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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In 2011, California Gov. Jerry Brown's renewable energy director, Michael Picker, wrote a letter to the Western Electricity Coordinating Council detailing all the new renewable energy that California had planned within its borders. Spurred by stimulus funds and fast-tracking from the Interior Department, California had signed off on 11 new solar plants; he projected that by the end of 2011, 10,000 megawatts of new generation would have cleared federal and state approval.

In light of that, Picker had some concerns as to whether electricity imports would degrade California's own energy market. In Picker's estimation, California, with all its new utility-scale and rooftop solar, should be exporting electricity to its Western neighbors, not the other way around.

So far, that hasn't happened. While solar on California rooftops doubled last year, it still satisfies a tiny fraction of the state's total demand. And many large-scale solar plants in California were canceled due to costs, environmental impacts or both.

One example is the Calico Solar Project, which was in development in the Cady Mountains, 37 miles east of Barstow, Calif. Developers at K Road Solar burned through three different technologies before mounting concerns over bighorn sheep and tortoises delayed the project so long that they gave up. They did, however, manage to salvage one commodity – a power purchase contract with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. With that in hand, K Road went to Nevada. The plant once known as Calico has since been bought by First Solar of  Tempe, Ariz., and will soon occupy 800 acres on lands managed by the Moapa Band of Paiutes.

No matter how many pictures you see of the Reid Gardner Generating Station in Moapa, Nev., or stories you read about children with asthma and adults with lung cancer, nothing prepares you for how close the coal-burning plant towers over the schoolyards and playgrounds on the Moapa Reservation. "We're about 600 yards away right here," says Darren Daboda, the tribe's former chairman and current environmental analyst, sitting in his office in a flat stucco building on the main road through town. The plant is technically outside the reservation's boundaries, "but there are no boundaries when it comes to air," Daboda says.

Daboda, 44, is a large, soft-spoken man with a broad face and a persistent smile; he wears a Tilley hat indoors and out. When he was chairman, he was instrumental in wooing solar developers; now, he's in charge of ensuring that the three solar facilities planned for the 71,000-acre reservation are done in an environmentally responsible manner. He has also led protests against the coal plant, which has sickened Moapa's residents for 49 years. The opposition got a big boost in 2012, when the plant's biggest customer, the California Department of Water Resources, declined to renew its contract. Now, after many broken promises, Daboda and his allies have almost won: Three units of Reid Gardner will be shut down this year; the fourth will go in 2017.

Unlike the Navajos, who get millions of dollars in revenue from coal plants on their land, the Moapa get nothing from Reid Gardner. NV Energy (then Sierra Pacific) reneged on early pledges to hire from the reservation. The plant's demise is nothing but a win for the tribe – especially since it leaves behind transmission to Southern California, with room on the lines for solar power.

And the reservation is an ideal site for solar, protected from wind and rain on two sides by low mountain ranges. "It fits in with our desire to be good stewards of the land," Daboda says. It's an economic opportunity for the Moapa in a way the coal plant never was, generating lease income along with construction and maintenance jobs in a place with astronomically high unemployment.

Unfortunately, First Solar's success doesn't guarantee Moapa's solar energy future. Two other projects in development on the tribe's lands have yet to secure buyers. Even though Nevada lawmakers last June outlawed new coal generation, Nevada's largest utility, NV Energy, probably won't want solar from Moapa: The utility has already met the state's modest, and loophole-ridden, renewable energy standard. California won't buy more either, at least not now – utilities are on track to meet the 2020 goal.

In fact, it's possible that renewable energy projects in Nevada will go the way of coal-fired power in Nevada, which was poised for a boom in the early aughts. Natural gas prices had spiked, and California's utilities were crawling from the wreckage of the Enron-induced energy crisis. Dozens of new coal plants had been scheduled around the West, four in Nevada; some were meant to export power to ailing California. That almost none of them went forward might serve as a cautionary tale: There is obvious peril in planning for the fickle California market. California is changing in ways that energy developers eyeing Nevada may not yet understand.

Michael Picker, now at the California Public Utilities Commission, still believes California might someday export electricity, but not in the same way that other states now serve as energy colonies to California. Instead, he expects that as utilities build or procure more wind and solar, they'll have excess electricity at certain times to trade among states. They can do that most efficiently if Western grid managers have the flexibility to move watts back and forth wherever and whenever they're needed – a regional "energy imbalance market."

As it happens, there's one in the works: In February of last year, the Utah-based utility PacificCorp, which serves parts of six Western states, began collaborating with the California Independent System Operator on a shared system that would update generator and consumption data every five minutes, so power can shift around where demand rises. California has already been doing this for years within the state; now that coordination may expand throughout the West.

An energy imbalance market that included Nevada might not kill Valley Electric's, or Nevada's, energy hub ambitions. Paul Thomsen of the Nevada state Energy Office thinks it actually behooves the state to get involved. "If we can develop a scenario in the Western United States that isn't push/pull – that can allow power to flow to California when they need it, or to Utah when they need it – then we get into a cooperative discussion," says Thomsen. "Maybe when (California) has excess solar, we can get that at a very attractive price. Other times when California has a huge demand, instead of firing up a (natural gas-fired) 'peaker' plant, we can send you geothermal."

Or power from a storage system like ARES.

Back in the swanky Pahrump control room, Tom Husted and Rick Eckert, Valley Electric's chief operating officer, say they like the energy imbalance market concept just fine. "It's a step in the right direction," Eckert says. It just doesn't go far enough. They want transmission that sends power from Valley Electric's territory straight through to California.

That's what will draw renewable energy development here, where it's welcome and hence cheap and fast to develop. That's what will lower electricity rates for the nonprofit cooperative utility's 45,000 members. And that's what will drive economic development to, as Husted puts it, "a county with the highest unemployment rate in a state with the highest unemployment rate in the country.

"We believe we have a huge economic opportunity to develop this vast resource in the West," he adds. "And that's a very strong belief."

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