Las Vegas Sun

November 17, 2019

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Guest column: More can be done to incentivize renewable energy

Faced with the realities of change, many state and local governments are taking action by passing legislation to incentivize the use of renewable energy.

Nevada approved legislation in 2019 to require that 50% of its electric utilities attain their power from renewable energy sources by 2030 and strive to achieve 100% carbon-free energy consumption by 2050. This ambitious goal finds the state at 20% today, with 11 years remaining until the first target date.

To achieve the 50% mark, Nevada must double the projected growth of solar energy that was calculated at the time the legislation passed. The ability to reach this requirement is complicated by the fact that NV Energy holds a monopoly on electric utility services in the state. This places immense pressure on the corporation and raises the question: Can Nevada achieve its goal?

Nevada’s consumption share of renewable energy 11 years ago reached about 6%, according to data from State Energy Data System. While progress has been made, with roughly a 14% increase in renewable energy consumption since 2008, it is difficult to say whether the same progress can be made in the next 11 years. After the surge of rooftop solar panel installations in 2016, the rate of installations today is about the same as or lower than before the mandate was passed, and no progress is being made to build more than the single wind power plant currently operating in the state. There is more development in geothermal energy plants but the expectations should not be too high. The Bureau of Land Management seems to be putting all of its eggs in one basket by offering the biggest public land lease to geothermal production last month, but has sold only 37 parcels out of the 142 offered.

Here’s the good news: Many people and businesses in the valley support the shift to renewable energy sources — certainly enough to pass such ambitious legislation. This translates into greater demand for solar, wind and geothermal power plants to be built in order to supply the necessary power. Now for the bad news: One of the biggest barriers that stands in the way of reaching the goal is acquiring the land to build solar and wind power plants. More than 80% of Nevada’s land is federally owned, and land that is not federally owned is sought after for housing and economic development needs.

Solar and wind power plants can be built on federally owned land but there are a few hurdles that halt development. Rent fees are colossal — from $17 an acre to $57,000 per acre in 2019 for solar energy facilities — especially compared with the cost of leases that BLM gives for oil production at the minimum land cost of $2 per acre.

Even when businesses are willing to pay the high fees for large plants, there is opposition from conservation groups, which fear that the plants will interfere with wildlife. To remedy that, solar development is pushed to build on brownfield sites that contain both operating and abandoned mines. However, the operating mines need power supply that can be relied on 24/7, and developing plants on abandoned mines takes far more expenditure and technical expertise to build.

As concerned voters, we have said to ourselves that we will run a marathon but are still standing at the starting line. Well-intentioned governments at all levels have the common habit of passing ceremonial measures but seem unable or unwilling to pass more substantial legislation.

In my review of recent meeting records, it seems that only one sale of land, from the city of Henderson to NV Energy, occurred in 2018-19. Hopefully, this land will help address the state’s renewable energy priorities.

According to the City Energy Profiles, compiled by the Department of Energy, residential areas comprise the greatest share of electrical usage per capita in the Las Vegas Valley. Perhaps the city can work to develop renewable energy that can be incorporated into the developed land within the city limits. Local government can also fight to help remove some of the barriers for large plant development, like finding low-impact zones and lowering the cost of public land leases. Let’s not underestimate the immense challenge to find appropriate land for solar and wind plants.

Mary Blankenship is a student at UNLV, where she is a chemistry and economics double major, and a Brookings public policy minor student in the Honors College.