It’s very difficult to imagine Senator Harry Reid, the minority leader of the U.S. Senate, former majority leader, former lieutenant governor, ex-congressman for Nevada, amateur boxer and chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission, without the state in which he grew up. It’s equally hard to imagine the National Clean Energy Summit, the annual gathering of political power, technology and policy, without Harry Reid.
At the eight such summit yesterday, Brandon Flowers, the rock-star front man for the Las Vegas band The Killers, sang the state song, “Home Means Nevada.” The question now, with Reid’s impending retirement and the loss of his significant national influence, is how long will the National Clean Energy Summit also say that “Home Means Nevada”?
Over the last eight years, Reid and his staff have brought together sometimes disparate players — utilities, vehicle manufacturers, conservationists and government officials at all levels — to promote the concept and reality of clean, renewable energy. The event has “national” in its name, but it has been clear from the start that Nevada has been a big winner from the annual gathering, as the number of jobs in clean solar, geothermal and wind energy bloomed in the valleys throughout the Silver State. Every year, the summit has gotten bigger and better speakers, culminating Monday with a keynote address by President Barack Obama. As the most powerful Democratic member of the Senate for the last eight years, Reid has been in a unique position to bring commercial and government investment to Nevada while promoting the clean-energy agenda that conservationists believe is essential in fighting human-induced climate change.
In previous years, speakers have included Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and now Democratic presidential front-runner; former President Bill Clinton; multiple members of Obama’s cabinet; governors and members of Congress from both parties; rock stars; and the leaders of industry and conservation groups. Nevada’s Clean Energy Project, a nonprofit organization, ostensibly runs the summit, but the group has always worked closely with Reid’s office.
Speakers (including the president) unanimously give due deference to Reid, thanking him for the summit and the invitation to speak even when parts of their agenda clash with the senator’s. That happened Monday as Paul Caudill, president of NV Energy, spoke to the summit and credited Reid with leading Nevada’s effort to develop renewable energy. Reid criticized proposals from Nevada’s electric company that some analysts say will increase rooftop-solar costs for homeowners and cripple the growing residential-scale solar-electric industry in Nevada. (For his part, Caudill didn’t publicly engage Reid’s comments, but rather said that NV Energy and its parent company, Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, remain committed to renewable energy and plan on spending $15 billion nationally on clean energy alternatives.)
“If NV Energy continues on the path they are on, they wind up losing,” Reid said about an hour before Caudill spoke. “Common sense dictates to me that we are living in a new world. Utilities have to recognize that. They have not done that yet.”
The summit was not always such a big deal. A decade ago, Nevada conservationists were holding regional meetings and looking at the potential for renewable energy in the sun-drenched state. When Reid and his staff got into the mix, the scope became national.
Now Reid, however, said this year that he will not seek re-election in 2016, and, at times, this week’s summit seemed a bit like a coda to an amazing career. It is not clear who, if anyone, can carry on the legacy of Reid’s summit.
Jennifer Taylor, a Las Vegas attorney, was hired as the new executive director of the Clean Energy Project in February, stepping into the position created by Lydia Ball, a former Las Vegas-based Sierra Club organizer, five years ago. Taylor said the summit, in some form, should continue.
“We know this is an important discussion,” she said, noting that government policy and technological innovations come together at the annual event. Looking out a couple of years, she said Reid’s influence may be missed.“Clearly his leadership has brought Nevada to where it is,” Taylor said. “He’s got really big shoes to fill.”
Don’t count Reid out yet. It is clear that the summit has at least one more year in Nevada. “I don’t plan on checking out of anything right now,” Reid said. “The summit is one of the passions I have.”