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Glimpsing the future of power at the Clean Energy Summit

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soil sampling

Workers collect soil samples for analysis at the site of the Valley Electric Association's community solar project.

The National Clean Energy Summit, a yearly wonk-in for supporters of wind, solar, geothermal and other renewable power sources, often begins with a press conference — preferably one at which exciting news is broken. For example, the last time I was there, in 2013, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewel joined summit founder Senator Harry Reid and representatives of the Moapa Band of Paiutes to announce that a humongous solar array would be built on the tribe’s land north of Las Vegas to sell electricity to L.A.’s water and power department.

The big news at this year’s August 24 summit came from Valley Electric Association, the co-op that provides electricity to community members in southwestern Nevada and has long been a promoter of solar energy. With Reid by his side, association CEO Thomas Husted unveiled plans to open a 15-megawatt community solar-generation plant next July in Pahrump, where the company is based. That’s a pretty small operation compared to the 100- and 200-megawatt facilities that investor-owned utility NV Energy is building (First Solar’s on Moapa Paiute land is 250 megawatts), but its significance is not in its size; it’s in the concept.

Think of “community solar” as being like a community garden. Someone — often a nonprofit — is in charge of keeping it going, but members who buy in reap the fruits. It’s kind of a natural for an electricity co-op, which is member-owned to begin with. And, says Valley Electric spokesman Thomas Moore, it gives members who prefer to consume solar energy a way to do so without having to put solar panels on their roofs.

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“Members will be able to say they want a certain percentage of their bill to come from this plant,” Moore said, “and we’ll dedicate that certain percentage at a price that’s lower than our current rates.”

In other words, it’s a hybrid means of providing solar energy, with elements of both centralized and distributed generation. This is particularly significant at a time when Nevada — along with a couple dozen other U.S. states — is grappling with the future of rooftop solar. Last weekend, we reached the cap of distributed generation capacity that came with the net-metering program when it was established in 2007. Seeing this coming, interests on either side of the issue lobbied for state legislation in this year’s session, but lawmakers palmed the issue off on the Public Utilities Commission. The PUC is now considering a proposal by NV Energy to either reduce rooftop solar customers’ 1-to-1 credit for excess energy they put back into the grid, charge them a fee for accessing said grid when their personal generation falls below their consumption, or both. The thousands of people who have rooftop arrays and who work in the industry are unhappy about this, to say the least.

The issue sucked up a fair amount of the air on the third floor of Mandalay Bay Convention Center, where the National Clean Energy Summit took place. Reid addressed the issue head-on at least twice during the day, other speakers touched on it in their remarks, and one session featured a debate explicitly about the future of rooftop solar between pro-rooftop Charles Cicchetti of Pacific Economics Group and pro-utility Lisa Wood of the Edison Foundation.

“News flash,” Cicchetti opened with. “There is no requirement to buy electricity from electric utilities.”

“I can tell this is going to be a really fun debate,” Wood countered.

Despite the liveliness of their back-and-forth, the most interesting points made on the subject were those that addressed not where we are, but where we’re going. Talking about the business case for clean energy, Diarmuid O’Connell of Tesla said the electric car company had written the playbook for scrappy innovators to disrupt the big-power paradigm. Battery technology, Susan Kennedy of Advanced Microgrid Solutions said during a panel discussion about the grid of tomorrow, is about to do the same thing to the energy industry that it did to the telecommunications industry: more power in the hands of consumers, who will demand electricity how and where they want it.

This and the rest of the day’s discussions add up to an energy picture 10 years from now that’s very different from the one we figure into today, where centrally controlled energy sources and transmission lines are abandoned in favor of more immediate, local choices. If yesterday’s speakers are right — if this magical future isn’t just pipe dreams —then Reid is right when he says that NV Energy better get with the rooftop program or prepare for a revolt of public opinion.

Perhaps the company could start with a solar garden? I, for one, would buy a plot.

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