brookings Mountain West calls for the creation of four to six “energy innovation centers” in Nevada and other states that would act as miniature Silicon Valleys for cleaner energy.

Such energy generates less carbon dioxide and reduce global warming, which scientists say has been largely caused by pollution from dirtier sources, such as petroleum and coal.

Mark Muro, a co-director of Brookings Mountain West and a principal author of the report, said the centers would also be in Idaho, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona and foster innovation to move clean energy from the drawing board to the marketplace.

Nineteenth-century America, Muro said in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C., “saw the power of education connected to new regional economies in the rural and hinterland economies of the West” that led to unprecedented economic growth and job creation.

“We think we can do it again,” Muro said. The group is a collaboration of UNLV and the Brookings Institution.

The proposed centers would unite the private sector, such as venture capitalists and electric utilities, with research centers and facilities to take advantage of their expertise in solar, geothermal and wind power, as well as biomass and biofuels.

Especially important, in the Brookings proposal, would be Nevada and Arizona.

Those hubs, concentrating on solar energy, would include UNLV, Arizona State University, the University of Arizona, the University of New Mexico, the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Nellis Air Force Base, Sandia National Laboratories and private companies such as NV Energy.

The effort would, of course, come with a price tag: $1 billion to $2 billion annually in federal funding.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid took note of the recession and the large federal deficits.

“While Sen. Reid supports advanced clean-energy research, these are challenging budgetary times for that level of funding,” Reid spokesman Tom Brede said.

There is, however, precedent for these centers. The Brookings Institution several years ago recommended 20 energy innovation “hubs” nationally to concentrate on a wide variety of energy solutions.

The Energy Department has approved three such hubs with annual budgets of about $125 million each, Muro said. But federal spending on clean energy has been falling sharply for 30 years, since the Carter administration.

The American Energy Innovation Council noted that research and development spending on clean-energy projects dropped from about $8 billion in 1979 to about $1 billion in 2007. The council is a group organized by Bill Gates, the retired head of Microsoft.

Tom Piechota, an engineering professor and director of sustainability and multidisciplinary research at UNLV, said it is important to bring together engineers, economists, architects, public-policy analysts, as well as financial and legal experts.

“What happens to windmills when there’s no wind?” he said, adding it’s important to think about scientific and technological issues and beyond them as well.

“Power lines don’t know where the electrons are coming from or where they’re going,” said Piechota. “But when you connect a solar panel in the desert to the larger power grid, you are generating issues that are not directly renewable-energy issues.”

The Brookings Mountain West report is titled “Centers of Invention: Leveraging the Mountain West Innovation Complex for Energy System Transformation.” The report noted that Nevada is particularly well-positioned in geothermal energy.

“Nevada resides at the forefront of geothermal industry expansion,” the report said, “with leading firms like Ormat Technologies, Ram Power and Vulcan headquartered in Reno and 86 projects with a cumulative final generation capacity of 2,000 to 3,700 megawatts — more than any other state — in various stages of development.”

Muro said Nevada should work on energy issues that have big payoffs.

“This could very much create jobs in the short term,” he said. But, just as important, “It means the chance for multiple breakthroughs and a major attack on a major problem of our time — runaway carbon emission and global warming.”

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