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October 20, 2014

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Solar power:

The one unknown about proposed solar field: Cost of energy

Energy cost elusive

Solar power is more expensive to generate than electricity from plants relying on coal, natural gas or geothermal energy because of the higher costs of solar technology. Isolating the costs consumers pay for solar energy is difficult because of the mix of energy sources.

Solar Test Site

Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, left, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), center, and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu wait to announce a Nevada Test Site solar power development zone during a news conference at UNLV's Greenspun Hall Thursday, July 8, 2010. Launch slideshow »

Just about everything to know about a proposed federal zone for solar power plants northeast of Las Vegas is available for public inspection except for one vital detail — how much consumers must pay for the renewable energy.

That calculation isn’t in the draft environmental impact statements for 24 proposed “solar energy zones” on federal land in the West that were announced last week by the Energy and Interior departments. Why? Because the cost of electricity, no matter how it is produced, is normally negotiated between the power plant operator and the utility that purchases the energy for its customers.

But there is plenty of other information on the proposed zones, seven in Nevada, part of a strategy by both departments to develop what they said would be renewable energy “in the right way and in the right places.”

The draft document for Nevada's proposed solar energy zones can be found at: http://solareis.anl.gov/documents/dpeis/index.cfm#vol5.

One zone is Dry Lake, 15,649 undeveloped acres 13 miles northeast of Nellis Air Force Base. Three zones are tabbed for Lincoln County, two are in Esmeralda County and one is in Nye County.

All are on Bureau of Land Management acreage where federal agencies expect minimal disruption to the environment, yet close enough to civilization to deliver electricity to households and businesses.

Absence of environmental harm means the government can act faster to approve at least some proposed solar projects.

Still, figuring the cost of energy to consumers remains elusive.

One expert told the Sun that solar power is far more expensive to generate than electricity from plants relying on coal, natural gas or geothermal energy because of the higher costs of solar technology. Because solar power is mixed with other forms of energy on the grid that delivers electricity to homes and businesses, isolating the costs consumers pay for solar energy is difficult. But that’s something the state Public Utilities Commission is trying to determine in an investigation of the effect solar power and other renewable resources have on utility rates and economic development in Nevada.

Solar power advocates have argued that the sooner communities can convert to solar power and other renewable energy resources, the quicker the United States can limit reliance on fossil fuels that contribute to pollution.

The announcement of solar zones by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Energy Secretary Steven Chu culminated a nearly two-year study by the Obama administration. The government will take public comment of the environmental impact document through mid-February.

A final environmental impact statement is expected next fall, then the BLM will choose the actual zones. The soonest the agency could approve power plants would probably be early to mid-2012, with power produced as early as 18 months later.

“Our country has incredible renewable resources, innovative entrepreneurs, a skilled workforce, and manufacturing know-how,” Chu said. “It’s time to harness these resources and lead in the global, clean energy economy.”

The Solar Energy Industries Association, a Washington trade group, praised the proposal. President Rhone Resch said the plan would help the solar industry by providing “a more predictable review and approval process for projects on public lands.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada also hailed the announcement as a way to create clean energy jobs.

“These projects will help Nevada lead the nation in clean energy production and further diversify our economy,” he said.

Reid also announced $50 million in federal funding for a solar demonstration zone at the Nevada National Security Site to test solar technologies.

The BLM has approved eight large-scale solar projects in Nevada and California over the past three months that are expected to generate 3,572 megawatts of electricity. One megawatt can power 600 households in the valley, where air conditioning use is heavy, but as many as 1,000 homes where there is less reliance on cooling systems.

The government hopes the solar energy zones will speed approval of some of the 104 other solar power plant applications nationally that could deliver an additional 60,000 megawatts of electricity. The BLM could standardize and streamline its approval process, including mandating design features for power plants in the solar zones.

As Salazar said, “Smart from the Start” planning “will help us site solar projects in the right places, and reduce conflicts and delays at later stages of the development process.”

One reason for the application backlog is developers have approached the BLM by the droves to grab a slice of the solar power action, including selling renewable energy to potentially lucrative markets in California.

“This is kind of like a land rush,” said Tom Fair, NV Energy’s vice president of renewable energy. “It’s very competitive, and some developers will make applications on numerous sites.”

Another reason for the rush is that solar power developers have applied for tax credits and loan guarantees by the government.

“Especially with the emphasis this administration is placing on renewable energy, it’s a popular field to get into,” said Erin Eastvedt, the BLM’s renewable energy project coordinator in Nevada.

Eastvedt estimated it takes one to three years to process an application, depending on the complexity of the project and the environmental issues. Of the applications pending, five are in or adjacent to Dry Lake.

Fair said the utility supports a solar energy zone for Dry Lake.

“The terrain at Dry Lake is very flat and it’s not too far from Las Vegas,” Fair said. “And it probably has as good of solar resources as anywhere in Southern Nevada.”

Dry Lake abuts portions of Interstate 15 and U.S. 93, and the Moapa River Reservation. It could feed electricity to the Las Vegas Valley through existing transmission lines.

Over 20 years, as much as 2,500 megawatts of solar power could be developed at Dry Lake, enough to power 1.5 million to 2.5 million households.

Government planners estimate the zone could create up to 3,500 construction jobs, and up to 5,800 permanent jobs. But the megawatts and jobs produced could be much lower depending what kind of solar technology is used.

Dry Lake has limitations should it get approved for solar plants.

Nellis officials told project planners that approaches and departures from runways may be adversely affected by solar towers or other tall structures at Dry Lake. Nellis also says that structures higher that 50 feet may present electromagnetic concerns for its test mission at the Nevada Test and Training Range north and west of Dry Lake.

Solar power plants there would have minimal effect on many animal and plant species, but there are exceptions such as the Pahrump poolfish, Moapa White River springfish, Southwestern toad and the birds Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and Phainopepla, all of which could be affected by any groundwater withdrawals by solar developers.

There also may be potential problems for the desert tortoise, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. As many as 213 tortoises reside at Dry Lake. The draft environmental impact statement said effects may be small because Dry Lake represents less than 1 percent of the species’ potentially suitable habitat where desert scrub exists.

But the report warns that any plans to move desert tortoises should include consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because “these actions, if done improperly, can result in injury or death,” to the tortoises.

Another potential issue is how solar plants at Dry Lake may affect cultural resources. Dry Lake is home to the Old Spanish Trail/Mormon Road, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, as well as six other sites determined by the government to be eligible for listing.

The report recommends that Native American tribes be consulted to identify potential archaeological sites and historic structures.

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  1. Iraq war for Oil cost = 1 trillion

  2. It would be nice to know who the so called "expert" on the cost of energy was. Did he or she incorporate all the external costs of fossil fuel production and use into his expert testimony? Was this truly an apples to apples comparison?

  3. "If we all were on pure solar then we would be screwed with the current technology. Plus our power bills would go up by 2 to 3 times which would greatly harm the economy."

    These are the BS arguments being peddled by the fringe right. When we ask for diversification in our energy supply, they assume we mean we want 100% solar.

    No one is arguing for 100% solar. Their entire argument is based on a red herring. It's meaningless, irrelevant and insulting to anyone with intelligence.

    They also, apparently, have never heard of batteries. Hundreds of solar plants around the world provide power 24 hours a day, even in the rain. Could they do this indefinitely? No. That's why solar is only one component in a smart mix of technologies that can sustain our way of living while limiting dirty tech, prone to wrecking the environment with oil spills or filthy air.

    It's all about being smart... something the naysayers would know nothing about.

  4. Thank you for demonstrating the ignorance I was talking about, Jim. A+

    Let's play a Socratic game, shall we? What is a photon? I know, it's more fancy learning, but stretch a bit. Also ask yourself, "How can I tell if it's daytime outside when it's raining?!?"

    Also ask yourself if every power plant in use currently has idle capacity on standby. In turn, ask yourself how there are brownouts and blackouts if so-called "reliable" energy sources are actually reliable.

    And finally, to blow your mind, ask yourself how your solar-powered calculator works when it's cloudy!

    Next, why don't you look into our local plant, Solar One, and ask yourself how it provides power... AT NIGHT. Yes, indeed, it does.

    "What is dumber is that solar is coming at 2 to 3 times more expensive than fossil fuels?"

    According to the Department of Energy, the average per kwh cost of electricity is 12 cents in Nevada. According to Schott's, the cost per kwh of Nevada's Solar One plant is between 15 to 17 cents.

    That's nowhere near 2 to 3 times "more expensive" than what we pay today.

    Back to remedial math, Jim.

  5. Why Jim, all that critical thinking I asked you to do? Seems you didn't want to to a single bit of it.

    I'm suddenly reminded of one Ms. Sarah Palin, who has a few talking points down yet can't explain a single thing.

    I'm asking you to wade out of the shallow end of the pool, Jim.

    If we're paying 12 cents per kwh now, and we increase the share that solar has in the mix add in 2%, perhaps, at a whopping 3-5 cents more per kwh, the price of energy is not going to spike.

    You see, Jim, maybe you aren't aware that fossil fuels are a finite resource. Maybe you think they'll last forever and ever. While that's an optimistic attitude, it's not true.

    What you're doing, by criticizing even a small percent increase in the use of renewable energy, is dooming future generations to sky-high energy bills. You're guaranteeing them. With the attitude you've displayed here, it seems you have no problem using up every single last drop of fossil fuels. That's quite selfish, if I may say so myself.

    In putting the technology to use, we reduce the future costs of developing the tech, we learn how to make it more efficient and cheaper, and we can use less fossil fuel. It's a win all around.

    But when naysayers like you spout bald-faced lies about using solar-only systems which only provide power during sunny days with thousand-dollar utility bills, it drags the whole conversation down into the dumpster. It's not realistic, it's not even a proposal or a reality, so why the obvious and histrionic scare tactics?

    As for the silly NV Energy reference (which you conveniently don't link, quote or reference in any way...), I wouldn't be so quick to believe everything a for-profit monopoly tells you. Further, I frankly dispute your figure. "between 3 to 5 times?" That's not an estimate, that's a guess. Get some ACTUAL facts and then maybe this conversation can go somewhere.

  6. "Do you see where NV energy was forced to reveal that they pay 2 to 4 times for solar over what they pay for other power sources?"

    Here's why I doubt that, Jim.

    First, the 4 cent price is for "wholesale energy." As you may (or, probably, may not) know, wholesale energy is a baseline, general figure. Obviously, "wholesale" natural gas energy is not the primary source of energy... because if it is, and they're charging customers 13 cents/kwh when they're buying it at 4 cents/kwh, that's several hundred percent markup, and they should be prosecuted under the law.

    What's more realistic, is that wholesale energy is 15-20% of the mix. We know from their RFP bids that in 2010, the RPS target as a percentage of retail sales was only 12%. So 12% of their mix in retail sales is renewables. Thus, the cost isn't from there. That explains 1 cent/kwh, based on the 13 cent figure.

    So we've accounted for 5 cents/kwh. Where does the rest come from, Jim? Is NV Energy ripping us off, or is the bread and butter energy a bit more expensive than the limited stuff they can buy at wholesale?

    Your math isn't adding up.

    Think, Jim, think.

  7. Hi Kevin,
    Thanks for your hard work trying to inject facts into the discussion. I would remind readers that no power source provides electricity 24/7 and all must go down for maintenance and unexpected failures. When the blackout on the East coast happened in 2003 it took weeks before the nuclear plants were able to be brought back on line.

  8. While I'm in favor of building the solar plants.....
    One has to ask, why is it suddenly having "no affect on the desert environment", while anything else (not politically correct) is always described as "It will ruin the environment". It can be a highway, pipeline, drilling for oil in a TINY segment of Alaska, etc. How about the dreaded towers that will carry the power from the solar plant, they are always decried as "bad" for the environment if coming from any other type of power plant.
    mred, the iraq war was NOT for oil, you know that.
    By the way, we're still there, 2 years after W left office, so aparently the new guy, barry something, and his congress, feels there is a need for the war too. (used Barry "somebody" as a response to the earlier "Ronnie somebody" comment made by airweare, above).
    Back to solar, Like high speed rail, the costs are probably higher than the benefit, but I'd take solar power plants over the money pit trains any day. Solar energy will at least benefit all of us.