The National Clean Energy Summit brought together elected leaders, captains of industry and even an astronaut, but no one captured the central theme quite like the Moapa Band of Paiutes.
After almost 50 years in the shadow of smokestacks, the Southern Nevada Indian tribe is about to welcome one of the world’s largest solar energy developments and watch the coal-burning power plant next door close for good.
No wonder Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid chose to launch his sixth annual renewable energy conference at Mandalay Bay Tuesday with an update on the tribe’s solar development 40 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
Construction is expected to start this fall on the 2,000 acre solar array, which is expected to generate as many as 600 construction jobs and supply Los Angeles with 250 megawatts of power for the next 25 years. For the tribe, the deal will mean steady lease payments from K Road Power, the company building the array.
As Eric Lee, the tribe’s vice chairman, put it: “Who would have thought the Moapa Band of Paiutes would be supplying clean, renewable energy to L.A.?”
The theme of Tuesday’s summit was “Energizing Tomorrow,” but the event touched on many of the same themes as the five previous events.
Reid described it as an opportunity to highlight the progress made in clean energy and discuss the challenges that lie ahead.
He opened the day-long conference by talking about a rising tide of natural disasters “exacerbated by climate change,” including hurricanes, heat records and wildfires.
“Don’t be afraid to talk about climate change,” Reid urged the audience. “It’s time to stop entertaining the climate change deniers and start talking about the problems we face.”
CHANGE IN THE WEATHER
During an afternoon panel discussion on the impacts of extreme weather, one expert warned that what is happening to the climate “defies all the assumptions we planned upon.”
Kathryn Sullivan, an astronaut turned administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said we are in for “more frequent extremes and more intense extremes.”
Where the federal government can really help is by investing in the “science on the ground” that will lead to a better understanding of our changing climate, said Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager Pat Mulroy.
“Who has a better computer than NASA?” she said. “We in the water business need, more than anything else, better predictive tools.”
But Mulroy isn’t just looking for federal investment in climate research.
She also met privately with Reid Tuesday afternoon to discuss whether the government can help fund efforts to keep as much water in shrinking Lake Mead as possible.
Specifically, Mulroy is hoping federal money can be used to help pay for so-called “dry-year options” on farmland irrigated by the drought-stricken Colorado River. That water would then be left in Lake Mead to slow the decline of the reservoir and keep it above the two intake pipes that supply the Las Vegas Valley with 90 percent of its drinking water.
Mulroy said there is both “a federal nexus” for such assistance and a national interest in keeping water flowing to the more than 30 million people who rely on the Colorado.
The water authority is rushing to complete a third straw into Lake Mead before the agency loses access to one of the two existing straws. Mulroy said the $817 million project should be done by the end of 2014, just months before projections call for the lake to fall low enough to shut down intake No. 1.
“Southern Nevada is not here with its tin cup out waiting,” Mulroy said of the request for federal funds. “This community has already done some real heavy lifting.”
Eventually, Mulroy wants to see a larger discussion about including drought with other natural disasters that receive federal emergency aid, but she said “that’s a discussion for another day.”
“I’m worried about the next 24 months,” Mulroy said.
Other speakers included Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, NV Energy CEO Michael Yackira and Lisa Jackson, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency and now a vice president at Apple.
For Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, the summit marked her second visit to Southern Nevada in as many months.
In July, she toured two solar power plants along the Nevada-California border near Primm, including the first such array permitted and built on federal land.
Many more projects like that will be needed to reach President Barack Obama’s stated goal of approving at least 20 gigawatts of renewable energy on public land by 2020. Jewell expects the Silver State to continue to play a major role in that.
“Nevada is at the forefront of clean energy,” she said. “There’s no better place to be holding this than Nevada.”
In the small exhibit hall, there were electric- and natural gas-powered vehicles, displays by companies specializing in solar panels and energy-efficient air conditioners and booths from University of Nevada, Las Vegas, the Desert Research Institute and the Southern Nevada Water Authority. One environmental consulting firm brought along a terrarium with a live desert tortoise in it.
More than 600 people attended the summit.
The $225 general admission price included a gourmet lunch featuring mostly organic, eco-friendly fare served with a lecture from Mandalay Bay executive chef Susan Wolfla about the resort’s efforts to fill its kitchens and restaurants with sustainable food.
The summit was held in a convention center that by next year will be partially powered by what is being called the nation’s second-largest rooftop solar array.
MGM’s chief sustainability officer, Cindy Ortega, described the project to the summit crowd, noting that the resort will be able to generate 6.2 megawatts of power by covering all 20 acres of the convention center roof with photovoltaic panels.
“Isn’t that cool?” Ortega said to a round of applause.