Solar project goes dark

The death of a massive solar energy project planned for the Laughlin area is a timely reminder that all the political juice in Nevada can’t make green power pencil out.

China-based ENN Mojave Energy had promised to spend between $1 billion and $6 billion on a 9,000-acre solar complex featuring a 500-megawatt power array, an enormous solar-panel manufacturing plant and a high-tech research park, even though no market existed for any part of its plan. When the Clark County Commission provided its blessing in December 2011, utilities were meeting renewable mandates, solar panel makers were going bankrupt despite collecting huge federal loan guarantees, and high-tech firms weren’t lining up to move anywhere in Nevada, let alone Laughlin.

ENN Mojave Energy clearly thought it could overcome market realities by lining up political influence. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was the company’s biggest cheerleader. ENN tapped former Nevada Gov. and U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan to make its final sales pitch to the commission. ENN then hired former Commissioner Rory Reid — son of Sen. Reid — to perform legal work on the project.

Another sign the project had weak legs from the start: It wanted the land for the project for dimes on the dollar. Two appraisals valued the county-owned land at between $29.6 million and $38.6 million, yet commissioners agreed to a conditional sales price of $4.5 million — $500 an acre.

Nevada’s political players were motivated by the promise of jobs. ENN Mojave Energy estimated the project would create up to 2,900 construction jobs and more than 2,200 permanent positions. Job creation and investment of that magnitude would have transformed the Laughlin-Bullhead City area. Economic development and the expansion of the county’s tax base were worthy goals. The commission wasn’t wrong to give ENN’s plan the green light.

In fact, commissioners built multiple protections for taxpayers into the deal — protections that officially killed the project June 14. ENN Mojave Energy had 18 months to secure power-purchase contracts with utilities, or the land sale would be voided. Sen. Reid browbeat NV Energy for months to commit to purchasing ENN power, but the utility didn’t need it. With no power-purchase contracts, ENN notified the county last week that it couldn’t move forward. “Unfortunately, the market will not support a project of this scale and nature at this time,” Tim Carlson, ENN’s senior vice president, wrote in a letter to the county.

In reality, the market will not support a project of this scale and nature at any time in the near future. If it weren’t for tax incentives for green energy manufacturers and buyers; renewable portfolio mandates for utilities; climate-change doomsayers in Hollywood and the media; and truckloads of political pressure at all levels of government, the renewable industry would go into hibernation. And did we mention that green power is far more expensive than electricity generated by fossil fuels?

If a business needs that much political muscle and still can’t break ground, Nevada is better off without it.

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