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Renewing, reusing and refocusing

This week’s National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas heralds a renewable-energy renaissance, some analysts say.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who organized the conference, will host speakers as diverse as billionaire T. Boone Pickens, President Clinton, governors from several states and numerous energy experts at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, today and Tuesday. Conference managers expect 750 attendees at the UNLV Cox Pavilion.

Speakers are expected to address the promise and the challenge of reducing America’s reliance on oil, gas and coal by tapping solar, wind and geothermal energy.

These and other renewable resources can create energy without spewing tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and causing global warming, scientists say. The United States could use domestic green power to replace some of the high-priced oil the country now imports from hostile foreign countries, advocates say.

Yet efforts to jump-start the renewable energy industry remain mired in a partisan political battle on Capitol Hill.

The Senate has considered renewing tax credits for solar, wind and geothermal power eight times this year, and the threat of Republican filibuster has stopped the measures’ passage each time, said Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., complains that Democrats rejected legislation he and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., proposed for extending tax credits to renewable energy developers.

Resch is quoting better than 50-50 odds that Senate Bill 3335 will pass in September when Congress returns from a recess, partly because the Jobs, Energy, Families and Disaster Relief Act also contains measures to help disaster victims in Republican strongholds of the Midwest and renews a key tax exemption for investment banks.

Resch points to the Ausra solar equipment manufacturing facility that opened in Las Vegas in June with a 130,000-square-foot robotic assembly plant and 25 workers.

“There’s a very real possibility of that plant and others being idled” if Congress fails to approve renewable tax credits before going home for election campaigns, Resch said.

The wind and solar industries employ 119,000 people and many members of the solar trade group already have laid off workers, he said.

“(Energy) has become a very partisan issue in Washington, and it shouldn’t,” Reid said. “All we’re trying to do is give the country the incentive to move forward with renewable energy. The tax credits are the most important thing that will pave the way for an energy revolution.”

Reid said he wants to see American companies develop solar and wind technologies, rather than relying on companies in Europe and Japan.

Some observers reject scientific studies suggesting that greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, contribute to global warming. But renewable power trade groups and politicians aren’t alone in predicting a move to clean energies.

“From a business perspective, this is a very real issue,” regardless of whether a businessperson accepts scientific research on global warming, said Jon Creyts, a principal at management consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

Businesses confront the issue in the market, for example, and in dealing with shareholder proxy proposals to reduce greenhouse gases, he said.

Creyts was the lead author in a study done for McKinsey and the Conference Board: “Reducing U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions: How Much at What Cost?”

The country could adopt numerous energy efficiency programs that would save money over their life cycles, according to the study. The nation would save money from improved energy efficiency in residential and commercial lighting, efficient appliances, car fuel economy and cellulosic biofuels from plants, according to the study.

Those savings could be used to pay for other clean energy measures, such as concentrating solar power plants, carbon dioxide containment systems at coal-fired power plants and making hybrid autos, the study explained.

“If we want to respond to the carbon challenge, we need to do many things right now,” Creyts said.

Jon Wellinghoff, Nevada’s first consumer advocate and now a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, will offer a three-step energy plan at the conference.

First, the government should establish short-term less-costly solutions to consumers, Wellinghoff said. He mentioned energy efficiency and distributed generation, such as solar panels located on customers’ premises.

“To do that, we need some kind of financial mechanism, whether it’s a federal loan guarantee or some other means,” Wellinghoff said.

Second, he favored steps to enable renewable energy development. He suggested federally imposed minimum standards for renewable energy use at electric utilities. He also proposed financial incentives for building advanced transmission line systems around the country, which some argue is needed to use renewable power in remote locations.

Third, the government should take steps to electrify auto and truck transportation, including plug-in hybrids and electric battery vehicles, Wellinghoff said. Vehicles and utility systems could be automated to charge car batteries when power consumption drops off. That would make electrical grids more reliable and stable, Wellinghoff said.

The federal commissioner suggested the government require its car fleets run on electricity, provide tax breaks for electric cars, establish higher fuel efficiency standards and give loan guarantees for auto makers to use retooling their factories for electric vehicles.

Jim Thoma, senior vice president and manager of energy services at Bank of America, is already participating in the green power revolution.

The bank arranged $2.5 million in low-interest loans for the Las Vegas Valley Water District to use in building parking shades at the Springs Preserve with solar power panels. The debt bears low interest, because the bank gets tax credits from making the loans, Thoma said.

Nevada also could export solar power and geothermal power, which comes from hot underground water, to utilities in surrounding states.

California and other surrounding states, Thoma said, require utilities to obtain growing portions of their power from green sources.

At the same time, lenders and investors are becoming more and more interested in renewable energy projects, he said.

“The largest growth in venture capital has been in the renewable energy sector,” he said.

Contact reporter John G. Edwards at jedwards@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0420.

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