Power play: Buy that solar – or else?

Sen. Harry Reid this week was muscling Nevada’s chief electricity provider to agree to buy high-priced power from a $5 billion solar project that a Chinese company wants to build near Laughlin.

Sen. Reid said the ambitious complex envisioned by ENN Mojave Energy “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.” He characterized NV Energy’s response as “weak excuses,” including what he described as the utility’s doubts that the Nevada Public Utilities Commission would approve the purchase.

“NV Energy is a regulated monopoly,” Sen. Reid said. “They control 95 percent of all the electricity that is produced in Nevada and they should go along with this.”

Even if it results in higher costs for Sen. Reid’s already struggling constituents?

In fact, Sen. Reid initially touted the Laughlin plan based on the notion that energy produced there could be sold to a captive market of California consumers, whose power companies face even stricter government mandates to buy pricier electricity from politically favored “green” sources. But California officials now say they have no interest in importing green power from other states.

This threatens the future of the Laughlin solar project, a favorite of Sen. Reid’s. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, the “market” for ENN Mojave Energy’s proposed product is so marginal that the Chinese outfit’s deal to buy land from Clark County at a below-market rate could fall through if they don’t have a guaranteed buyer for their expensive power within the year.

That explains Sen. Reid’s arm twisting, but it shouldn’t justify it. NV Energy is simply making a sensible, market-based business decision to provide its customers with the least expensive power possible – a job already made difficult by existing state requirements that it buy a certain percentage of its portfolio from “alternative” sources.

Indeed, an NV Energy spokeswoman says the utility is not in the market for more renewable energy at this time because the firm has already exceeded Nevada’s requirement that 15 percent of its portfolio originate from higher-priced green sources. The company won’t issue new requests for power until 2014 and 2015, at which point it will do so through competitive bidding, said Jennifer Schuricht.

Clean energy is great – providing its purveyors can figure out how to make it as cheap as America’s existing energy sources, including coal and natural gas, of which we have enough to last for centuries. New jobs would also be welcome in Nevada. But let’s not forget that Sen. Reid in 2009 worked diligently to block NV Energy’s plans to build a clean, modern, coal-fired generating plant in Ely – a project the company finally shelved due to political pressure, costing the state 200 permanent jobs and access to plenty of cheap power.

Maybe the Laughlin solar project envisioned by ENN Mojave Energy will still pencil out. Maybe not. But if it doesn’t, don’t blame NV Energy.


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