Clean Energy Summit Sparks Political Events, Debate Over Government Role In Renewables

CARSON CITY – With U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s 5th annual National Clean Energy Summit set to kick off today in Las Vegas, the debate over alternative energy development and the government’s role in its future rages on.

The purpose of the day-long event as described on the website is to, “once again bring together clean energy visionaries and leaders, public officials, business executives and entrepreneurs, investors, students, and the media to discuss how to empower the public with tools to promote the clean energy economy; increasing jobs and our energy independence.”

But the role of the federal government in the development of alternative energy has become a major political topic in this presidential election year, with critics pointing to the  closure in July of the solar manufacturing company Amonix in North Las Vegas 14 months after opening.

The company had been awarded $6 million in solar manufacturing tax credits to build the facility, but the company said the credits were never used. The closing was used to criticize President Obama and Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., who is locked in a tough Senate race with Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev. But Politico noted in an article that the Bush Administration first backed the Amonix project in 2007.

Federal funding of Nevada renewable projects called into question

The Nevada Policy Research Institute, in an article published today in the Nevada Journal, examined the state’s renewable energy sector and found that over $1.3 billion in federal funds funneled into geothermal, solar and wind projects since 2009 has yielded and is projected to yield just 288 permanent, full-time jobs.

“That’s an initial cost of over $4.6 million per job,” writes Kyle Gillis, a reporter for the NPRI publication. “Despite this, Sen. Reid continues to hype Nevada as the ‘Saudi Arabia of renewable energy,’ even though the renewable energy subsidized with federal dollars and mandated under Nevada’s Renewable Portfolio Standard costs consumers and NV Energy, Nevada’s publicly regulated utility company, up to four times as much as fossil fuels, such as natural gas.”

Gillis said the few clean-energy jobs in the state of Nevada are still precarious even with government support, pointing to Nevada Geothermal Power, a federally subsidized green-energy firm in Nevada. Auditors are raising questions about whether that firm is going to fail, he said.

As of last October, Nevada Geothermal Power had 22 employees in Nevada, and, according to the New York Times, had received $145 million in federal subsidies – composed of a loan guarantee of nearly $79 million for its Blue Mountain geothermal project and at least $66 million in grants to the company itself.

The Times called the company a “politically connected clean energy start-up that has relied heavily on an Obama administration loan guarantee,” and said it “… is now facing financial turmoil.”

Sen. Reid’s position in support of alternative energy and federal assistance is unwavering

Reid says on his Senate website: “Our country is too dependent on oil and fossil fuels, which pollute our air, place our economy and national security at risk, and contribute to climate change.”

He points to the funding in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for helping Nevada become the nation’s renewable energy leader.

“Through the Recovery Act, Nevada has received over $550 million for a range of energy efficiency, renewable, and weatherization projects as well as hundreds of millions in low-cost financing for transmission and renewable energy deployment projects,” Reid said.

New federally-backed Nevada alternative energy project announced

On Monday Reid was joined by U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary Dallas Tonsager and Nevada Rural Development State Director Sarah Adler to announce a major renewable energy project in Northern Nevada.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also announced the $105 million loan guarantee to Fulcrum Sierra BioFuels, LLC to finance development of a facility to convert municipal solid waste into advanced biofuels. The project is expected to help reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, relieve pressure on existing and future landfills, and stimulate economic growth in Northern Nevada through job creation.

The Nevada plant is expected to create an estimated 430 jobs during construction and 53 permanent jobs in Storey County, 20 miles east of Reno. Once operational, the plant is expected to convert 147,000 tons of processed municipal solid waste into over 10 million gallons of advanced biofuels annually using a two-part thermo-chemical process.

“The time is now to embrace alternative American-produced feedstocks that support our nation’s energy independence, provide jobs in rural areas, and support the Obama Administration’s ‘all of the above’ energy strategy,” Vilsack said. “At USDA we are focused on the production of renewable energy from a wide variety of non-food sources, including waste, algae, wood, and switchgrass as a long-term solution to America’s energy needs.”

Alternative energy debate also focuses on oil company tax breaks and Nevada Senate race

The politics of energy development prompted another event Monday, this one aimed at Heller and his history of supporting tax breaks for oil companies.

Sponsored by ProgressNow Nevada, activists gathered near Heller’s Las Vegas office to bring attention to his record on the issue.

Heller in March shifted his position to some extent by urging Congress to close some oil company tax loopholes to help reduce the price of gasoline. He did so in an amendment to S. 2204 called the Gas Price Relief Act. It would, in part, close oil and gas tax loopholes for the major integrated oil companies and provide a permanent reduction in the gas tax.

Berkley has been using Heller’s past votes to maintain the tax subsidies as a campaign issue in the Senate race. An ad running now in northern Nevada, paid for by the League of Conservation Voters, points out that Heller voted “nine times” for Big Oil tax breaks.

The Heller campaign called the ad “payback” to Berkley for supporting the league in voting against a bill to transfer BLM land to Lyon County.

“This ad is a tired, over the top attack,” said Chandler Smith, Heller for Senate spokeswoman, in a statement last month. “Dean Heller actually proposed a bill that would end tax loopholes for big oil companies. Shelley Berkley, on the other hand, voted for a national energy tax that would raise prices at the pump and is personally invested in big oil companies.”

Electricity from coal also part of the discussion

Today, a coalition of health advocates, environmentalists, and members of the Moapa Band of Paiutes is set to rally outside the conference to call on NV Energy to transition from coal fired power plants to clean energy.

The coalition also plans to call attention to NV Energy’s Reid Gardner coal plant operating 50 miles from Las Vegas and next to the Moapa Band of Paiutes reservation. The groups allege that air pollution from the coal plant results in $28 million in public health costs every year.

The Moapa Band of Paiutes wants the coal plant shut down.

NV Energy officials say even though the plant was built in the 1960s, “it has undergone extensive technology improvements and is among the cleanest coal-burning facilities in the nation.”