Energy official: Nevada’s future is in renewables

WASHINGTON — Nevada can generate enough electricity from renewable sources to justify building a major transmission line without constructing any more coal-fired power plants, the federal government’s chief electricity regulator said Thursday.

The development of wind, solar and geothermal sources coupled with the aggressive pursuit of energy efficiency in Las Vegas could allow the state to be powered entirely by Mother Nature within the next 15 to 20 years, said Jon Wellinghoff, a Nevadan who is acting chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

"In my opinion, there are sufficient renewables in the state of Nevada to power the entire state," Wellinghoff said during a reporter roundtable. The event was organized by the Platts Energy news organization.

Wellinghoff’s comments came as NV Energy, the state’s major utility, announced early this week it was postponing the $5 billion Ely Energy Center, a proposed 1,500-megawatt coal-fired power plant.

Instead of developing the Ely coal plant, NV Energy will invest in renewable power projects, energy efficiency programs and power plants that burn natural gas, Chief Executive Officer Michael Yackira said.

At the same time, NV Energy said it will continue developing a 250-mile transmission line to connect Northern and Southern Nevada. The company said it expects to complete the line by 2012.

"The north-south intertie could allow Nevada to be one of the first states that could be largely powered by renewable energy," said Wellinghoff, a utilities law specialist who earlier in his career was Nevada’s first utility consumer advocate.

Although advocates of the coal plant at one time argued the transmission segment could not be viable without the power facility, Wellinghoff said "there is no question" it can be done.

In fact, he said afterward, the proposed NV Energy transmission line might end up being supplanted by the TransCanada Corp., which is planning a big electricity line from Montana to Lake Mead that is being advertised to deliver green energy to the Southwest.

"It is certainly doable and it is already being shown in a business plan of a $50 billion company that is TransCanada," he said.

Wellinghoff said he believes there will be no further coal plants built in Nevada, even as two independent power companies, LS Power and Sithe Global Power, continue to pursue coal projects in the state.

"I think that day has passed," he said, due largely to the uncertainty over carbon pollution from coal.

"Everybody right now is looking at what is going to happen with carbon," he said. "Until the Congress and the administration decide what to do with carbon, I don’t think anyone is going to build any more coal because there is too much investor risk."

Wellinghoff was confirmed by the Senate to the five-member FERC board in 2006, and reconfirmed to a full five-year term in 2007.

President Barack Obama named him acting chairman last month, and there is widespread expectation he will be named full chairman. He has become known as an advocate of renewables and conservation on the board.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault @stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.

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