Regulators dampen hopes for tribal solar project

The Moapa Solar Energy Center would have provided 175 megawatts to Nevada's largest utility.

 

Hardly a better place to generate solar power exists on planet earth than the 71,000 acre Moapa River Reservation, 50 miles northeast of Las Vegas, Nevada. A wedge in the rainshadows of two small mountain ranges, the Moapa Valley enjoys, on average, 297 sunny days a year. That sun these days is a powerful resource, one the Moapa Band of Paiutes have just begun to exploit. “For us, solar power is an opportunity to combine stewardship of the land with economic development,” former tribal chairman Darren Daboda told me last year. “It fits into the holistic approach that we believe in — to minimize our impact and maximize our resources.”

In March, the Moapa, in collaboration with Tempe, Arizona developer First Solar, broke ground on the first major solar farm ever built on tribal lands, a 250-megawatt plant that, when it’s finished, will power roughly 110,000 homes for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Daboda and his crew have hoped it would be the start of a trend, and they've laid down plans for more solar farms, including one near the site of the 550-megawatt Reid Gardner coal plant, which for 50 years has spewed toxic air and ash over the tiny community’s homes and playgrounds. Last week, however, those plans were quashed, at least temporarily, when the Nevada Public Utilities Commission rejected, for the second time, a proposal by NV Energy — Reid Gardner’s owner and the state’s largest utility — to buy that plant’s power.

Moapa Solar Groundbreaking
Sen. Harry Reid joins Moapa tribal leader Aletha Tom and First Solar executives breaking ground on the tribe's first solar plant. Photo courtesy U.S. Energy Department.
The reason, environmentalists who supported the plant say, is that regulators haven’t caught up with recent trends in the solar market, where the price of photovoltaic panels dropped more than 80 percent since 2008. “They still see it at it as a bad deal for ratepayers,” says Barbara Boyle, a senior representative with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, which lobbied hard for the commission’s approval. “It’s a real problem, trying to get (utility commission) staff and consumer advocates up to speed on this, and to acknowledge the price of solar has changed.”

And not only that — during the same period that China's cheap solar panels were driving solar prices crazily downward, Nevada dramatically ramped up its clean-energy ambitions. In the spring of 2013, NV Energy announced a plan to close its coal-fired power plants by 2019; the following June, the Nevada legislature applied that same ethic to the entire state with Senate Bill 123, a law requiring utilities to retire almost all coal plants and replace them with cleaner generation. Reid Gardner's last turbine will spin down within two years.

Reid Gardner's closing notwithstanding, NV Energy doesn’t actually need the full $383 million, 175-megawatt RES Americas’ project to comply with the new law; the utility is a mere 54 megawatts shy of acquiring all its replacement power. But NV Energy spokeswoman Jennifer Schuricht says the Moapa Solar Energy Center had other merits. “It was shovel ready and would have provided hundreds of construction jobs,” she wrote in an email. It would also have produced power, she says, at or below national average for solar generation.

Boyle says it could even have competed well against natural gas. “Natural gas has a fuel price,” she says, “and there’s no guarantee it’s going to stay low.”

The Moapa project might also, in a less quantifiable way, repair the relationship between the utility and the people who suffered so long downwind from its coal plant. But that’s rarely something utility commissions anywhere consider.

Instead, the commissioners turned down the Moapa project for one simple reason, says their spokesman, Peter Kostes: They wanted NV Energy to submit their plans to a competitive bidding process, as Nevada law requires. While certain projects can skirt around that process, in this case, the commissioners didn’t deem it in the public interest to do so. And without the data about relative job creation and economic benefits the bidding process would reveal, the commissioners couldn't justify their support.

Barbara Boyle thinks that insistence on bids was too “strict,” and worries that NV Energy will now back out now altogether — a rumor Schuricht would neither confirm nor deny. And she holds to her position: “Some at the (Nevada) Public Utilities Commission,” she says, “continue to be resistant to renewable energy.”

Kostes insists, however, that regulators would have treated any other project the same way. “The commissioners are adamant that they’re not precluding another solar project,” he says. “They just want more information.”

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor of High Country News. She tweets @judlew.