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April 24, 2014

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RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT:

Why Nevada is missing the boat on renewable energy industry

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Steve Marcus

Robert Boehm, director for the Center for Energy Research at UNLV, stands by a concentrating photovoltaic power system at the UNLV Solar Site Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012.

Solar Power Systems at UNLV

Robert Boehm, director for the Center for Energy Research at UNLV, stands by a variety of photovoltaic panels used for teaching on the roof of the engineering building at UNLV Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012. Launch slideshow »

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As the Obama administration was rolling out a budget that emphasizes renewable energy research and development, Robert Boehm, the director of UNLV’s Center for Energy Research, was in a motel outside Cleveland, preparing a last-ditch pitch to a NASA facility to support one of his research projects.

“We get no money from the state. We get no money from the university. We get a place to hang our hat and that’s it,” Boehm said. “If we don’t get a grant or a contract from some outside entity, we’re out of business.”

Nicknamed the “Saudi Arabia” of renewable energy by Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada has invested a great deal in marketing its sun-bleached deserts as the next frontier for renewable energy. That effort was greatly aided by federal spending — more than $3 billion in the state — which took a lot of the risk out of investing in the giant solar fields now under construction in Nevada.

But, as Boehm notes, the state hasn’t put nearly as much effort or capital into ensuring the state can become a leader in developing renewable technologies — better solar panels and windmills to tap the state’s geographic advantages.

As the Obama administration’s Energy Department budget watches some of its most aggressive loan and other incentive programs to build renewable projects wind down, leaders are trying to emphasize the importance of technology development. Nevada will have a lot of ground to make up in its efforts to invent, develop and manufacture the next generation renewable technology.

“Most of (the research projects) have gone to California, the Phoenix area and Albuquerque. If you go to those areas, you’ll find big solar companies there that are doing R&D, design, and fabrication,” Boehm said. “They’ve got a lot of miscellaneous technical services in those areas, while we have a lot of tourism and construction services. In Las Vegas, we’re just not geared up to that kind of thing. We really haven’t diversified our economy.”

•••

Economic diversification is the new mantra in Nevada. This month, Gov. Brian Sandoval unveiled an economic plan, with the help of the Brookings Institution, that identified renewable energy as one of seven key areas for development and investment, along with gaming technology, aerospace and defense, and mining.

The idea is that these industries would receive extra attention and funding to equip state universities and their private partners to commercialize new technologies, bringing jobs and higher tax revenue for Nevada.

“You have to start at the university level,” said former State Sen. Randolph Townsend, a Republican who spent years in the Legislature pushing for more renewable energy investment. “But in the case of most legislators, the long-term planning is fairly limited ... No wonder we’re falling behind. We’ve never adjusted our educational institutions to adapt to today’s demands.”

When UNLV’s Center for Energy Research, an 18-year-old facility, started taking a serious turn toward renewable energy research in 2000, the expectations were that the university would become a fulcrum for a new energy market in Southern Nevada. But, according to Boehm, other states have overtaken Nevada.

Townsend, now a member of the Nevada Gaming Commission, worked with Reid to secure funding for what is likely the state’s preeminent research collaborative for renewable energy, the Nevada Renewable Energy Consortium.

Desert Research Institute’s Clean Technologies and Renewable Energy Center, which is the part of the consortium, has been a sole or joint recipient of over $17 million in research funding for projects on biomass, solar, wind and geothermal, the bulk of which were funded by the Department of Energy.

Alan Gertler, director of the center, said the consortium was launched with funding from a Reid-sponsored earmark (back when earmarks were congressionally acceptable) that “is winding down” just as the labs should be intensifying their work.

The consortium has been trying to develop “the research infrastructure capacity here that can help bring new businesses into Nevada, to help not only develop these resources for export but also help develop new ways in which they can be used,” he said. But at this point “what we’re dealing with is real early-stage research.”

Nevada may have dreams of becoming a player in the renewable energy development market but it hasn’t convinced the federal government that it’s there yet. The federal government has designated it as an Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research state, which means it receives special funds to build its research capacity because it is considered subpar.

As a preeminent facility for environmental research, DRI is able to attract scientists who bring well-funded research projects.

But other facilities aren’t as fortunate. At UNR, the head of its Renewable Energy Center left a year ago for a better offer in Utah, and the center is struggling to build a facility to house collaborative-discipline research like DRI is carrying out.

Until there’s money for the facility, “it’s really a virtual center,” said interim director Miles Greiner.

The type of research going on at UNR is also more theoretical than tangible — “focusing on producing papers that are presented in scholarly journals that can be the basis for the research on the products. That would be great for UNR to be developing products, but we haven’t been in the business of products,” Greiner said. “We’re doing the best that we can.”

•••

Nevada’s renewable energy boom of the past few years came as the federal government worked to raise the profile of renewable energy nationwide by giving investors incentives to get in on the ground floor of a growth industry.

The flagship federal program was the $20.5 billion renewable energy loan guarantee program: a pot from which companies working on Nevada projects secured almost $3 billion in fully or partially guaranteed loans.

That money — which made possible such projects as the Crescent Dunes SolarReserve energy storage project in Tonopah — dried up at the end of September. The administration and Congress, still reeling from the Solyndra scandal, have shown no interest in reviving it.

The federal government isn’t the only entity shifting gears: Nevada’s requirement that 15 percent of energy produced in the state come from renewable sources is almost met, leaving little local demand for power from renewable projects.

The other option is to sell to California. But the Silver State has yet to construct an entry point onto California’s electric grid.

This has renewable energy advocates calling for a sea change in Nevada’s approach to renewable energy.

“We can’t be simply an extraction-based economy,” said Walt Borland, executive director of the Nevada Institute for Renewable Energy Commercialization. “We’ve got to be more than that. But it will not happen overnight and it will not happen for free.”

The Nevada energy market Borland, Gertler and others envision won’t rely on outside investors but would generate, manufacture and produce the energy, the machinery and the technology at home. Ideally, the companies carrying this out would be incorporated in Nevada too.

It’s a deliberate effort to avoid what’s happened with Nevada’s other resource-driven industry: mining. Almost 90 percent of the companies operating in that “extraction-based economy” are headquartered out of state. Very little of the mining wealth generated in Nevada’s second-largest industry actually stays in Nevada.

Corporations expanding into Nevada presently are coming from as close by as California, and as far away as China: the ENN solar facility planned for Laughlin has been roundly lauded as a perfect mix of solar production and manufacturing for Southern Nevada.

To renewable energy development advocates, that’s all good — but still not the endgame.

“If we allow clean energy to be an extraction business, we don’t get anything downstream from it. If we aren’t getting anything downstream from re-engineering it, from redesigning it, then we again are losing an opportunity to create jobs and revenue,” Borland said. “We’re going to lose the opportunity to have a value-added economy.”

•••

The hang-up, most agree, is money: The state has been cutting its budget, including higher education. Funding for expensive research positions is a hard sell when 170,000 less-skilled state residents are desperate for jobs.

The Legislature last session set up the Knowledge Fund for research that could eventually lead to commercialization.

But it’s empty.

“Only in Nevada would you have the unfunded knowledge fund,” Borland said with a half-laugh followed by a sigh.

At the state level, many are looking to the private sector to make up the gap. The academic community, however, is not.

“You might hear that the private sector does invest in R&D, but it doesn’t,” Gertler said. “It comes from the government, and the private sector gets to take advantage of it.”

One of Boehm’s largest recent projects at UNLV was a partnership with, and funded by, Amonix. It’s the same Amonix facility that laid off two-thirds of its workers last month — and even before that happened, Boehm said, things weren’t going so great.

“They got a new CEO two years ago who said, 'OK, we’re going to do everything ourselves, we’re not going to farm out anything to UNLV or anywhere else unless they buy a big system from us,'” Boehm said.

Former U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan, a Democrat who lobbies for the renewable energy industry, said state labs ought to take better advantage of Reid’s influence as Senate majority leader in Washington to compete with bigger labs nationwide for research dollars.

“They’ve got to be creative, imaginative,” Bryan said. “Get off your derrière and think of something.”

Yet with budgets shrinking, it seems inevitable that the state will have to fill the fiscal bucket that for the past few years was primarily tended by Reid.

“The federal government is a wonderful place to get something started, but you have to understand the demands on the federal government in every state means whatever you do get is likely to be fairly limited in terms of its length,” Townsend said. “It’s one-shot money, which means you only get it once. It also means, when you start a process like this, you have to understand that you as a state are ready to pick that ongoing expense up, no matter what it is. And then you’re going to have to build it, no matter what it is.”

State officials say the thinking has changed. They expect the Legislature to keep building the state’s renewable energy capacity in the next legislative session.

“It took us a while to realize that, but over the past year or so I think we’ve pretty much universally accepted that the economy’s going to be different in the future,” said Steve Hill, director of the Nevada Office of Economic Development. “The commercialization of research and development that actually produces jobs and businesses in Nevada is something that we will have to be more focused on. And I think there will be more of a financial commitment.”

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  1. Who owns the companies that are building projects in California? Here in Nevada, the most talked about one is a Chinese endeavor pushed by Harry Reid.

    If the ones in California are US backed, then one has to ask why Reid could not have landed them for us, instead.

    And one more word: Solyndra.

  2. Now that the word is out, I'm quite sure the bureaucratic drones will find some way to fund this project with borrowed money.

  3. I have been pushing for solar energy plants to cover the Nevada landscape for a couple of years now. In this economy we need to diversify and expand our role. We have 110 thousand square miles of flat sun soaked 365 days a year land just sitting here. The republicans are arguing about how best to spend the states money and keep the mega-casino monster fed while never even looking past the strip. Nevada could cover the state with solar panels and sell the power of to many other states i'm sure. But NV Energy can't allow free power from the sun...that's just crazy talk.

  4. Solar is good and wind is ok.

    But if they were great investments private funding would kick them off and keep them coming.

    The Obama administration is not really serious about solar energy development. Lip service in speeches and throwing money at Obama connected people with the word Solar on their newly printed business cards is not the solution. We hear that various "investments" in solar energy from the Administration have failed. In fact, Solyndra failed as a solar energy company but, in the process, succeeded as a campaign contributor to the Obama campaign. Nice clean campaign money washed through a solar project the govt funded. The allegations of cronyism in govt grants for solar energy taint the whole effort.

    One cannot wish away the difficulties in Nevada. Everyone says Nevada does not spend enough on education etc. So they want to spend more.

    BUT

    Nevada's income is inadequate with the spending it now has and where does that leave us? Taxing casinos significantly more will drop jobs and the mining industry will go down in the courts legally fighting taxes. Nevada is in an effective depression with massive unemployment so where does the money come from? The time to spend more on solar development was when we were flush with cash not when we are broke and hurting for jobs.

  5. We're about to steal a few hundred billion for the train to nowhere, other states want to get in on the thievery. We can't hog it all.

  6. When we talk about funding education, we have to also have the conversation about how education is BEST spending taxpayer dollars, grants, and generous gifts. Realistically.

    In a perfect world, there would be level playing fields, functional societies, and functional families for starters. Somehow, our leadership plans are based on a perfect world scenerio, instead of reality. We stare ineffectiveness of their plans squarely in the face each day, every moment of the day.

    Let's spend educational resources sensibly. Let's look at placing youth in the educational program that they CAN succeed in, rather than forcing them into some ideal mode that is our vision. Face it, everyone is unique, with individual IQs and abilities. Some individuals have MORE drive and motivation. Our society is setting up masses for failure: failure of only society's all inclusive vision, where everyone is equal and the same (which is not so).

    Education needs to monitor IQ, behaviors, and goals students possess, and support them in the best way possible tailored towards future success. Face it, some children and their families put education first, and maintain that standard until the child realizes it. Other families send their children off to school "so they can be smart," get whatever a child can out of it, basically school is the legally mandated babysitter---school or jail, as it is. Why there are Truancy Officers in education enforcing the laws.

    Now getting to the nuts and bolts: placing and educating children where it BEST meets their individual needs. This, in itself, might just provide the motivation and incentive towards maintaining a constant stream of achievement at optimum levels: via segregated learning. Some might view it as a type of subliminal competition. Competition is what has driven our country and its people into success. Please consider it.

    Students who require remedial education need to be placed in settings that are SOLELY geared for that. Let them learn and thrive and hopefully nuture the development to go beyond, to the next level of achievement. Provide for the middle of the road learners, give them what they need and challenge them to go further---some will and some won't. It boils down to their personalities and home life, which educators cannot control. Finally, provide a setting for those students who already have the IQ, talent, family support, and motivation to reach their potential UNhindered by the influences and distractions of the remedial and middle road students. We all can easily recognize that MAGNET SCHOOLS provide such an atmosphere and provide the platform for such individuals. IF we need MORE Magnet Schools, let's provide them. (Part 1 here and continuing on next post)

    Blessings and Peace,
    Star

  7. (Part 2)
    Rounding up students and teaching to a one size fits all simply doesn't work. It should be obvious that the current model (Nevada's educational ranking being at the bottom) has not been efficient, nor the BEST way to utilize educational dollars and resources.

    Educators do what they can when faced with providing differentiated instructional services. It is not optimal and results are marginal at best when working in a mixed learning environment. Private schools, academies, and magnet schools all can select their learner candidates, and hence, have better performing students overall. The public school teacher does not have such an advantage---they must take whomever is assigned to them and work their brand of magic towards academic and social successes. It is a tall order.

    Perhaps it is time to look outside the USA for successful educational models. The old tried and true is no longer producing stellar, world class, and cutting edge results. Time for some introspection, assessment, and adjustments. When the taxpayer feels that this has been done, and they see the needed changes, then we will see education properly supported and esteemed.

    There is no doubt that our colleges and universities put the "finish and polish" on our students. These individuals at the college level are ready to apply learning and to think more out-of-the-box, possibly creating innovations that will change the world. They hold the greatest promise for our society to accomplish the needed science and technology to make life better on our planet. It is important to not stop at elementary and secondary educational support, but to concentrate resources for future added value.

    Completing college should still mean something, but greed and commercialization has cheapened the value of degrees, our respect, and willingness to continue supporting a system that is so lowly regarded. And this is where education stands today.

    None of this has to do with dumping money into schools or paying educational workers, it is about looking at HOW we are effectively using our resources and possibly allocating them differently. My discussion has been more about educational foundations, but it also applies to post secondary as well in some aspects.

    I think the taxpayers/citizens are ready for that now, and educators should be as well, too.

    Blessings and Peace,
    Star

  8. So, as part of our economic redevelopment plan to attract and capitalize on our potential in renewable energy, Sandogibbons and his lackeys cut higher education, which is necessary to bringing in renewable energy money. Thank goodness he has an economic redevelopment plan to convert us from depressed to depressed.

  9. In 2009, the executive director of CCEA (Clark County Education Association - the Union) John Jasonek was paid $208,683 and also received and additional $423,863 from the Union's Community Foundation and Center for Teaching Excellence, for a total pay of $632,546.

    He claims to have worked 85 hrs/week for this income. Here is an example of a trickster and pathological liar in charge of improving education in Nevada. He retired in 2010.

    More than 1/3 of the $4.1 million CCEA's budget went to pay just NINE people. The Teachers Health Trust paid their CEO Peter Alpert $546,133. He probably worked less than 40 hrs/wk.

    These people let the entire educational system in Nevada get cut to pieces while living in splendor. I'm really surprised the Union members would put up with being robbed - where is their control of this organization?

    There are no accomplishments that can be shown for the expenditures of all this money, and this is only a small segment of the entire Nevada educational system.

    One of Capitalism's prime directives is to find someone to do the same job for less. This applies equally to management. If the salaries here could have been cut by 86%, they still would been paid too much.

    Nevada education, at every level will have to change 180 degrees to stay viable, for industries that rely on technology. No amount of dedication, hard work and sacrifice at the teaching level can ever pay for bleeding the system of cash from the top...and getting nothing in return.

  10. Joe (airweave)

    What Nevada does NOT have:

    The extraordinary amounts of water necessary for solar power. Any article that claims to deal with solar power in Nevada, but that doesn't address the horrendously high water use (700-800 gallons per MWh) is a puff piece designed to support it.

  11. An "extraction-based economy" can also be described as lacking the function of 'Development', the term used in 'Research and Development'. Nevada does not have the ability to trasition an idea from research into a product or industry.

    There is education and there is research but there are no business or product spin-offs from Research. There are no development teams or organizations that take theory, mix them with components and turn them into products.

    To understand California development, visit Stanford Research Institute: Google SRI Spinoffs (or spin-offs). The number of unique, diverse industries is phenomenal.

    A small list includes:
    Artificial Muscle Inc.,acquired by Bayer MaterialScience; Averatek; CIC - Communications Intelligence Corp; Discern Communications, acquired by investor Spanlink Communications; e-Vue, Inc.; Intuitive Surgical, Inc. (Nasdaq: ISRG); Intuity Medical, Inc.; Lamina Ceramics, a subsidiary of Lighting Science Group Corp; Lightscape Materials, Inc; Locus Pharmaceuticals; Nuance Communications, Inc. (Nasdaq: NUAN); Orchid CellMark, Inc.; PacketHop; Princeton Lightwave, Inc.; Pyramid Vision, now part of SRI Sarnoff; Sarcon Microsystems, Inc; Secure Products Inc.; Siri, acquired by Apple; Social Kinetics, acquired by RedBrick Health; Songbird Hearing, Inc.; Strategic Business Insights (SBI).

    QinetiQ is a multi-billion dollar spin-off not even mentioned.

    Compare those accomplishments with DRI -- Desert Research Institute. Their approach is to attract well funded research projects, but after the research is done, they wash their hands and go looking for more research contracts. No development, no products, no royalties to creating internal research and development.

    The consortium for research funding for projects on biomass, solar, wind and geothermal publishes papers and that's it. No where are there any spin-offs mentioned for producing biomass, solar etc.

    The University System does not pursue spin-offs, though there may be a few.

    In order to attract technology companies, Somer Hollingsworth, the well paid President of the Nevada Development Authority, put up billboards in California ridiculing the newly elected Governor Jerry Brown. Somer spends more money on his socks, cologne, nails and hair du every month then many people spend on food and the results are clear.

    The Casinos and mines don't want to loose control of their play land and the voters here don't get it. The Governor doesn't get it either. Nevada is called the 'Saudi Arabia' of renewable energy but the University is fighting its last stand for research funding in solar technology.

    As it turns out, the only talented labor pools are on the sunny sides of Casinos lining the Strip, and that's as good as it gets. Nevada is light years from success and moving in the wrong direction.

  12. airweare
    In your 3:45 post you spoke of a heat pump could you send me a link to that or an email I am going to be building a house soon and I think I would like to look in to it thanks.

  13. Sorry Kauron, it does not take the risk out of the investement---it just transfers it to the taxpayer, which means all of us.

    In fact, using taxpayer dollars makes the risk greater because history shows companies are more likely to piss that money away. See Solyndra.