Go West, clean megawatts

Nevada stakes its renewable energy future on California.

  • Valley Electric Association linemen work on lines that now can feed power into the California grid.

    Valley Electric Association
  • On windy days, a mixture of desert dust and coal ash from the Reid Gardner Generating Station can blanket homes on the Moapa Indian Reservation. t

  • An explanation of how the Advanced Rail Energy Storage system works.

    Valley Electric Association

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You might say the same of Nevada's clean energy resources. It's all been here for eons. Someone just had to have a reason to harness it.

Right now, that reason is California. Husted is betting that as California utilities jettison out-of-state coal plants to meet their state's 33 percent by 2020 renewable mandate, they'll snap up contracts for carbon-free power. Southern California Edison, one of California's three for-profit utilities, has already signed on to buy power from two southern Nevada solar plants to supply about 70,000 customers for 20 years. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power will buy a similar amount of electricity from a solar plant on the reservation of the Moapa Band of Paiutes, about an hour's drive east of Las Vegas.

But whether California utilities can buy enough electricity from Nevada to nourish a thriving new industry is no sure thing. It might be tough just to get that power to market. The lines down south are close to full; other lines don't stretch to the remote sources of energy. North of Pahrump, Husted says, geothermal wells have been drilled and capped for want of transmission.

Transmission "is sort of a chicken-and-egg thing," says Paul Thomsen, director of the Governor's Office of Energy in Nevada. "A utility wants to put generation where transmission is, but transmission doesn't go where there isn't generation." Sometimes a utility invests in transmission based on the future value of a new plant, but even that doesn't always go as planned. In 2007, NV Energy planned to construct a sprawling coal-burning facility near Ely, Nev. The utility would have leveraged the plant's future profits to build a 235-mile-long, $500 million transmission line to transport the plant's power south to Las Vegas and beyond. When NV Energy canceled the plant in 2009, the transmission went with it.

In 2009, however, Sen. Reid resurrected that line with an item in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act guaranteeing $2 billion in loan backing for transmission devoted to renewables. The One Nevada, or "ON," Line, went into service this year. The first independent producer to wheel power over its wires, Ormat Technologies of Reno, sends electricity from its new Don A. Campbell geothermal plant to Southern California.

Both Husted and Thomsen cite the ON Line and Ormat's new plant as encouraging developments. Husted, however, has an even better idea: A proposed 300-mile line called the Nevada West Connect, which he speaks of as if it already exists. "We believe it's good not just for Nevada, not just for Valley Electric, but for California." Like coal and natural gas, geothermal produces always-on power, not subject to the vagaries of weather. As California dumps coal and turns to renewables, geothermal demand could soar and investors might rally around to build transmission.

Or not. Drilling a geothermal well is expensive, and its power-producing capacity isn't certain until drilling is complete. A Canadian company called Nevada Geothermal (now Alternative Earth Resources) nearly defaulted on an Energy Department loan in 2011 when a project came in five megawatts weaker than promised. Another geothermal company, Terra-Gen, explored, drilled and secured transmission rights at a site in Churchill County, Nev., near a plant that's been sending electricity to Southern California Edison for a quarter of a century. Three years in, the utility that had agreed to purchase the power, Pacific Gas & Electric, pulled out. After all, why go to Nevada for clean power when there's plenty available at home?

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