Environment Energy

Las Vegas shines as a model for solar power

a path to progress

Long known for its extravagance, Vegas is quickly becoming a paragon of conservation, thanks to an upswing in solar energy.

Mirrors are seen channelling sunlight onto a tube filled with oil during the dedication of Acciona's Nevada Solar One power plant in Boulder City, about 30 miles (48 kms) southeast of Las Vegas. Acciona is a renewable energy company based in Spain. The 400-acre, 64-megawatt, concentrating solar power (CSP) plant is the first CSP built in the U.S. in 17 years and is the third largest in the world, according to Acciona. The plant produces energy to power about 14,000 homes.
Steve Marcus/Las Vegas Sun/Reuters/File
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For Marcia Bollea, switching to solar energy was a dream come true. A lifelong environmentalist, she had hardly dared hope she would ever see solar panels become affordable for home use. And she’d never imagined it would happen for her in Las Vegas, of all places.

“Social services and environmental issues – those kinds of things weren’t really on the radar when I first moved here,” says Ms. Bollea, a retired nurse who left California for Las Vegas with her son in 1986. “I can’t tell you how thrilled I was when [solar] finally became available to me.”

Bollea’s experience is a small but potent testament to how much the city – and the state of Nevada – has changed. Though gambling and hospitality still make up the heart of Nevadan industry, the past decade has also seen the technological and clean energy revolutions take root in the state. Just outside of Reno sits the most striking symbol of this transformation: the Tesla Gigafactory, a 5-million-square-foot manufacturing facility that opened in 2016 and is meant to supply the company with the lithium-ion batteries it needs to produce electric vehicles.

But in sunny southern Nevada, the focal point of change is solar energy. Last year Acciona, a global infrastructure and renewable energy company, unveiled a 400-acre, 64-megawatt solar power plant in Boulder City, just south of Las Vegas. The third-largest such plant in the world, the facility can power more than 14,000 homes a year – and helped the Las Vegas city government fulfill its promise to power all its municipal and public buildings entirely with renewable energy. The city has since been named among the nation’s top 10 metros leading the way on solar power.

In June, Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) signed nine of 11 clean energy bills passed by the state Legislature. Among them is a measure that restores net metering in Nevada, an issue that was the center of an 18-month tug-of-war between the state’s Public Utilities Commission (PUCN) and clean-energy advocates.

Today, solar sees support from a variety of stakeholders in Las Vegas and across Nevada. Beyond environmentally conscious homeowners like Bollea, there are small businesses looking to boost the economy, libertarians defending energy independence, and community leaders working to improve energy cost and access in low-income neighborhoods.

“Nevada is moving forward as progressively as any state in anticipating the advantages and encouraging the deployment of solar power,” says retired US Navy Vice Admiral Lee Gunn, who studies the impact of climate change and renewable energy on national security for Washington-based think tank CNA. “It’s a terrifically exciting place to be.”

'The Saudi Arabia of solar'

Louise Helton remembers the moment when she decided that her future was going to be in solar. It was in 2005, at a gathering where former President Bill Clinton spoke to Nevadan luminaries about diversifying their economy. “And President Clinton said, ‘If it were up to me, y’all would be the Saudi Arabia of solar,’ ” says Ms. Helton, adopting Mr. Clinton’s Arkansas drawl. “That really clicked with me.”

Now Helton is chief executive officer of 1 Sun Solar Electric, a residential and commercial installation company she and her partner started in 2007 – and one of a slew that has since cropped up in the city and its surroundings. And while Las Vegas’s relationship to solar is not exactly from what Saudi Arabia’s is to oil, the industry has made major strides.

Rooftop solar took off as the cost of residential installation fell. In 2017, homeowners are paying, on average, between $2.87 and $3.85 per watt – compared to about $9 per watt in 2005. It’s still not super affordable, considering the average American home runs on about 5 kilowatts of power and would need a system with a price tag of more than $11,000 after tax credits to install.

But analysts say the cost is likely to keep dropping. Leasing models also gave homeowners an option that doesn’t involve cash up front. In Vegas, that has meant a surge in installations among residents eager to turn their city’s relentless sunshine to their advantage.

What really transformed the solar landscape in southern Nevada are the large-scale projects. 2007 saw the construction of a 14-megawatt solar power station at Nellis Air Force Base, just northeast of Las Vegas, marking a milestone in the US military’s march toward renewable energy. Last year, Nellis – home to the world’s largest advanced air combat training mission – added another 15-megawatt solar array on its grounds.

Not to be outdone, casinos like MGM Resorts and Wynn Las Vegas began transitioning to solar despite facing hefty fees for leaving NV Energy, the state’s main utility. Mandalay Bay, an MGM property, now boasts the largest commercial-rooftop solar array in the country – a 28-acre system that could power 1,300 homes.

The Las Vegas city government also pledged to run all its facilities – including parks, streetlights, and community centers – on 100 percent clean energy through a combination of credits and direct generation. Around 2010, the city began installing solar panels in parks, on parking structures, and on its wastewater treatment plant. The most iconic display is City Hall, a seven-story paneled glass structure built in 2012 with a grove of solar “trees” arrayed proudly along its front plaza.

The goal became reality last year, after the Boulder City solar plant went online. The facility dedicates a portion of the power it generates to the city.

“This really exemplifies our commitment to sustainability,” says city planner Marco Velotta.

Strange bedfellows

Rooftop solar advocates across the state say the PUCN’s decision to end net metering in 2015 was a hard blow to the industry. Although a bill passed in the 2017 legislative session reversed the ruling, it will likely take years to regain lost ground, proponents say. Advocates are also disappointed at the governor’s decision to veto two bills: one that would have increased the state’s renewable portfolio standard to 50 percent by 2030, and another that would have expanded community solar use in the state. Meanwhile the debate over whom solar power benefits, and how, rages on. And as of 2015, renewables only made up of about a fifth of Nevada's electricity generation – with solar only a fraction of that. 

Still, the industry is on the upswing. A wide range of stakeholders have found reason to support solar expansion in the region, outside of the fact that Vegas sees about 294 sunny days a year.

Some of it has to do with consumer support of clean energy. Polls show that a majority of Nevadans stand behind the transition to clean energy because of the environmental benefits, the economic potential (clean energy jobs saw a 9.5 percent bump in Nevada in 2016), the relative cost savings, or some combination of the three.

At least as powerful a driver is energy choice.

“They’re an independent group of folks,” Helton says of her fellow Nevadans. “They like to be able to take care of things themselves. If you can provide energy for yourself, that appeals mightily to people.”

“The fact that NV Energy has a monopoly on the delivery and distribution of power in Nevada is basically the antithesis of the free market ideal,” adds Sam Toll, communications director for the Libertarian Party of Nevada. “The notion of pushing technology in the free market with respect to solar power, and advancing the capacity and efficiency of panels and systems, is spectacular” – though he draws the line at government actions that favor solar, or any industry, above others.

The military’s presence in the state adds another dimension to the solar power argument. The Navy, Army, and Air Force have all invested increasingly in solar and other renewables in a bid to make the military more efficient, economical, and resilient.

“There are a lot of people around the country who believe that there is a coming transition from fossil fuels to renewables, but are reluctant to speak about it because it’s tied to climate change,” Vice Admiral Gunn says. The national security argument helps pave the way for “a sensible, well-reasoned conversation about advanced energy,” he says. 

Such collaborations have led some to hold high hopes for the solar community in the region.

“Our vision for Nevada is that we will get to demonstrate to the rest of the country what investing in clean energy means for our economy, for our environment, for our pocketbooks ... when you do it right,” says Andy Maggi, executive director of the Nevada Conservation League. “I also think it is a demonstration of the power and the importance of local and state governments in really driving the clean energy revolution.”

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