Say this about U.S. Sen. Harry Reid: He really believes in renewable energy.
Reid has beat up NV Energy pretty good in recent years. In the closing days of the George W. Bush administration, Reid blocked plans to build coal-fired power plants in Nevada. He said in April on the "Nevada Newsmakers" show, "I don't think NV Energy has done enough to allow renewable energy to thrive."
But that same month, NV Energy reported it had exceeded its state-imposed green-energy requirement of 15 percent by purchasing 16.7 percent of its power from renewable sources. And that was in spite of the Public Utilities Commission rejecting a handful of renewable contracts in July 2011, saying the company hadn't justified the purchases were necessary to meet its quota.
Now Reid is pushing for a Chinese company he played a key role in recruiting to Nevada, ENN Mojave Energy LLC. The company plans a billion-dollar solar energy manufacturing and generating plant near Laughlin, but an ambitious development schedule is being threatened by a lack of green power customers.
Steve Tetreault quoted Reid in Tuesday's Review-Journal saying the project "would start tomorrow if NV Energy would purchase the power," but the company "has not been willing to work on this and that's such a shame."
Reid added: "NV Energy is a regulated monopoly. They control 95 percent of all the electricity that is produced in Nevada and they should go along with this."
They're not, at least not yet.
And there are some legitimate reasons: Power costs are passed directly to consumers, and green energy currently costs more than power generated by coal-fired or natural-gas burning plants. State law mandates NV Energy buy power as cheaply as possible, except when it's required to buy more-expensive green energy to meet state-mandated quotas. But the more green energy you buy, the higher bills climb.
NV Energy has already met its quota, and the PUC has already turned the company down when it proposed contracts that would have exceeded quotas. And when the company does buy power - which it plans to do next in 2014 - it does so by analyzing competitive bids.
Reid says those weak excuses. He said in that April interview that if "NV Energy wanted to do more with renewable energy, they could."
There's another factor, however, one more personal to Reid: His son, Rory Reid, is one of the attorneys for the ENN Mojave Energy project. A Reid spokeswoman said the senator did not suggest Reid's firm - Lionel, Sawyer & Collins - to ENN, nor has the elder Reid spoken to this son about the deal. (Reid imposed a strict ban on family members lobbying his office in 2003 after the Los Angeles Times asked him about lobbying by three of his four sons.)
But success for ENN in finding customers helps Rory Reid, and its failure could cost him a client. It's an undeniable conflict that Harry Reid should keep in mind as he twists arms at the PUC and NV Energy, lest he earn himself an ethics complaint.
Reid's office points out developing more renewable power will create jobs in Nevada that can't be outsourced and reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil. (It's also good for the environment.)
And while Reid said in that April interview that "Every day that goes by, the ability to produce solar [energy] is cheaper," the fact is, it's more expensive than coal and natural gas right now. Someday, green power may be cheaper than anything else. But that day isn't here yet, and until it arrives, Reid must mind the costs and the conflicts.
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.