Wednesday, March 21, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Republicans have been pointing an increasingly accusing finger at President Barack Obama’s energy policies the last few weeks, blaming them for gas prices that have steadily risen to more than double what they were when Obama took office.
When the president kicks off a national two-day energy tour today in Nevada, he will be delivering the following retort: Not only are my energy policies great, but you love what they’ve done.
Boulder City’s Copper Mountain Solar 1 facility is the first of four energy backdrops Obama’s selected to highlight his administration’s multifaceted approach to energy development as he moves across the country. It is also the only solar facility on the short list, which includes tours of oil- and gas-drilling rigs in New Mexico, research and development facilities in Ohio, and a pipe storage yard in Oklahoma — where Obama plans to announce the construction of an oil pipeline to the Gulf of Mexico.
There are no similar project or policy announcements scheduled for the president’s turn through Boulder City; for Obama, the Nevada leg of the trip is about highlighting and defending a longstanding renewable energy policy he believes has been productive.
Copper Mountain Solar 1 is no ordinary photovoltaic power plant, even for Nevada, which ranks third in the nation for utility-scale solar projects. The nation’s biggest solar energy generator (the plant has a 58 MW production capacity), which was financed in part with $40 million worth of federal investment tax credits — “part of a set of tax incentives supported by the Obama administration that are helping move private investors off the sidelines,” the White House notes — was recognized by various industry rankings as the No. 1 plant in the nation following its completion in 2010.
The plant has also been roundly praised by Nevada political officials of all party stripes: Last year, Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval said Copper Mountain “exemplifies my goal of making Nevada the renewable energy capital of the country.”
“Thanks in part to commitments we have made, renewable energy from sources like wind and solar is set to double in the president’s first term,” a White House official said Tuesday.
But while the Copper Mountain project is a successful example of how the president’s policies helped turn sunshine into positive energy production, it’s the president who now needs the helpful afterglow of Copper Mountain’s universal popularity to brighten his reputation — even on renewable energy.
Republicans haven’t just been questioning Obama’s contribution to the rising prices at the pump. They’ve also been questioning whether the administration’s focused investments in solar and other renewable energy industries have or really will translate into savings for the energy consumer or the jobs for the nation’s unemployed.
The promise of “green jobs” was one of the driving forces behind public reception in Nevada for the new energy economy, the image of which has been rendered most succinctly as a photovoltaic panel glistening under the hot desert sun. But by various measures, the numbers just aren’t meeting the size of expectations.
Renewable energy jobs are growing in number, but the number remains small: Fewer than 10,000 between 2003 and 2010, according to a study by the Brookings Institution.
Even Copper Mountain is tied to that trend. Though it produced 350 jobs at the peak of construction in 2010, there are only five permanent on-site positions today.
Neither have many of the promised fiscal benefits of investing in renewable energy been realized. According to a clean energy study released earlier this month by Sen. Harry Reid’s office, Nevada’s economy stands to gain more than $1 billion from the renewable energy projects that are already under way — Boulder City stands to gain $12 million per year from the Copper Mountain project alone — but in these early stages, prices of renewable-produced electricity remain high compared to carbon-fueled sources, and local municipalities, because of tax incentives, are not yet seeing a revenue return.
In Nevada, there’s more bipartisan support for a continued focus on renewable energy than in most states. Sandoval, for one, has focused on clean energy as a potential export industry for Nevada. Republican Sen. Dean Heller, too, has supported the development of renewable energy as a state industry as well as portfolio standards and certain tax credits to keep that development humming. But he has also questioned whether the government’s financial policies to support renewable energy — especially loan guarantees, which were the focus of last year’s Solyndra scandal — are entirely necessary.
More recently, Heller has been an extremely vocal critic of Obama’s energy policies vis-a-vis gas prices, though he has joined party colleagues more to decry the president’s lack of movement on the Keystone XL oil pipeline and support for a “cap-and-trade” system of allotting carbon credits than Obama’s specific proposals on renewable energy investments.
Heller has sought to tie his chief rival for the Senate, Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley, to Obama’s positions in those areas and use Berkley’s support for those presidential policies to blame her for rising gas prices, as well. Berkley, meanwhile, has accused Heller of favoring oil and sought to reinstate expired tax incentives for renewable energy by stripping similar incentives from oil and gas companies.
The president won’t be engaging in such a war of favoritism as Nevada’s two Senate hopefuls are on Wednesday: Solar is the topic du jour for the first stop only; the rest of his tour through the United States will, in fact, be dominated by conversations about oil, in which the president is likely to try to expand the current cries over gas prices into a broader conversation about the nation’s energy priorities.
Still, national Republicans are seizing on his solar summit in Nevada to try to paint him into another either-or scenario — despite the support of local Republicans for some of the very projects and tax incentive schemes the president will be highlighting.
“President Obama is back in Nevada talking about renewable energy rather than how he will reduce Nevadans’ pain at the pump or help them find a job,” Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement Tuesday. “Nevadans deserve solutions from their president, but they’re only hearing excuses and seeing their tax dollars wasted on the president’s pet projects.”
The president’s supporters, however, believe this is a moment for Nevada to shine on a national stage and cement the promised clean energy future that can be fully realized only in a future much longer than the stormy election season.
“The opponents of renewable energy will continue trying to derail Nevada’s and the nation’s efforts to build a cleaner and safer energy future,” Reid wrote in a Sun op-ed Tuesday. “Nevada’s work to take advantage of its renewable energy resources does not come without risk, but we cannot turn away from clean energy and miss our opportunity to strengthen Nevada’s future with a victory in clean energy.”