By Mark Waite
The closure of the Amonix solar manufacturing plant in North Las Vegas last week, the recipient of $20 million in federal tax credits and grants, a year after it opened, was another political football lobbed by Republican opponents of renewable energy subsidies.
Amonix follows Solyndra, another solar manufacturing plant in Reno, which declared bankruptcy in 2011 and laid off 1,100 workers, a year after receiving a $528 million loan that was fast-tracked by the Obama administration. The Solyndra closure was used by opponents of Obama’s re-election effort as an example of the president’s failed policies.
But while the two solar manufacturing projects failed, the solar industry as a whole appears to be thriving. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management continues to receive applications for more solar power plant projects just south of Pahrump.
Amonix, a designer and manufacturer of concentrated, photovoltaic solar power systems, closed its 214,000-square-foot facility July 26. It received $6 million in federal tax credits and a $15.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, during President George W. Bush’s administration in 2007.
U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu visited the North Las Vegas facility last year to tour the company. Amonix provided panels for a Colorado solar generation project owned by Cogentrix among other customers.
U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., issued a press release stating the closure was yet another account of how his opponent U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley’s stimulus has failed Nevada.
“Congresswoman Berkley, you pushed $6 million in funding to a company that has created zero long-term jobs for Nevada. Congresswoman, it’s time. It’s time for you to admit the stimulus, and your policies, aren’t working,” Heller for Senate spokesman Chandler Smith said.
Mason Harrison, a spokesman for the Mitt Romney presidential campaign, said “after wasting tens of millions of dollars on a solar plant that was open for 14 months, Amonix is just another example of President Obama’s failed economic philosophy that has failed to get Nevadans back to work.”
But U.S. Department of Energy spokesman Jen Stutsman said while the news is disappointing, “the United States simply can’t afford to cede America’s role in the growing, highly competitive solar energy industry.” She added “solar manufacturers are facing significant challenges.”
U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., a supporter of federal investment in the renewable energy industry, who called Nevada the Saudi Arabia of solar, countered with a statement.
“Last year Amonix CEO Brian Robertson was tragically killed in a plane crash and unfortunately the company was unable to recover from this difficult time. Some people will be tempted to use today’s unfortunate news for political gain. But I am hopeful that the bipartisan support for this project and the public-private partnership that helped make this and many other projects possible will not be degraded by dirty energy supporters for their own profit or political gain.”
State Sen. Steven Horsford, D-North Las Vegas, a candidate for the new fourth congressional seat and strong supporter of renewable energy in the Nevada Legislature, said a lot of the vision and plan for Amonix died with the CEO. Horsford noted that Gov. Brian Sandoval and North Las Vegas Mayor Shari Buck, both Republicans, supported the Amonix project.
“I don’t think we should judge the entire renewable energy economy and the ability to create new business or jobs based on the success of one company. The co-op that operates right here in Pahrump, they’re doing a lot of exciting work with renewables,” Horsford said during a stopover in Pahrump last weekend. “In Nevada we don’t have oil, we have solar, wind and geothermal. So if we’re going to try to grow our economy we can only grow it with the assets and the resources that we have.”
Greg Helseth, BLM renewable energy project manager for the Pahrump field office, said Amonix and Solyndra had specific technology in the photovoltaic market. Some versions of photovoltaic technology have done well, others have struggled to get the price down and remain competitive, he said.
When it comes to constructing solar power plants, Helseth said the trend is toward tower technology, with heliostats focusing solar energy on a tall tower, rather than solar troughs in the ground.
Helseth said First Solar, a company that closed a couple of manufacturing plants globally, is still thriving, they are also proposing to build a 400-megawatt Desert Springs Project in Clark County.
While the two solar manufacturers failed, more applications for concentrated solar power plants have been filed with the BLM for public land just south of Pahrump. The latest map lists four companies seeking to build solar power plants just south of Pahrump:
* Abengoa Solar Inc., has applied to build the Pahrump South Solar project, a 640-megawatt plant;
* Boulevard Associates LLC, the subsidiary of a company building the Spring Valley wind project, has applied to build the Sandy Valley Solar Project, a 250-megawatt power plant;
* BrightSource Energy, which is awaiting a final staff assessment from the California Energy Commission in August on their 500-megawatt Hidden Hills project just across the California state line, has plans for a 1,000-megawatt project in Sandy Valley;
* Element Power has applied to build a 300-megawatt, photovoltaic project in Nye County.
* Pacific Solar Investments Inc. has an application for a 300-megawatt photovoltaic project in Nye County.
Companies are lining up south of Pahrump for a reason, Helseth said.
“They’re all vying for that space because of the Valley Electric transmission line,” he said.
VEA has filed an application to build a 500-megawatt transmission line from the Hidden Hills solar project to connect with the California grid in Eldorado Valley south of Boulder City. The power companies should have an easier time executing power purchase agreements as the electric cooperative is joining the California Independent System of Operators CAISO , which operates 80 percent of the California electricity grid. Many of the power purchasers are in California, as NV Energy has filled its renewable energy portfolio.
Iberdrola has pulled its application for a solar plant near Big Dune in northern Amargosa Valley, Helseth said.
“They moved down below Pahrump because of the dune beetle and the transmission just wasn’t working out,” Helseth said.
Solar Trust of America was already granted a record of decision for a 500-megawatt solar power plant in Amargosa Valley, but there has been no news on that project recently following the company bankruptcy.