Green energy is good, but it comes with a trade-off


When it comes to clean energy, it’s always been about the trade-off.

Renewable energy — especially solar and wind power — is still more expensive than its dirtier counterparts, such as coal. Switching to renewable power may be good for the environment and public health, but it’s also more expensive for the people who buy and use electricity.

That’s why Nevada’s laws carve out a special exception for renewable power contracts: Utilities such as NV Energy must buy power at the lowest possible cost for consumers, except that portion of the portfolio that comes from renewable sources, which is exempt. Otherwise, if price were the only object, we’d have hardly any renewable energy at all.

For U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the trade-off is worth it.

In an interview on VegasPBS’s “Nevada Week in Review” on Friday, Reid criticized the Public Utilities Commission and Nevada utilities for looking only at the bottom-line price, and not at the overall picture, which includes pollution and climate change.

“These utility companies must look at more than just basic, raw costs,” Reid said. “They should also be concerned about the cost to my grandchildren, who live here.”

As a media panelist on the show, I followed up with Reid, asking: “It’s the trade-off, right? And you’re saying the trade-off should be higher prices but better for the environment. Is that what you’re saying?”

“Yes,” Reid replied. “But the costs are now nearly competitive, especially with natural gas, which is so cheap now. And we have more natural gas than any country in the world. Any that’s very inexpensive. So I don’t accept all of your statistics.”

Then again, while natural gas is certainly a cleaner-burning fuel than coal, it’s not as clean as renewable power. And we’re about to learn more about that.

Today marks the sixth annual National Clean Energy Summit, Reid’s yearly conference on the advances and promise of green energy. This year’s event will feature speakers including the secretaries of energy (Ernest Moniz) and interior (Sally Jewell), two governors, the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Jon Wellinghoff, CEOs of energy companies and even former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The theme of this year’s conference, Energizing Tomorrow, speaks to the promise of clean energy, how someday vast solar farms will power homes and businesses and charge batteries for use when the sun goes down; how wind farms and geothermal sites and hydroelectric power will energize power grids with a minimum of pollution. And it’s true: Advances in technology are making renewable energy technology more efficient, more cost-effective and more affordable.

But that’s tomorrow. For today, we have to contend with that trade-off: Dirtier, cheaper energy versus cleaner, more expensive energy. And we should go into that discussion acknowledging that trade-off, and those costs, and have an honest debate about it.

Reid hinted in the Friday interview about some of the hidden costs of coal-fired power.

Indeed, at last year’s summit, he criticized NV Energy for literally killing members of Moapa Band of Paiute Indians with the emissions from the nearby Reid-Gardner coal-fired plant. But this year, things have changed radically: NV Energy announced the early shuttering of Reid-Gardner and committed to building more renewable energy more quickly under a controversial bill muscled through the Nevada Legislature in 2013. And NV Energy CEO Michael Yackira, a no-show at last year’s conference, is a featured speaker at this year’s event.

There’s no doubt that renewable energy is the future. Whether by government regulation or market innovation, coal-fired power plants (and, eventually, natural gas plants, too) will be phased out, and cleaner power sources will come in to take their place.

But how we do that, and how much we’ll spend in the process, is something we still have to debate, because when it comes to energy, there’s always a trade-off.

Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@ reviewjournal.com.