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October 24, 2014

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Federal energy plan approved, but criticism of delays lingers

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Tiffany Brown

Solar future: Sempra Energy unveiled El Dorado Energy Solar plant near Boulder City on Jan. 22.

Political leaders from both parties have often said Nevada is in a race with other states to attract renewable energy projects.

Solar, wind and geothermal energy production represent the very future of Nevada’s economy, they say.

Despite the bold talk, state government has lagged behind surrounding states in applying for millions in federal stimulus dollars for renewable energy and energy conservation projects. Also, a key post created by the Legislature to direct the state’s renewable energy push is unfilled.

Before Friday, the U.S. Energy Department had approved plans submitted by 40 states and territories, with the first states receiving money June 22.

On Friday afternoon, Nevada became the 41st state to receive approval for its energy plan, which will total $34.7 million, according to an Energy Department spokeswoman. An announcement is expected early this week.

“I’m concerned we’re at the precipice of falling behind,” said Sen. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno, who has worked on renewable energy issues for decades. “We need to reinvigorate all parties, from the governor to the state Office of Energy to our congressional delegation. Otherwise, we will fall behind.”

With Nevada’s economy suffering, including with high unemployment, the state Energy Office should have made qualifying for the federal funding a top priority, he said.

“We shouldn’t be behind 40 other states,” Townsend said. “We should have been in the top five. I don’t know what the hang-up is.”

After responding briefly to a list of questions, Hatice Gecol, the governor’s energy adviser and director of the Energy Office, referred questions to Dan Burns, the governor’s spokesman.

Burns said the office submitted the application to the federal government on May 12, but had to make changes in mid-June because of legislation passed during the session, which ended June 1.

Burns downplayed the delay.

“It hasn’t been six months. It has been four weeks” since other states received approval, Burns said. “There’s great anticipation to get these funds and get them distributed throughout the state as quickly as possible. The governor understands that.”

Indeed, David Terry, executive director of the National Association of State Energy Officials, said getting through a federal grant process in six to nine months is considered fast. “To move money in three or four months, that’s fairly quick,” he said.

Under Nevada’s plan approved by the Energy Department, the state will receive:

• $9.3 million to lend to private developers of renewable energy projects.

• $8.5 million to retrofit schools to increase energy efficiency.

• $7.9 million to retrofit state buildings to increase energy efficiency.

• $1.7 million to make traffic signals more energy efficient.

The Energy Department will release 40 percent of the state’s funding initially, according to a department spokeswoman.

State Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford said he is pleased that the plan is coming together, but he too worried about the delay.

“It’s concerning that after months of knowing dollars are available, that plan is just coming together now,” he said.

The state Energy Office is, by all accounts, a bare-bones affair, with few staff and resources at Gecol’s disposal.

At a June meeting of the Interim Finance Committee, legislators criticized Gecol for failing to produce a plan to spend the state’s portion of the federal money. Sen. Bernice Mathews, D-Reno, told Gecol, “I don’t know what you’re doing and I don’t think you do either.”

Legislators told Gecol and budget director Andrew Clinger to come back with a proposal at their meeting Aug. 3.

At that meeting, the office will present a plan and ask for the authority to fill 10 positions, using $1.2 million in federal stimulus money. An additional $2.3 million for administrative costs would be held in reserve.

During the session, legislators worked until the final minute to pass legislation meant to spur the renewable energy industry in Nevada. In the end, the Legislature passed bills creating a Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Authority, which will be headed by an energy commissioner.

That position, which will oversee a new tax abatement program, coordinate transmission line plans and oversee the state’s overall renewable energy strategy, doesn’t have to be filled until Oct. 1.

That could mean additional delay for some alternative energy projects. The state’s old tax incentives ran out June 30, and regulations on how new rebates will be issued will be drafted by the new energy commissioner.

Gecol said the position would be filled in late August or early September. Gov. Jim Gibbons will appoint the commissioner.

Solar advocates are eager to see the position filled.

“We are in a critical time frame,” said Rose McKinney-James, a lobbyist for the solar industry. “We need to be more aggressive in getting an energy commissioner.”

Townsend said he doesn’t know who is being considered for the position, but said it needs to be filled quickly.

“There should have been an effort to start culling through applications and seeking out potential applicants, so when it became law, there were people ready to appoint,” he said. “Right now, they’ve spent almost seven weeks, and I’m just not aware that anything has been done.”

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