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Notes from the National Clean Energy Summit

There was a time, not so long ago, when renewable energy, particularly solar power, was considered the realm of the granola and Birkenstock set. Kind of cute, perhaps, if one had a taste for the Whole Earth Catalog and hemp-based textiles.

That, of course, was before scientists formed an almost total consensus that human beings are transforming the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels, and that population growth and economic development were accelerating that transformation. It was before governments and multinational corporations and startup companies began directing tax incentives to efforts to slow the climate changes that already, many believe, are directly threatening the health of the earth and the human economy on which it is built.

And of course, that was before the powerful economic and political interests of fossil-fuel production mobilized huge media campaigns, diplomatic initiatives and electoral warfare to maintain the status quo in an ongoing war of ideas. And it was definitely before the image of pro-renewable power hippies in bell bottoms and tie-dyes — if it were ever true — was replaced by billionaires in pinstripe suits.

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Like so many national political struggles, the war over renewable energy has Nevada as an epicenter. This week, an industrial park outside of Reno, as well as the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino convention center on the Strip, were where the action was. As of Thursday, those who endorse the rise of solar, geothermal, wind and other renewable over coal and oil — natural gas is in an in-between category, cleaner than most fossil fuels but not truly clean, either — were in the driver’s seat.

The casino was the site of the National Clean Energy Summit, the seventh annual, a project of Nevada’s Clean Energy Project and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Reid and company, among them Agriculture Secretary and former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, started the day with an early morning press conference announcing a $105 million federal loan guarantee that would kick-start a garbage-to-energy biofuels project in Reno. Ordinarily, that would be big news, but the biofuels project was almost completely overshadowed by the announcement that the Tesla electric car company — lured by a billion dollars or more in various tax breaks — would plop its $5 billion battery plant in the same city. The announcement was the fuel for comment by a steady stream of notables throughout the daylong summit, including the keynote speaker, former secretary of state, former first lady, and oh-just-maybe Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton.

Vilsack, among others, noted that Nevada has already invested somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 billion in renewable and energy-efficiency efforts, so the Tesla project would, in one short, sharp shock, effectively double the state’s already significant bet on clean energy.

“Progress has been made in Nevada, but really, the best is yet to come,” Reid said in what was, for the typically dour politico, a fit of enthusiasm. “Tesla is great news for Nevada, but it didn’t happen by accident.”

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He noted that one of the world’s few big mining operations for lithium, an element necessary for the battery construction, is in Nevada’s Silver Peak area.

The 6,000 or so jobs that the battery plant would bring, of course, motivated a lot of the commentary.

Some, including Review-Journal columnist (and sometime Desert Companion contributor) Steve Sebelius, couldn’t help but note that the Koch-brothers supported Heartland Institute had chosen the same city, the same casino, and the same conference center and same carpeting for their climate-change-denial-palooza conference just two months ago. (The 9th Annual International Conference on Climate Change did not feature a multibillion-dollar clean-energy plant announcement, however, so many might be forgiven for missing the earlier event on the news.)

The Tesla plant news was not without its detractors, on the left and right. The Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (which your author once worked for) criticized the huge tax abatements that Gov. Brian Sandoval has proposed for the project, while the conservative Nevada Policy Research Institute, which has channeled some of the climate-change-denial language in the past, said it would be unfair to give Tesla such tax breaks and not other companies.

But those attending the conference uniformly seemed to think the Tesla announcement, which requires a special session of the Legislature (scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 10) for approval, was a pretty good deal for Nevada. Even if granola and Birkenstocks were never mentioned in the official company press release.