Glimpsing a green energy future at Las Vegas summit

When computers were first invented, they took up entire rooms and cost a fortune.

Nowadays, most of us carry more computing power in the smartphone in our pocket than those early machines ever had.

When PCs were first invented, they were big, bulky and expensive, and people questioned whether anybody would need a computer in their home.

Now, almost of all of us have tablets, laptops or TV-set top boxes that we can use to run our homes, and they’re relatively cheap.

The point: Technology always gets smaller, more efficient and cheaper over time, and as that happens, more and more people embrace it.

So it is with green energy.

Today marks the fifth annual Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas, forums organized by U.S. Sen. Harry Reid to explore the potential for cleaner energy in Nevada and throughout the country. Today’s lineup includes some big names in green power, such as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Elon Musk, co-founder of Tesla Motors, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Jon Wellinghoff, John Podesta of the Center for American Progress and former President Bill Clinton.

Past forums have outlined advances in green energy technology, but as ever, the bottom line will be cost.

Currently, the cost of generating energy from some renewable sources is higher than from fossil fuels, such as coal and natural gas. Renewable advocates explain that it’s not always an apples-to-apples comparison, since a great many fossil-fuel fired plants are older, and have been fully paid for, leaving only the costs of labor and fuel. Match that against the expense of building a brand-new solar power plant, or wind farm, and the costs are higher.

But consider the costs long-term, says Lydia Ball, executive director of the Las Vegas-based Clean Energy Project. While fuel costs for existing fossil fuel plants will fluctuate, renewable fuel costs are stable, since sunshine, wind and underground hot water are free.

“What is going to position us better in 30 years?” Ball asks.

Plus, while Nevada might get plenty of sunshine, see plenty of wind blow across the desert, and be rich in minerals such as gold, the Silver State has virtually no indigenous supplies of fossil fuels, such as oil, coal or natural gas. That means we have to import the fuel we use.

“From a Nevada perspective, we have no fossil fuels,” Ball says. “Let’s stop spending money to buy fuel from other states. That’s our money we’re sending to other states.”

Instead, building green energy plants in Nevada not only creates jobs that will stay in the state, it frees us from fluctuating energy prices across the country or across the world. They can close the Strait of Hormuz or price-gouge on open markets all they want, but the sun will not stop shining, nor the wind blowing nor steam boiling.

And there’s another resource Nevada has in abundance that could contribute to the picture: plenty of raw, federal land on which to develop renewable energy projects. A recent report by the Center for American Progress found Nevada could generate 4.7 gigawatts of renewable energy, by using just 50,000 acres of the 48 million federally owned acres in the state.

That’s just one-tenth of 1 percent of federal land in Nevada.

According to the report, that represents 26,151 jobs in solar, wind and geothermal projects, second only to California in all the western states.

But is it worth it, especially as the effects of the recession still linger? That’s a policy question for state leaders, one that today’s summit might go a long way toward answering.

 

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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