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.