Obama visits Nevada, the center of the solar boom, to talk clean energy and climate change

The Washington Post
August 24, 2015

By Chris Mooney:  LAS VEGAS — Pres­i­dent Oba­ma will arrive here Mon­day to announce a bevy of ini­tia­tives to pro­mote clean-ener­gy growth in America’s homes and on its rooftops — the first stop in a cli­mate and ener­gy-focused tour that will also take him to New Orleans and Alas­ka this month.

In a move her­ald­ed by the solar indus­try, the admin­is­tra­tion will seek to expand access to a loan pro­gram that allows home­own­ers to get up-front financ­ing for clean-ener­gy or ener­gy-effi­cient home upgrades, such as installing rooftop solar panels.

The loans will “allow folks to get the improve­ments up-front and pay for them over time with their prop­er­ty tax­es,” Julian Cas­tro, sec­re­tary of the Depart­ment of Hous­ing and Urban Devel­op­ment, said on a press call announc­ing the ini­tia­tives Mon­day. Cas­tro said his depart­ment will be mov­ing to increase access to the pro­gram, called PACE, for the 7.6 mil­lion Amer­i­cans who live in sin­gle-fam­i­ly homes paid for with FHA financing.

Addi­tion­al moves announced by the Ener­gy Depart­ment, mean­while, will make $ 1 bil­lion in fed­er­al loan guar­an­tees avail­able for “dis­trib­uted” ener­gy projects, such as rooftop solar pan­els or batteries.

The pres­i­dent will announce the ini­tia­tives Mon­day evening at the eighth annu­al Nation­al Clean Ener­gy Sum­mit, co-spon­sored by Sen. Har­ry Reid (D‑Nev.), the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress, and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Nevada’s uni­ver­si­ties and industry.

Appear­ing at the event has become a polit­i­cal must for mem­bers of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment, and those who have made com­mon cause with Demo­c­ra­t­ic elect­ed offi­cials. Past speak­ers have includ­ed Hillary Clin­ton, Bill Clin­ton (twice), Arnold Schwarzeneg­ger and Michael Bloomberg.

Neva­da is an apt place for Oba­ma to begin a renewed focus on clean ener­gy and cli­mate. The state has been dubbed the “Sau­di Ara­bia of solar” and has recent­ly shown the growth to prove it. Solar jobs in the state increased from 2,400 in 2013 to to 5,900 in 2014, a 146 per­cent increase, accord­ing to the Solar Foundation.

On a per capi­ta basis, sun­ny Neva­da now has more solar jobs than any oth­er state (though neigh­bor­ing California’s solar indus­try is far big­ger over­all). And no won­der: It has vast solar poten­tial. In 1999, one Ener­gy Depart­ment sci­en­tist even cal­cu­lat­ed that cov­er­ing 10,000 square miles of the desert north of here with solar pan­els could pow­er the entire Unit­ed States.

Reid, who like Oba­ma will be out of office after 2016 and is sim­i­lar­ly try­ing to build a clean-ener­gy lega­cy, recent­ly stat­ed, “No state in the union has the oppor­tu­ni­ty that we have. Clean ener­gy is Nevada’s future.”

It’s not just solar — Tes­la Motors is build­ing its $4.5 bil­lion bat­tery Gigafac­to­ry in the desert to the east of Reno. Neva­da also leads the nation in “untapped” geot­her­mal resources, accord­ing to the Ener­gy Infor­ma­tion Administration.

Oba­ma arrives here at the start of a tour that will take him to New Orleans for the 10th anniver­sary of Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na, and then on to Alas­ka, where he will be the first U.S. pres­i­dent to vis­it the Alaskan Arc­tic, which is expe­ri­enc­ing more rapid cli­mate warm­ing than any­where else in the country.

We’re incred­i­bly focused on this issue,” White House senior advis­er Bri­an Deese said in dis­cussing the president’s late-sum­mer string of cli­mate-focused stops.

With the lat­ter two stops, the pres­i­dent is like­ly to high­light how cli­mate change is affect­ing the coun­try — for instance, caus­ing dra­mat­ic loss­es of Alaskan glacial ice and ero­sion of the Arc­tic shore­line — as well as the impor­tance of efforts to pre­pare for it (New Orleans has strength­ened its hur­ri­cane pro­tec­tions dra­mat­i­cal­ly but is still try­ing to restore its coast in the face of ris­ing seas).

But the Neva­da stop focus­es much more direct­ly on the administration’s flag­ship cli­mate change solu­tion — the EPA’s recent­ly final­ized Clean Pow­er Plan — and the change it depends upon, name­ly, the robust growth of clean energy.

The plan requires states to cut emis­sions through a mix of options that include great­ly increas­ing the amount of elec­tric­i­ty they get from wind, solar and oth­er renew­able sources.

Fif­teen states, includ­ing West Vir­ginia and Wyoming, have filed suit seek­ing an “emer­gency stay” of the rule, which they call “clear­ly unlawful.”

Neva­da should have lit­tle prob­lem imple­ment­ing the Clean Pow­er Plan, accord­ing to a recent analy­sis by the envi­ron­men­tal group West­ern Resource Advo­cates. The state has to reduce its emis­sions 22 per­cent below 2005 lev­els by 2030 under the plan, but the group fore­cast that it could eas­i­ly best that tar­get with cur­rent poli­cies alone, thanks to the state’s push­ing of a clean-ener­gy trans­for­ma­tion. “The com­bi­na­tion of planned coal plant retire­ments, planned renew­able ener­gy resources, and ener­gy effi­cien­cy invest­ments will enable Neva­da to exceed the EPA stan­dard,” the group reported.

The Clean Ener­gy Sum­mit, where Oba­ma will speak, is now in its eighth year. It has evolved not only into a show­case for the lat­est trends in the sec­tor, but a stop­ping ground for the high­est ech­e­lon of indus­try and polit­i­cal elites, yet anoth­er sign of the grow­ing influ­ence of the clean-ener­gy industry.

Monday’s event was pep­pered with faces from Tes­la, First Solar, and even more cut­ting-edge upstart clean-ener­gy com­pa­nies, such as Cal­i­for­nia-based Advanced Micro­grid Solu­tions, which is wiring build­ings with bat­tery instal­la­tions so they can be tak­en off the grid for sig­nif­i­cant peri­ods of time — thus sav­ing the build­ings mon­ey while also reliev­ing pres­sure on the broad­er elec­tri­cal grid.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of one indus­try leader, the Tempe, Ari­zona based pan­el mak­er First Solar, told the con­fer­ence today that they’re build­ing much larg­er projects in Neva­da than they were a decade ago, and at a much cheap­er price point for util­i­ty scale solar — below $ 50 per megawatt hour of capac­i­ty, far low­er than in the neigh­bor­hood of $ 150 sev­en years ago.

We love Neva­da,” said James Woodruff, First Solar’s vice pres­i­dent for state and local gov­ern­ment affairs. “It’s got sun­shine, it’s got trans­mis­sion access, it’s got skilled labor, great pub­lic pol­i­cy, vision­ary lead­er­ship. All those things have com­bined to make this real­ly the sweet spot for solar pow­er in the US.” Woodruff says the com­pa­ny is cur­rent­ly con­tract­ed to build 1.3 gigawatts of solar ener­gy capac­i­ty in the state. “To give you an idea of what that means for Nevadans, that pipeline will cre­ate 7 mil­lion work hours,” he said.

Over­all, Woodruff says, the Clean Pow­er Plan is def­i­nite­ly good news for First Solar’s busi­ness, and he sees a grow­ing mar­ket beyond the West­ern U.S. into the east and espe­cial­ly states like Texas.

But it wasn’t all good news for solar in Vegas — the state is now in a grow­ing bat­tle over “net meter­ing,” the increas­ing­ly con­tentious pol­i­cy which allows rooftop solar own­ers to receive cred­it on their util­i­ty bills for the excess pow­er they gen­er­ate and con­tribute back to the grid. The local util­i­ty, NV Ener­gy, recent­ly declared that net meter­ing had hit a legal lim­it in the state — mean­ing that the state Pub­lic Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion will have to decide on how future own­ers of rooftop solar pan­els will be com­pen­sat­ed going forward.

What that real­ly means is that solar is immense­ly pop­u­lar, and peo­ple have bought up all they’re allowed to do,” said Will Craven, a spokesman for SolarCi­ty, the nation’s top rooftop installer, in an inter­view at the sum­mit. “Now it’s up to the PUC to deter­mine whether Nevadans are allowed to con­tin­ue going solar.”

Over­all, the enthu­si­asm and bull­ish­ness about clean ener­gy under­scores that while the EPA expects the Clean Pow­er Plan to push states to get 28 per­cent of their elec­tric­i­ty from renew­able sources by 2030, some in the indus­try think we may move con­sid­er­ably faster than that.

I think we’re going to blow out a lot of these goals over the next sev­er­al decades,” said con­fer­ence speak­er Nan­cy Pfund, the founder and man­ag­ing part­ner of San Fran­cis­co-based DBL Investors — a ven­ture cap­i­tal firm which has backed Tes­la and SolarCity.

To read the full arti­cle, vis­it the Wash­ing­ton Post.