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April 19, 2014

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energy:

An older type of ‘green’ takes precedence

Some state legislators want price on tax breaks

Representatives of the nonprofit group Vote Solar were in Carson City last week to sell legislators on the benefits of building solar plants in Nevada, and brandishing a new report.

Beyond the Sun

Among the report’s conclusions: Solar plants producing 2,000 megawatts of energy could replace the power generated by conventional plants emitting 4.6 million tons of carbon dioxide, 81 tons of methane and 26.5 tons of nitrous oxide — gases that cause global warming, which most scientists contend will have disastrous effects on the planet if not curbed.

But the environmental benefits of going green are an afterthought in the report and in the Legislature, where debate rages over energy policy. “Green jobs,” not greenhouse gases, is the phrase that is repeated.

The reason is obvious — unemployment here exceeds 10 percent and the state budget is in a shambles. An industry requesting tax abatements must sell lawmakers on its economic advantages, regardless of its other benefits.

So Vote Solar’s report prominently claimed that the new solar plants would create 1,200 permanent jobs and 5,900 construction jobs for six years.

“Everything is about jobs this year,” Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, said.

Yet, the conflation of environmental and economic concerns is a tricky political dance.

Consider Assembly Bill 522, which would offer 50 percent property and sales tax abatements to renewable energy projects, extending benefits set to expire in June.

If the bill were aimed solely at creating as much solar power as possible to replace fossil fuels, it might stop there.

But the bill would also levy a tax on renewable energy projects and require that projects receiving tax abatements prove they will produce a net economic benefit to the state and purchase 30 percent of their products from Nevada-based companies.

“This is one way of saying, ‘We support this industry and we want it to be here, but we also want our residents to benefit,’ ” Leslie said.

Renewable energy advocates say some of those provisions are too severe and impractical.

Much in the bill is likely to be amended. The manufacturing provision, included to ensure more permanent jobs are created by the renewable energy industry, will likely be dropped because the state doesn’t have much of a renewable energy manufacturing base.

Jim Baak, director of utility-scale solar for Vote Solar, said demonstrating and portraying the future cost of inaction on global warming is more difficult than counting up the jobs that can be created from solar plant construction.

“There will be more drought, more fires, dire physical and environmental consequences in Nevada, and it will cost money to mitigate those. But how do you put a dollar amount on that?” Baak said.

He sees the lack of environmental considerations in Carson City and elsewhere as a positive sign that the renewable energy industry is growing up and can stand on its own.

“In the early days, it was all about the environmental benefits for renewable energy,” Baak said. “But we’ve reached a point in the national psyche where we’re not really questioning the benefits, we’re not questioning climate change, we’re taking that as a given and we’ve moved past that.”

Yet Baak urged legislators to consider not only the economic but also the environmental effects of imposing an extraction fee on renewable energy plants.

And at a Senate hearing last week on the tax abatements, Kyle Davis, policy director of the Nevada Conservation League, asked legislators not to forget the environmental effect as they settle on the size of abatements.

The proposed abatements range from 50 percent for 10 years to “up to 100 percent” in the governor’s energy bill. Davis and other solar advocates said they favor a 75 percent abatement over 25 years.

“Environmentalism hasn’t been said a lot,” Davis said. “I brought it up in the hearing that this is something nobody is talking about. We have to move to non-carbon resources. (Global warming) is happening faster than anybody thought.”

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