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April 21, 2014

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ENERGY:

Small town making hay

Boulder City luring solar developers with open land, speedy approval process

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Tiffany Brown

Ned Shamo, Boulder City’s electric utilities administrator, works on big solar energy deals in this modest office in City Hall. He says a rapid approval process has helped the city land renewable energy projects.

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If you’re a solar energy company wanting to do business in Boulder City, there’s really only one person you need to see.

You’ll find him in the City Hall basement, where he’s been holed up for 32 years.

Follow the tired brown carpet past old filing cabinets and the receptionist at the heavy metal desk.

It’s in this cubbyhole with particle board walls that Ned Shamo considers 50-year, $50 million lease agreements tying the small town to its latest niche industry, renewable energy.

Boulder City is most recognized for having parlayed its past as the government-built home of Hoover Dam workers in the 1930s into a small tourist industry with antique shops and diners.

Recently the city has promoted its city-owned mountain bike park and hiking trails with views of Lake Mead.

And now Boulder City, population 15,000, is becoming a favorite site for renewable energy companies, thanks to a combination of provincialism, planning, luck and minimal bureaucracy.

The city, 40 miles southeast of Las Vegas, averages 350 sunny days per year, allowing a local tavern to offer free beer on the days when the sun doesn’t shine.

The city has plenty of land, having purchased 107,000 acres — more than 167 square miles — from the Bureau of Land Management for about $1.3 million in 1995.

Also, thanks to Hoover Dam, Boulder City has cheap and easy access to four electric substations and interstate power lines.

But even more important may be that Boulder City aims to be microwave-dinner-easy to deal with.

For example: Because the city completed an environmental impact study on a large swath of land in the late 1990s when a gas-fired power plant was built on city land, it no longer requires impact studies on solar projects. The city says findings of the previous study suffice.

It’s these studies that typically delay development of solar power plants on federal land for years and can cost $2 million, said Dan Kabel, chief executive of Acciona Solar, which in 2007 became the first solar company to build a solar plant in Boulder City with its project, Nevada Solar One.

Here, then, is the first step for a solar company that wants to do business in Boulder City: It can call Shamo, the city’s electric utilities administrator, or just show up — no appointment necessary — on a Tuesday morning, when he holds an open house in the second floor conference room, the one decorated with a painting of the old train station.

This is where a developer can roll out his blueprints, discuss water usage and dust control, and building permit fees.

Once Shamo gives a thumbs up, the project goes to the Planning Commission for further recommendations and the City Council for the required public hearings and approval of the business permits and lease.

It’s quick, mainly because in that conference room companies can get every question answered.

It took the city only six months to give the recently-opened 130-acre Sempra Solar the go-ahead. The time includes getting all building permits, negotiating a lease, a public review of the project and City Council discussion.

The process took just a quarter of the time it takes the feds.

Such efficiency — time is money — gets the solar companies’ attention.

“There’s undisturbed, beautiful, flat, sunny land, and its transmission lines are not congested,” Kabel said. “But all of our sites have good interconnection. That’s not unique to Boulder City. What makes it unique is the speed to get through the process.”

Shamo said the city doesn’t want government bureaucracy getting in the way of doing business. “For us it’s a common-sense evaluation,” Shamo said. “If it can be done, we want to get it done. We just cut through all the red tape. We can just look at each other and talk to each other.”

Boulder City wasn’t thinking about solar energy when it purchased the desert acreage in 1995.

The property was intended to serve as a buffer, protecting the bedroom community of Boulder City from the growth of the Las Vegas Valley.

A city law prohibited the sale of municipal property without voter approval, and voters have refused to relinquish the buffer. But the city can lease its land.

These leases have become a hub for the solar industry in the Southwest. Reflections of the sun-catching mirrors of Nevada Solar One shimmer in the desert off U.S. 95. The solar power plant — producing enough energy for 50,000 homes — sits on nearly 500 acres.

When it was built by Spain-based Acciona in 2007 it was the biggest solar power plant to open in the country in 16 years.

On a nearby parcel, Sempra Energy opened its solar plant, which can power 6,400 homes, in 2008. Both Sempra and Nevada Solar One have plans for expansion.

NextLight, a San Francisco-based renewable energy company, is negotiating with the city to lease more than 1,000 acres for a 100-megawatt plant, enough to power about 75,000 homes.

To compare, the Hoover Dam generates 2,074 megawatts of power.

Additionally, Eldorado Energy, which runs a gas-fired plant in the area, has a small experimental solar plant, and UNLV leases land it hopes to use to study energy.

And this all may be only the beginning.

California requires utilities to obtain 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2010, which could put Boulder City in the position to further capitalize. Nevada requires 20 percent of its energy to come from renewable sources by 2015.

Adding to the potential for growth in the renewable energy industry: The federal economic stimulus bill hopes to create 1.6 million jobs in environmentally friendly industries, such as solar.

Boulder City earns about $2 million annually from negotiated land leases with the three existing solar plants.

It’s big money for Boulder City, which runs on a $24 million annual budget.

The city is considering setting aside another 6,500 acres for solar energy projects, and has invited plant proposals from renewable energy companies across the country to gauge interest.

The interest should be there, given that Boulder City seems well positioned to serve the growing industry.

“You deal with only one land owner,” said Robert Boehm, director of the UNLV Center for Energy Research. “You can latch right onto the power grid. There are a lot of locations on BLM land where there is no place close to you. You have all the power lines going to California right there.”

And industry executives say they are fond of Boulder City’s quaint personality. “It has a small-town atmosphere,” said James Woodruff, NextLight’s vice president for governmental affairs, who is negotiating with the city. “But the people on the staff are very technically accomplished and very professional. They have their act together.”

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