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Reid’s topic before Legislature ‘cleaner’ than 2 years ago

The last time U.S. Sen. Harry Reid spoke to the Nevada Legislature, he talked about banning legal prostitution. The Legislature promptly ignored him.

This time, Reid will talk about something more likely to get a reaction: clean energy.

Tonight the senator is expected to call for “meaningful changes” to the state’s renewable portfolio standard, the set of rules that determines how much of the energy we use has to come from renewable sources such as solar, wind or geothermal. He’ll say the state needs to close “loopholes” that allow NV Energy to meet part the standard with conservation techniques, such as using more energy-efficient light bulbs. In the alternative, the state could also increase the percentage of renewable power utilities are required to buy or generate.

Some will see this as a solution in search of a problem: NV Energy is currently in compliance with its renewable portfolio standard, and it will meet the goal of 25 percent by 2025. Raising the standard (or changing the rules for how to meet it) will strike many as moving the goalposts.

Moreover, there’s the issue of cost. Although renewable energy prices have been falling rapidly in recent years — in no small part due to states such as Nevada and neighboring California setting clean-energy goals and driving market demand — green power is still more expensive than power generated by burning coal or natural gas. Those increased costs are borne at the bottom line by consumers.

But for Reid, the goal of clean energy is creating jobs and establishing Nevada as energy independent, as well as an exporter of green power. He’s often said Nevada is the Saudi Arabia of clean energy, with abundant potential for solar energy in the South and geothermal in the North.

Reid has also acted to kill a trio of coal power plants that once were proposed for Nevada, and he campaigned to kill the Reid-Gardner coal plant near Moapa. (That plant only runs during peak summer months currently.) And Reid has openly advocated for a Chinese-backed solar power plant near Laughlin, one that’s represented in part by his attorney son, Rory Reid.

Reid’s advisers argue allowing NV Energy to meet its green-energy quotient with energy efficiency measures actually decreases the incentive to build new clean power plants in the state. While those incentives were necessary in the earliest days of renewable power, they say, today’s more robust market doesn’t need them.

But NV Energy is bumping up against state law, which mandates that the utility provide the lowest-cost energy available, except when it comes to the more expensive renewable power. The Public Utilities Commission wouldn’t allow NV Energy to buy more green power once the utility meets its quota.

The policy question is significant: We all know that solar panels, wind turbines, hydroelectric dams and geothermal pumping stations will someday replace carbon belching coal- and natural-gas burning plants.

The issue is how we go about developing these resources. On the one hand, you have advocates who say higher standards (and higher costs) now will jump-start the future of the clean energy market. On the other, you have advocates of slower, more market-based development that will eventually end up the same place, but not nearly as quickly and with lower economic costs. (Environmental costs are another story.)

Another idea: A national renewable portfolio standard, something that Reid and NV Energy could probably agree upon. This would keep states such as California and Nevada from being at a competitive disadvantage with states such as Idaho and Utah, which don’t have mandatory renewable energy standards.

Regardless of which path Nevada takes, Reid’s 2013 speech to the Nevada Legislature undoubtedly will generate more debate among lawmakers than his 2011 remarks.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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