Monday, Aug. 28, 2006 | 7:21 a.m.
Southern Nevada may be blessed with an abundance of potential clean, renewable energy sources, but one big user of energy has had a tough time putting the sun and wind to work.
The Clark County School District, like other potential energy generators, has been effectively thwarted from building large systems to produce the power it needs at its hundreds of schools. The problem is state law, which puts a limit of 150 kilowatts that a school, business or even a resident can generate.
A typical high school, however, needs much more. For example, Sierra Vista High School in southeast Las Vegas used, at peak demand, 570 kilowatts in June, district officials say.
Now, the School Board and Gov. Kenny Guinn's Renewable Energy Task Force are working to increase the state limit to 2 megawatts - 2 million watts of power. Producing that much power would not only light up a school, but also could put clean energy onto the regional energy grid.
The School Board at its Thursday night meeting approved a bill draft request to raise the limit.
Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, says the Legislature is likely to modify the limit on independently produced alternative power during the 2007 session: "We are definitely looking at raising the cap. The Democratic legislative caucus has been studying this and this particular issue is at the top of the list."
At a minimum, she says, schools should be able to satisfy their own power requirements.
"It's clean energy and should reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, which also helps our national security," she says, referring to the reliance on imported oil for a large portion of the nation's energy needs.
Paul Gerner, associate superintendent of facilities, says the district is ready to move forward as soon as the law is changed. The district has been in conversations with a Michigan company, McKenzie Bay, for about two years, he says.
That firm produces wind turbines, which can produce 200 kilowatts with winds of 15 mph. The School District would like to put four such turbines at Sierra Vista High as a start of what could be a larger program.
The School District could save 10 percent of its annual fuel bill at the school, Gerner estimates, for a savings of $200,000 to $300,000 a year. Similar efforts throughout the district could trim the district's yearly $43 million power bill significantly, he says.
In the deal with McKenzie Bay, the company would be responsible for installing, operating and maintaining the turbines, he says. The company could sell power back onto the grid when the power wouldn't be needed for the school.
"What I'm trying to do is open the door to renewable power at no risk to the district," Gerner says.
Rose McKinney-James, School District lobbyist and a member of the task force, says the time has come to raise the state-mandated limit. She says the limitation resulted from trepidation of Sierra Pacific Resources and its subsidiary, Nevada Power.
The 150-kilowatt ceiling, passed last year, actually increased the previous limit of just 30 kilowatts that an independent generator would be allowed to produce, she notes. Independent generators were allowed under the law called "net metering," but the utility cited concerns about implementing new, alternative technologies too quickly.
One member of the Renewable Energy Task Force, Tim Carlson, says the electricity company was concerned about losing customers. Carlson is chief executive officer of Power By Renewables, a Las Vegas company trying to build "wind farms" of turbines in the state.
Carlson says he believes those concerns are a thing of the past. He says Nevada should follow the lead of California, which has set a 2-megawatt limit from a similar program for independent energy producers.
"The utility was trying to manage this very conservatively," says McKinney-James, a consultant on renewable energy. "The Legislature and the utility, in an abundance of caution, were trying to pursue net metering in an incremental way."
But technology, a growing acceptance of alternative energy by the companies and a state mandate to include renewable energy in the utility's portfolio are changing that reluctance.
"Now is the time," McKinney-James says. "The stars seem to be aligning in both a policy framework and with the economics."
Nevada Power officials declined to discuss why they sought the 150-kilowatt limit but appear to be cautiously welcoming the new production centers.
Sonya Headen, Nevada Power spokeswoman, says her company has yet to take a close look at the bill request from the School District, but the company is generally supportive.
"Anytime there's an opportunity to increase renewables, the company's always happy about that," she says. "We're happy, we're excited about the possibility."
McKinney-James says po-tential advantages for the School District include a significant cut in energy costs, and advancing the district's math and science curriculum. Another argument is that in an emergency , in which power could be out over a wide region, schools and the power they produce could be critical centers for the community.
Sierra Pacific/Nevada Power would benefit because power produced onsite saves about 30 percent of the electricity lost in the transmission process, the School District's Gerner says, and alternative power reduces the need for new, capital-intensive power plants.
"It really helps Nevada Power not to have to build a new power plant," he says. "It's really a tremendous benefit to the community as a whole."