Friday, Aug. 28, 2009 | 2:02 a.m.
We have heard so much about the potential of solar energy, but other than a few notable projects, not much is happening.
One fact is certain: Mother Nature has endowed us with enough sunshine that it gives us a lot of energy to use. Another fact: Nevada has a great deal of land that could be used to harvest this resource.
We even have a good array of tax and rebate benefits. Solar equipment, although not cheap, is coming down in price — in fact, it is one of the few sources of power exhibiting this characteristic.
Then why isn’t development taking place at a faster pace?
Over the past decades, government-subsidized prices at the gas pump and the coal mine have been (deceptively) low. It has been interesting to observe the thirst for renewable energy when these prices rise and then see how we put it out of our minds when the prices go down.
The recession has greatly affected the ability of companies and individuals to garner loans to install systems, just as it has affected virtually all other aspects of business. This is one of the harder problems to solve, and it has a chilling effect on solar power development.
The federal government owns most of the land in Nevada. This could facilitate or hinder the building of plants. The jury is still out on this.
Another issue of concern for Nevada solar plants of large scale is water availability. Certain kinds of plants require water both for their cooling systems and for cleaning the collectors. By developing appropriate technology, we can minimize this water use.
One element of the solar industry includes the installation and operation of systems on individual homes. We will see this market continue to grow in Nevada.
Installing a solar system on your house is investing in something that will furnish energy for the house’s lifetime. You will save as the price of power goes up.
Putting these devices on homes is difficult for most people in the current economic situation. However, what about putting them on new homes?
If every home in a new development had them, two benefits would result. First, the installation cost would be less for each system. Second, and this is extremely important, the cost of the system could be wrapped into the mortgage. Energy savings would outweigh the increased mortgage payments.
One big problem is having appraisers incorporate these features into estimated home values. Without that, homebuilders will not be eager to build with these features.
Another focus should be making Nevada the home for companies that design and manufacture solar equipment for plants. Ausra, for example, has a manufacturing facility here.
We will have a more difficult time encouraging many businesses of this type to relocate to Nevada. State incentives, a track record in technology and manufacturing, and other aspects play heavily in the decisions about where companies locate.
Our economy, based almost totally on gaming and tourism, puts us a little behind some of our neighboring states.
Public education, with its high dropout rates, is not enticing to companies locating here. Higher education has suffered significant cuts, but with sufficient state and federal leadership, we can offer an inviting development climate.
Community colleges could emphasize manufacturing and installation trades. At the university level, NV Energy has given both UNR and UNLV money to develop educational programs in renewable energy.
If it is difficult to entice companies to locate here, an alternative is to grow our own companies. How can we assist in bringing this about? Some states have organizations that help companies develop products in their earliest stages in exchange for a piece of the action from successful concepts.
With proper support, Nevada’s universities could perform this function. We have organizations at the universities that can assist owners with business operations.
Solar’s detractors say the sun shines only part of the time, but we have a comprehensive solution to this problem in energy storage. Large solar thermal plants will be the first to benefit from this as the technology exists but hasn’t been widely applied. With it, energy could be provided by these plants 24 hours a day. Photovoltaic plants and systems on houses will be able use storage batteries.
Throughout history, Nevadans have proven their ability to harness the earth’s bounty. Now is the time to look to the future: the sun.