Renewable Energy Takes Center Stage in Nevada Politics

The race for the next Governor of Nevada is well under way and with all the expected political maneuverings — except one. In a twist on the age-old political contest, renewable energy has become a prominent campaign issue with one candidate announcing major plans and the topic proving itself worth addressing for the others.

Last month, state Senate Majority Leader, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dina Titus unveiled an eight-point plan she says will stabilize utility rates, improve air quality and create new economic opportunities in Nevada through development of the state’s rich store of renewable energy resources. “Like so many other Nevadans, I’ve always been committed to tapping our abundance of solar, geothermal and wind power to produce clean, home-grown power,” Dina Titus said. “As governor, I will bring together our universities, renewable energy developers and Nevada’s utilities to make Nevada’s renewable energy resources a cornerstone of our state’s future and a leader for the nation in energy policy.” Titus’ plans include stronger enforcement of the state’s mandate that utilities use a certain percentage of renewable energy in their generation mix. She also would convene a renewable energy summit within the first 100 days of her administration to build consensus on how renewable energy should be supported. And, in a major, more symbolic move, she would change the name of the Nevada State Office of Energy to the Nevada State Office of Renewable Energy to emphasize these new directions. Ultimately, she says, the state could become a net-exporter of electricity generated through domestic renewable energy resources. In true political fashion, in both a news conference and through campaign statements, Titus contrasted her record of support for renewable energy against the records of two opponents, Henderson, Nevada Mayor Jim Gibson and Congressman Jim Gibbons. She says they have only supported status quo energy policies and indicates that considerably more can be done to promote and implement renewable energy in the state. “Nothing in the records of Mayor Gibson or Congressman Gibbons indicates they will stand firm with Nevada’s utilities and demand compliance with a state requirement that they produce 20 percent of their energy from renewable energy sources by the year 2015,” Titus said. Titus said little has been done in the state to deploy renewable energy projects. For example, despite a requirement since 1997 that utilities produce more of their power from renewable energy sources, she said, not one commercial-scale renewable energy plant has come online as a result of that Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS). She did acknowledge the 64 MW Solargenix Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) project currently under construction, but otherwise said the state has done little to take advantage of its domestic, renewable resources and she attributes this partly to political inaction. Joe Edson, with the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN), agreed the state has done relatively little to tap into its abundant renewable resources. He welcomed her very public stance on the issue and especially likes her connection to renewable energy as a key part of strengthening and diversifying the state’s economy. “It’s a well thought out perspective of hers that ties into economic diversity,” Edson said. “Nevada is a boom and bust economy based on gaming and tourism. The push has been on diversifying the economic engines that operate in Nevada. Renewable energy is not something that’s necessarily, from an environmental point of view, on the radar screen of Nevada voters but the economy does tend to be. I see the two dovetailing nicely so I was glad to hear this stance. An Empty Political Promise? Someone who isn’t so sure of a positive connection between renewable energy (or as he termed it, ‘alternative energy’) is State Senator Bob Beers, also a top contender for Governor on the Republican side. “I’m always open to new ideas but if the idea is raising taxes to promote alternative energy, then it won’t be a part of my plans,” said Beers, who added that vocal support has more to do with pure politics and “…it’s tossed out to demonstrate one’s forward thinking nature to those who don’t consider the market impacts of such a thing. We’re anxious to shake off this darn oil yoke but as far as I can tell the technology is not there.” While Beers emphasized he would support no increases in taxes to support any renewable energy, he was considerably more supportive of tax policy that would give tax breaks to renewable energy businesses that would consider relocating to Nevada because of the trickle down, incremental economic effect that such businesses and their employees could have on the state. The campaign for Jim Gibson, a Democratic rival candidate, said Gibson is also unveiling plans to support renewable and alternative energy usage and research as governor. Gibson’s plan would provide tax incentives for the purchase of hybrid and flexible-fuel vehicles; provide tax incentives for the use of ethanol and bio-diesel fuels; promote and support inventive ways of utilizing alternative fuels in everyday life, like the Minden facility that makes biodiesel from waste cooking oil; push for more research to be done by Nevada universities for alternative fuel use and the production of crops to make ethanol. “As your next governor, I will be fully committed to exploring alternative energy sources to significantly reduce our dependence on foreign and non-renewable fuels,” Gibson said in a statement. In the few weeks since these statements, no formal plan has been unveiled. And no plan has been announced over at Rep. Jim Gibbons campaign, but his campaign manager, Robert Uithoven, assured that Gibbons is a supporter of renewable energy. For example, representing Nevada as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources in Washington, Gibbons was “instrumental” in drafting the geothermal provisions of last year’s federal energy bill, according to Uithoven. He added, though — somewhat along the lines of State Senator Beers — that the free market is the best way to support renewable energy. “If the Governor can put up a little seed money, [renewable energy businesses] may take off on their own,” Uithoven said. “Having a little help is a smart investment as long as it’s limited and within a reasonable timeframe in order to get people willing to invest. I don’t think taxpayers want to foot the entire bill.” Timothy Hay, former State Consumer Advocate for Nevada, disagrees with both Gibbons and Gibson’s stance that renewable energy is only successful through taxpayer support. Conversely, he see policies like the existing state RPS driving the market, and taxpayers receiving direct benefits such as rural communities that lease their land out for wind power development. He also believes there’s a clear connection between economic growth and renewable energy, citing a University of Nevada Las Vegas study that showed an earlier version of the RPS would have created more than 5,000 jobs in the state. “We’re not talking about imposing taxes to develop renewable energy,” Hay said. “We have state incentives to have utilities makes the investments. And most of that development will occur in the rural part of the state. If you put a 50 MW wind farm in a rural Nevada county, that’s a big investment on the ground — it greatly increases the taxable value of the project for the local economy.” A New Issue for Voters? No matter the particulars of how renewable energy is supported by any of the candidates, Uithoven, of the Gibbons campaign, acknowledged that it’s not a common thing for renewable energy to even play out as an issue in a political campaign and that it’s perhaps a sign of changing times and new concerns for the state and the country. And he did state the obvious: renewable energy doesn’t matter nearly as much as some other top tier issues such as health care and education, but he added that high energy prices and the country’s dependency on foreign energy are increasingly relevant issues. He added that Nevada is a state with particular energy needs and limitations due largely to its high dependence on tourism. “We would have a severe downturn if we don’t do things to keep our energy at a reasonable price,” Uithoven said. “If consumers are hit at the pumps this takes money out of their pockets for vacation plans, and that is a very relevant issue for Nevada.” For a full account of the renewable energy initiatives proposed by Dina Titus, see the first link that follows this story. Websites are also available for Henderson, Nevada Mayor Jim Gibson, Congressman Jim Gibbons and Bob Beers at the next three links.
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