LAS VEGAS -- Nevada has been touted as the Saudi Arabia of solar energy. In the past few years, solar projects, along with other green energy installations, have sprouted up throughout the state.
Despite huge public investments in the form of loan guarantees, Nevada has yet to see much of an impact on jobs or energy costs from solar.
For all of its long-term potential, solar energy has been confronted by an amazing array of obstacles. There were speculators who tried to scoop up the best solar sites, A BLM approval process that proved difficult, and opposition from environmental groups.
And then there's Solyndra, the failed solar company that squandered half a billion in federal loan guarantees when it went under and became a focal point for partisan bickering about green energy programs. Federal loan guarantees for solar are now dead.
Solar projects have still managed to open, including the first to be built on public land which is the 50 megawatt plant near Ivanpah. In early May, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar flipped the on switch. He and other federal officials are predicting hundreds of thousands of Americans will work in green energy by 2020, but where are all those jobs? The Ivanpah plant created hundreds of temporary construction jobs but the plant needs only two employees to operate. Is that worth the $50 million loan guarantee that helped build it?
"Despite the difficulties, there is a record amount of installations on the solar market in 2011. The market continues to increase 10, 15, and 20 percent a year. It's still growing, but it's growing from a small base," Solar Reserve CEO Kevin Smith said.
He thinks the fossil fuel giants have been only too happy to contribute to the woes of solar, both with Congress and the public. Oil, gas, and nuclear continue to gobble up billions per year in taxpayer subsidies, despite their huge profits.
The jobs will come, Smith says, pointing to his company's Crescent Dunes project near Tonopah. It's a 110 megawatt solar plant using a unique technology. Thousands of heliostats or solar reflectors will surround a 600-foot tower which will absorb the reflected heat, storing it in molten salt. The project created 600 construction jobs and 4000 peripheral jobs. When it's operational it will employ 45 to 50 people.
"It is quite a large impact to Tonopah. These will be 45 highly-skilled and well-paid jobs to operate this plant," said Crescent Dunes construction manager Brian Painter.
If all goes well, this is technology that could be exported to the world and the heliostats could be manufactured locally. At Tonopah's historic Mizpah Hotel, the impact has already been felt by employees. They say the workers come in for lunch and have offices on the third floor.
The other promise solar has yet to keep is low cost power. Nevada regulators have thus far approved 1000 megawatts of green energy. So far, all of it is more expensive power than electricity from traditional plants.
"I think it requires everybody to take a deep breath," Nevada Consumer Advocate Eric Witkowski said.
He understands the long range benefits of green energy but advises a slowdown in the approval process to give solar time to settle in and cut its costs. Otherwise, it risks a consumer backlash.
"I represent the consumers and I am worried about the cost. We recognize economic development and that it's good for the environment but we have done a lot. When you start bringing on more than we need, that requires us to cut back on the less expensive power and that is going to put upward pressure on the rates for everyone," Witknowski said.
Natural gas is cheap and plentiful now, making solar more expensive by comparison but it won't always be this way, he said. Green energy still makes sense in the big picture even if we should all lower our expectations a few notches for the short term.
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