It sounds implausible on the surface: running Nevada entirely on renewable energy. But could it be done?
In the middle of the desert, imagine 10,000 mirrors arrayed in a circle with a diameter of 1.75 miles. They track the sun throughout the day and concentrate sunlight onto a large heat exchanger atop a tall and slender concrete tower. Inside the exchanger? Liquid salt, heated to more than 1,000 degrees. This molten salt heats water to steam, which drives a turbine and generates electricity. And because the salt cools very slowly, it can generate electricity even when the sun goes down.
The Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project, near Tonopah, went online last year. It’s a nearly $1 billion symphony of light and heat in the middle of the desert. It is the present of renewable energy in Nevada.
The question is whether it can be the future.
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In the age of climate change, the quest for clean energy is becoming less about idealism and more about survival. But the pace seems so damn slow. A little solar plant here, some cleaner-running buses there. Our goals about increasing our use of clean energy always feel underwhelming.
But there’s one organization that’s swinging for the fences. A California-based nonprofit called The Solutions Project is advocating the idea that the entire world can be powered 100 percent by renewable energy by 2050. That’s electricity, transportation, heating/cooling and industry. The organization has also created an ambitious breakdown of 100 percent renewable energy goals for every state in the union.
In Nevada the breakdown would look like this: 55 percent solar, 30 percent geothermal, 10 percent wind and 5 percent hydroelectric. With solar, the nonprofit claims that 12 percent can be generated from residential rooftop photovoltaics (PV), 19.2 percent from solar PV plants, 15.8 percent from concentrated solar power (a la Crescent Dunes) and 8 percent from commercial and government rooftop PV.
It’s a heady idea. One hundred percent clean energy. It has both the visionary boldness and square-jawed pragmatism that represents America at its best. Set an impossible goal, roll up your sleeves and do it. It’s something to get excited about, a goal to cut right through the sensible and predictable, the stodgy, bureaucratic, these-are-the-rules ass-covering that constitutes the overwhelming majority of adult life.
But is it possible? The organization says its research comes from multiple peer-reviewed studies. “This is technically possibly by 2050 in the U.S.,” says Sarah Shanley Hope, executive director of The Solutions Project. “It’s not even an economic problem. It’s political.”
But, come on, is it really possible? Maybe The Solutions Project has gotten a little high on the change-the-world vibes that issue forth from Northern California. Yet at the very least it’s a useful thought experiment. So we decided to put the question to experts around the state and beyond. We focused essentially on electricity generation — transportation will, of course, depend on consumers’ willingness to give up the internal-combustion engine.
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Most of the experts Desert Companion spoke with said the answer to the question is a qualified yes. “The simple answer is yes,” says Jennifer Taylor, executive director of the Las Vegas nonprofit Clean Energy Project, which advocates for the growth of the clean energy economy. “Given the political will, enough money and the appropriate resources, of course they could be.”
Mechanical engineering professor Robert Boehm, who runs UNLV’s Energy Research Center, spells it out: “I don’t think there’s any problem generating enough electricity. The key thing is being able to store it. We’ve got land up the wazoo here. We’ve got the sunshine to go with it. So all that’s a very positive kind of thing. So their 55 percent, I think it’s very realistic. It’s going to have to have some storage with it.”
Right now, about 11 percent of the energy generated in the state comes from coal, 71 percent comes from natural gas, and the rest, about 18 percent, comes from renewables. Experts say there are plenty of solar and geothermal resources, the state’s main renewable resources, and costs are becoming more competitive.
Still, each has its challenges. “Those two resources could power the state easily, but then you have to look at the technology component in terms of storage for solar, transmission for geothermal,” Taylor says.
Having baseload power — constantly available, 24/7 — is key. “You can’t have 100 percent renewables and grid reliability without storage and baseload,” says Angie Dykema, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Energy.
Nevada set its first renewable energy portfolio standard in 1997. The current standard calls for Nevada to use 25 percent renewable energy by 2025. The state is well on its way to achieving this goal. For years, as Nevada’s RPS was expanding, geothermal was the go-to energy source. Geothermal works by tapping underground reservoirs of water or steam heated by the earth and converting them to electricity. The state signed its first geothermal deal in 1983; now there are 19 projects, with a capacity of 438.9 megawatts (one megawatt is roughly equivalent to the electricity used by 1,000 homes, so the current capacity could power 438,900 homes).
“Geothermal is both a baseload energy and a flexible energy source,” says Josh Nordquist, an official with Ormat Technologies in Reno, the state’s largest producer of geothermal. “It can operate like a coal plant or a gas plant.”
In other words, geothermal is a renewable that acts like a fossil fuel — always available, at night and during peak demand. Still, even geothermal can only run at about 75-80 percent of its capacity. This variability is due to ambient conditions: Geothermal systems require water to cool them in the summer. In the winter, they can produce more.
Further, there are limitations to geothermal. Unlike solar, companies have to prospect for geothermal wells, so there’s more risk in finding a reliable location. It requires a lot of labor-intensive fieldwork and modeling. “Sometimes they do go dry or sometimes they miss their predictive capability,” says Kevin Geraghty, vice president of energy supply for NV Energy.
For years, too, there was no transmission line linking the geothermal resources in the north with Las Vegas’ growing population. In 2014, the 600-megawatt One Transmission line opened. The $510 million line runs 235 miles from Ely to the edge of the Harry Allen Substation, just north of the Las Vegas Valley.
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Nevertheless, to take full advantage of all of Nevada’s geothermal potential, the state will likely need five or 10 more lines. Because of the vast terrain they cover, transmission lines take a long time to get permits for. Geraghty says NV Energy can have a large solar project going in 24 months, while it might take 120 months to permit a transmission line, due to challenging environmental impact standards.
Nevada’s permitting procedures are pretty good but could be better. Dykema says that geothermal developers use a technique called shallow temperature gradient core drilling to try to identify geothermal hotspots. “If they were able to do that under a categorical exclusion (which would allow geothermal developers to bypass lengthy environmental assessments), it would allow them a better ability to do exploration without waiting for costs and time associated with permitting.”
Nevada, with its abundant sunshine and little rain, is often dubbed the Saudi Arabia of solar energy. And business has been booming in recent years. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, there are more than 128 solar companies in Nevada, employing 8,764 people. (These numbers are from the fall of 2015, so it doesn’t account for jobs and companies leaving the state.)
Last year the state installed 409 megawatts of solar electric capacity, third highest in the nation, and the total solar energy installed here, 1,300 megawatts, ranks fifth. It’s enough power to run 200,000 homes. According to NV Energy, there are 15 solar projects with a capacity of 349.7 megawatts.
The downside to solar, of course, is storage. Solar is an intermittent power source; even in Nevada the sun only shines for half the day. At night, solar fields can’t generate electricity. But baseline power has to always be available.
The most straightforward method of storing solar energy is using batteries. “Clearly if we want to be a carbonless supply, you have to do storage at a mega scale,” Geraghty says. “Batteries in homes won’t be the only solution. To power industry, cities, most people can’t appreciate the scale.”
We can get a taste of that scale by considering Tesla’s new battery factory near Reno. Dubbed the “gigafactory,” it is designed to produce enough batteries to store 35 gigawatt hours of electricity, or 35,000 megawatt hours. It’s a huge, huge number.
But Nevada used around 36 million megawatt hours of electricity in 2014, according to Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, and as states go, we’re very much on the low end. It would take the batteries from one thousand Tesla “gigafactories” to store the electricity Nevada uses in a year.
There are more innovative options out there. “Electricity is difficult to store as electricity or as chemical energy (batteries),” Geraghty says. Power developers are exploring several ways to store solar energy as mechanical energy. Crescent Dunes’ molten salt is one option, which its owners believe can be scaled up in future plants. A power plant in California pumps water uphill from one lake to another that’s 1,000 feet higher in elevation, at night when price is cheap. The next day, the water flows back down, generating electricity.
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Still, one day, commercial and residential batteries will be in use, and they’ll certainly be crucial in switching us over to a transportation system that doesn’t rely on internal combustion engines. The promise of batteries, especially in homes, is the promise of distributed energy versus utility-scale energy generated by a handful of plants. The merits and future of both is at the heart of the current debate in Nevada about rooftop solar.
Right now there are 187 megawatts of rooftop solar capacity connected to the grid, with another 82 megawatts in the pipelines. There are a reported 17,000 net-energy-metering customers in Nevada. Until last year, NV Energy had a cap on net metering energy use of 3 percent of the utility’s retail energy load. But as the number of ratepayers joining the net-metering program began to rise, the 3 percent cap was about to be passed, which would have prevented new people from signing up. Last summer, the state passed SB 374, which directed the PUC to remove the cap and set new rules governing rates. The PUC opted to raise the service fee for net-metering customers and to drastically lower the rate at which they could sell power back to the grid. Net-metering customers and environmental advocates protested last year — claiming the utility and its regulator were pulling a bait and switch and trying to maintain its monopoly on power generation. In February the PUC slightly modified its rules. The rate changes would be phased in over 12 years, not five. But the new rates would stand, and existing customers would not be grandfathered in.
NV Energy argues the move was necessary to prevent non-solar customers from shouldering an unfair amount of cost — that maintaining the power grid, which net-metering customers are still hooked up to, is expensive, and the old rates allowed these customers to benefit from the grid without paying their fair share for its upkeep. For the utility, the equation is simple: Rooftop solar isn’t as cost competitive as utility-scale solar. “The fact of the matter is utility scale prices have come crashing down,” says Geraghty. “The same cannot be said for rooftop solar.”
While residential rooftop constitutes a small percentage of the state’s renewable energy generation, the ripples of the debate appear quite large: Major rooftop solar installer, SolarCity, founded by Elon Musk, announced in January it was eliminating more than 500 jobs in the state. And the changes may be litigated by rooftop solar providers or NEM customers.
The fight is a potent reminder that political will to transform the state will be as crucial as technology. Politics will always mediate the push to renewables, because politics mediates every kind of transformation. The will among political leaders and business leaders seems geared to push in this direction — because moving in the direction of renewables in a sun-drenched state is low-hanging fruit. But as we progress closer to grand dreams of “100 percent,” that will be tested, the road will grow bumpy, and plenty of people will push back, arguing the transition will be technically challenging, or expensive, or inconvenient.
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Of course, all of this begs an important question — would it be possible to just cut NV Energy out of the loop altogether? Could rooftop solar and a home battery pack simply charge and store clean energy — plug your car in while you’re at it — and circumvent the grid altogether?
The day may come when buying a solar panel and battery package is no more difficult or expensive than buying a new washer and dryer. Experts we spoke with say that, for now, it’s costly and inefficient for customers to completely leave the grid.
Fortunately, the grid is getting cleaner. The state has gotten more aggressive at ramping up renewables and winding down coal. The state assembly passed a bill, SB 123, in 2013, which required 800 megawatts of coal to be replaced with cleaner (though not necessarily renewable) energy sources. As a consequence, three-quarters of the giant coal-fired Reid Gardner Generating Station north of the city was retired at the end of 2014. The rest of the plant will shut down next year. Among other pending closures, NV Energy will divest its 11.3 percent ownership stake in the Navajo Generating Station, in Page, Arizona, reportedly one of the largest carbon dioxide emitters in the U.S. The law further requires NV Energy to acquire, contract for or build 550 megawatts of new energy and to add 350 megawatts of renewables.
When asked if the state could simply increase its renewable portfolio standards once the 25 percent figure is achieved, Dykema notes that RPS policies were “implemented in 30 of 50 states as an incentive, a way to stimulate the renewable market. It’s done that in Nevada,” says Dykema.
The state is turning its focus to other programs. A Green Energy Rider Program allows companies to pay a premium to have renewable energy custom-delivered. Already the state has built or is building nearly 350 megawatts of capacity for companies moving into Nevada. (This additional renewable doesn’t count toward the state’s portfolio.) “The GER program is now generating the marketplace,” says Dykema.
Further, the One Transmission Line is being extended south to allow Nevada renewables to more easily tap into California markets.
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On a website promoting The Solution Project’s 100 percent campaign, Hope writes that 100 percent clean energy is “a means, not an end. It is a path to individual freedom and the common good — a path to something greater for each and all of us.”
Maybe the journey to full renewables is as important as the destination: a promise of optimizing our own potential while in the service of a larger idea.
We are approaching the age when renewables can competitively supply most of our energy. “Even in 2050, if we have the capability of 100 percent renewable energy, it’s really very hard to imagine where there’s not a future for natural gas as a backup,” says Geraghty. “A fail-safe backup for energy.”
Still, increasingly you get the sense that the transition off of fossil fuels is on. The future is that solar and geothermal will be the baseload, and natural gas will stick around just in case, or for periods of peak demand (6 p.m. on any day in July or August, for example).
The future is coming. It’s just a matter of time. A tussle between those who want the future now and those who want to move more slowly or not at all. That tussle is the story of American politics itself. “Across our nation’s history we’ve always sorted that out,” Geraghty says. “This will be another we sort out.”