Nevada’s Quiet Solar Revolution

The next time you are flying in or out of McCarran International Airport, Las Vegas, take a look at the valley that spreads just southeast of the city.  Over there, just behind the mountain range that rims the edge of Las Vegas, lies El Dorado Solar Energy Zone – the epicenter of Nevada’s solar revolution and the future of green energy in Nevada.  Massive, industrial-scale solar fields are already covering parts of that valley and more will be springing up soon.

While rooftop solar installers Sunrun and SolarCity were busy lobbying the Nevada Legislature, needlessly attacking the state’s Public Utilities Commission (PUCN), and trying to convince the world that net metering does not lead to a cost shift, a collaboration between utility-scale solar developers, NV Energy, and a number of innovative companies was quietly changing Nevada’s energy mix and leading the state’s green energy revolution.

A mechanism developed by NV Energy and approved by the PUCN allows environmentally-conscious companies to, in effect, sponsor large renewable energy projects to the benefit of all Nevadans.  With the assistance from Apple Inc. and Switch, Ltd., NV Energy partnered up with utility-scale solar developers, such as First Solar, Sun Power, and Techren Solar, to build large solar arrays.  Through competition, technological advances, and without ratepayer assistance, these large-scale solar developers cut costs and figured out a way to provide renewable energy to the grid for as low as $31.15/MWh.  For comparison, to be an economical investment, Sunrun’s and SolarCity’s rooftop solar systems require retail rate compensation for the energy they supply to the grid.  The residential retail rate in Nevada hovers around 10₵/kWh, which equates to $100/MWh or about three times the price of large-scale solar.

Nevada ratepayers are the main beneficiaries of the collaboration between the likes of Apple, First Solar, and NV Energy.  Since NV Energy’s power purchase agreements with First Solar, Sun Power, and Techren are a direct pass-through cost to Nevada ratepayers (meaning, NV Energy charges ratepayers exactly what it pays and makes no profit on the transactions), Nevada ratepayers receive the benefit of renewable energy at record-breaking low prices.  However, in light of Apple and Switch defraying some of the costs of large-scale solar projects, the cost for ratepayers goes down even more.

The success that NV Energy and utility-scale solar were able to achieve is hard to ignore.  From Sun Power’s solar projects in El Dorado Solar Energy Zone to First Solar’s PV arrays north of Las Vegas to the Crescent Dunes solar field outside of Tonopah, NV Energy’s fleet of solar plants is set to reach 700 MW of capacity.  With the addition of Techren Solar Energy Project, that generation capacity will increase to 1,000 MW.  When accounting for NV Energy’s geothermal, hydro (excluding Hoover Dam), wind, and biomass generation, NV Energy is capable of supplying the grid with 1,700 MW of renewable energy.  That is over a quarter of all generation needed to serve Southern Nevada’s summer peak load.  For a comparison, the rooftop solar fight that has been dragging on for about two years now is over roughly 200 MW of generation capacity.

The 1,000 MW of utility-scale solar capacity is or will be added to NV Energy’s grid without demagoguery, without public attacks on members of the PUCN, and without hostile PR tactics because it simply makes sense.   It makes sense from the economic, environmental, fuel diversity, and even reliability standpoints.  Unless, the rooftop solar industry finally figures out how to slash costs for its products and/or comes up with an economical storage technology, large-scale solar is the way of the future.  It simply makes sense, and we can only hope that politics will not get in the way.

With a proposal before the Nevada Legislature to increase the state’s renewable portfolio standard to 80 percent by 2040, the future is bright for Nevada’s renewable generation industries.  So the next time someone tells you that solar is dead in Nevada, do not believe them.  Tell them to get high up in the air, just over the mountain range that rims the southeastern edge of Las Vegas, and look down at the valley that spreads below peppered with massive solar arrays.

Image Courtesy of: Tho Tran used under Creative Commons License.