By Mark Waite
Eileen Christensen, a principal scientist with BEC Environmental who is contracted by Nye County, remembers when she attended a a Mine Scarred Lands Initiative Conference, an offshoot of the Brownfields Program, an economic development program in which industrial contamination sites are cleaned up.
When the subject came to cleaning up the Bullfrog Mine in Beatty, which had been closed since 1999, representatives of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told Nye County officials about the area’s high potential to be a player in the burgeoning solar energy field.
Similar information was presented against several years later, this time at a national Brownfields conference in Boston in 2006. By the first six months of 2007, companies from far and wide had applied for renewable energy projects on 111 sections of land in Nye County, Christensen said.
The solar power land rush was on.
A map presented by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in 2008 showed a patchwork of applications for right-of-way for solar power plants from Lathrop Wells to Beatty. Some companies were just speculating.
Now, almost five years after the start of the boom, solar companies are waiting on new Federal Energy Regulatory Commission regulations as well as to see how California is going to address its renewable energy portfolio standards, Christensen said. Developers are also waiting to see what shakes out with an application by Valley Electric Association to join the California Independent System of Operators CAISO she said.
Power purchase agreements and transmission have been two major obstacles to getting solar projects off the ground.
A few companies, like Solar Millennium, have gone through the lengthy permitting process with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. But Solar Millennium, which plans to build two, 250-megawatt solar power plants on 4,600 acres along Farm Road in Amargosa Valley, hasn’t broken ground since receiving a record of decision by the U.S. Department of Interior last November. The project would provide 180 permanent jobs and supply power to 150,000 homes, but the company is waiting to sign power purchase agreements with utilities and resolve transmission issues.
Solarhybrid AG, a German company, issued a press release this month saying it was acquiring Solar Millennium.
SolarReserve received a record of decision from the U.S. Department of Interior last December and broke ground in August on a 110-megawatt solar power plant 13 miles northwest of Tonopah. It is already transforming the former “Queen of the Mining Camps” with construction trucks. The project will employ 45 permanent workers and supply enough power for 75,000 homes.
The other hub of activity is south of Pahrump, on the California side of the Interstate 15 corridor, where BrightSource Energy is building a three-phase project on 3,600 acres in Ivanpah Valley that will generate 392 megawatts when completed by the end of 2013. Closer to home, BrightSource applied to the California Energy Commission for a permit to build two, 250-megawatt solar power projects on 3,275 acres of private land at the Hidden Hills Ranch on Tecopa Road just across the California state line.
Christensen noted both SolarReserve and BrightSource already have signed power purchase agreements. SolarReserve has a 25-year agreement to supply power to NV Energy. BrightSource has agreements with Southern California Edison and PG & E.
Solar power companies are increasingly looking to California as a source of consumption. NV Energy has a requirement to acquire 15 percent of its supply from renewable energy this year and 25 percent by 2025. In 2010, the Public Utilities Commission approved seven contracts with renewable projects for NV Energy, the company acquired 53 percent of its requirement from geothermal energy in northern Nevada.
Besides SolarReserve, NV Energy has contracts with solar power projects like Nevada Solar One, Apex Solar, Searchlight Solar LLC, Silver State Solar near Primm and Fotowatio.
Other companies are eyeballing private land, besides BrightSource Energy. Nye County signed lease option agreements with six companies to lease more than 1,000 acres of county-owned land at Tonopah Airport, each contract is for two years, with $10,000 payable every six months.
Two other companies are in the environmental review process by the BLM in Amargosa Valley: Pacific Solar, owned by Iberdrola Renewables, is planning a three-phase project to build 150 megawatts near Dune; and, Abengoa Solar is planning a 110-megawatt plant in Lathrop Wells.
Back in December 2007, Nellis Air Force Base joined up with Sunpower Corporation, Nevada Power and MMA Renewable Ventures, in a project to build 72,000 solar panels on 140 acres, enough to generate 14 megawatts, 25 percent of their power supply.
Christensen, in a report to Nye County Commissioners in February, noted, “one of the most significant challenges facing the development of an energy-related industrial cluster in Nye County is the lack of available infrastructure, particularly transmission capacity.”
Nye County gave comments on a resource management plan for the BLM Battle Mountain District that same month, in which it said “current utility lines will be unable to support rapid growth in renewable energy development and new transmission corridors will be required.”
Assistant County Manager Pam Webster called the lack of transmission “a severe challenge” in remarks to the Nevada Assembly Government Affairs Committee back in February.
Sierra Express has applied to the BLM to build a 122-mile, 500 kilovolt power line from Amargosa Valley to Eldorado Valley south of Boulder City, where it will connect with the California grid.
Valley Electric Association has a competing proposal to build a 500 kv line from the BrightSource Energy project on the Tecopa Road, connecting with feeder lines north. NV Energy has solicited interest from renewable energy providers in a 570-mile power line from Reno to Las Vegas.
A report to VEA ambassadors said the local cooperative has nine solar power generators with 2,800 megawatts of capacity in the queue. VEA attorney Curt Ledford said by comparison, the whole energy usage of Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Henderson is 6,000 megawatts.
“We have potential generators that want to connect with Valley Electric that are two times the size of Hoover Dam,” VEA Chief Executive Officer Tom Husted said.
Ledford added, “These are large scale international developers with capital. They’re the real deal.”
The federal loan guarantee program for the solar industry expired Oct. 1. Part of the economic stimulus package, it provided $737 million for the SolarReserve project near Tonopah, and BrightSource Energy received a $1.6 billion loan guarantee for its projects. But Christensen said for some companies, the loan guarantee program was too cumbersome.
When his company’s loan guarantee was approved, Kevin Smith, SolarReserve chief executive officer, said, the federal requirements were “beyond what I have experienced in other commercial deals.”
U.S. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu said the loan guarantee program was necessary to stay competitive in the global, clean energy race in announcing the loan to SolarReserve.
Still, after it was all said and done, the loan guarantee program was tainted by a $535 million loan guarantee to California-based Solyndra in September 2009 to build solar panels. Solyndra eventually fired 1,100 employees and declared bankruptcy on Sept. 6. The bankruptcy was blamed on cheaper competition from the Chinese.
“The costs have gone down tremendously and as the cost goes down, that means solar power is more affordable. It remains to be seen how the industry shakes out, but with all the interest in research performance and interest in these new technologies, it’s edging up against traditional power generation,” Christensen said. “Solar is still some of the highest power cost in the industry but they are significantly lower than what we started back in 2007.”
If Nye County is successful in getting six, 250-megawatt, solar power plants built by 2020, the county will have a long term solar thermal industry with wages and benefits approaching $50 million per year, Walt Kuver, president of Directed Solutions LLC, told county officials in a 2009 report.
Nye County officials haggled with NV Energy over its 55 percent renewable tax credit for the On Line Transmission project, linking up northern and southern Nevada, part of the incentives granted by the legislature in the 2009 session.
The federal government has come out with other programs to encourage solar power. The U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., announced a federally-funded, solar research facility at Area 25 on the Nevada National Security Site, back in July 2008.
The DOE and the BLM contemplated opening 9.5 million acres in Nevada under a solar energy development program, including 31,625 acres in western Amargosa Valley.
Solar energy, and renewable energy in general, has been touted as a way to diversify the economy in Nye County.
“I see this as a positive thing, even if Nye County only realizes one or two projects, it’s still a big thing to be involved in the cusp of an industry,” Christensen said. “I’m not saying solar is the answer for diversification of the economy in Nye County, but I think it’s part of the solution. We just have to look at as many ways of diversification as we can.”