Wrapup: Green Energy

LAS VEGAS (AP) - Charged with reworking the state's renewable
energy policy, Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick had one major
objective during the recent legislative session: Don't give away
the farm, er, the desert.

Kirkpatrick was criticized after the 2007 Legislature for
working to give lucrative tax breaks to casino companies in the
guise of "green buildings."

She didn't want a repeat.

The North Las Vegas Democrat was operating in an environment
that was at once friendlier and tougher than ever for renewable
energy development.

The concept of moving away from fossil fuels and toward solar
and geothermal developments emerged over the past two years as an
economic salve. You only had to hear the words of President Obama
and Sen. Harry Reid: "Green jobs" would transform the country and
bring it out of recession, they argued. With plentiful sun and
plentiful land and proximity to a state with a voracious appetite
for renewable energy, Nevada should benefit, they said.

Then came the state budget crisis.

Bigger-than-ever tax cuts for renewable energy companies would
be a tough sell.

With the session over and the state's new energy policy in full
view, it's fair to ask: What was accomplished?

The answer: Quite a lot.

Observers say Nevada made itself the most attractive state in
the sun-drenched West for large solar plant development.
Utility-size solar generation plants in the desert, along with
geothermal plants, got a big boost.

Jim Baak, director of utility-scale solar for the nonprofit
advocacy group Vote Solar, said Nevada was far more aggressive than other sunny-state legislatures this year.

Texas called its legislative session the "Solar Session" but
wasn't able to pass productive new laws, said Baak, who monitors
solar issues in states. Florida became equally mired, he said.

If some other objectives are met, large-scale solar is likely to
become the focus of renewable energy development in Nevada for at
least the short term, observers say. That should bring thousands of
construction jobs to the state, with built-in wage requirements.
Large-scale solar plants tend to operate without a lot of employees
once they're running.

Legislators had less to show in providing incentives for
homeowners and others to install rooftop solar devices and for the
manufacturers of renewable energy equipment to build plants in
Nevada. Both tend to have many permanent jobs associated with them.

Among moves made this session intended to spur renewable energy,
- Extended and increased the portion of Nevada energy that must
come from renewable resources from 20 percent by 2015 to 25 percent
by 2025. That ensures an expanding appetite for renewable energy.
- Extended property tax abatements for renewable energy
production plants, which were to expire this year, and expanded
them from 50 percent for 10 years to 55 percent for 20 years.
- Allowed geothermal power plants to receive property tax
- Created a renewable energy commission and transferred many of
the duties of the governor's energy office to it.
- Expanded the program that offers rebates for households and
businesses that put solar panels on their rooftops and made changes
in how the program operates.

Rose McKinney-James, a longtime solar energy advocate in Nevada
who lobbied for rooftop solar companies, had hoped to enhance the
incentives to install rooftop photovoltaic panels and other forms
of so-called distributed energy generation.

The state's main electric utility, NV Energy, fought back and
said a new requirement could cost ratepayers - and the company -
too much.

"We were having this discussion at a very difficult time,"
McKinney-James said. "Everybody recognized that they faced some
very significant challenges, and within that context I think that
we achieved a great deal."

Although she mostly lost that battle, McKinney-James said she
hopes changes in the operation of the rebate program will make it
easier for people to sign up. She said she believes the expansion
of the rebates legislators did approve will create more rooftop
solar setups in the state.

McKinney-James gave the session a just-decent rating, but
large-scale solar developers were much more enthusiastic.

The developers had started the session worried about a fierce
stance by Assemblywoman Kirkpatrick, who began the year saying she
would not support the industry's request for a 75 percent property
tax abatement and would impose a new tax on renewable energy. The
revenue would go to offset higher energy costs for ratepayers.

Kirkpatrick was concerned that solar plants would not bring many
permanent jobs to Nevada, and that solar plant construction jobs
have gone to out-of-state workers in the past.

But the possibility of a new tax "brought development to a
halt," said renewable energy lobbyist Tom Clark. "It sent a red
flag to every developer."

Developers pleaded with Kirkpatrick and presented studies
showing that the state would receive significant economic benefits
from solar plants without a separate tax.

Such a tax would kill the industry in Nevada, they warned.
Developers would turn to other states.

The argument worked.

Kirkpatrick stayed up almost the whole night before the final
day bills were due, putting the finishing touches on her
legislation. She showed up at her committee the next day at the
last second, her hair disheveled, stumbling slightly over her

The new version included no additional tax. Instead, Kirkpatrick
wrote in requirements for employers to pay at least a certain wage
and added that some property taxes paid by solar plants would go
into a state fund to offset rising costs for utility ratepayers.

Most notably, the new renewable energy commission, created in a
Senate bill, would decide whether the financial benefits of a new
solar power plant to the state outweigh the tax abatements before
it approves abatements.

"If you look previously at the exemptions, there wasn't a lot
of accountability to the public," Kirkpatrick said. "It's great
to build up solar stuff, but for me it's purely an economic

Solar developers say they're happy with the compromise, but some
of their advocates are troubled about the role of the commission
and its control over property tax abatements.

"That uncertainty causes some concern with project financing,"
said Baak of Vote Solar.

Legislators passed the bill after a flurry of last-minute
revisions to give counties the final say over whether geothermal
developers get tax abatements. Geothermal development is occurring
mostly in northern Nevada and rural legislators were reluctant to
give up the revenue.

The next battlefront for developers eyeing Nevada is to free
Bureau of Land Management land for solar development and to speed
the development of transmission lines to make it easier to
transport energy to California.

The state's main utility, NV Energy, also got a big win through
a last-minute provision introduced into legislation to allow it to
collect some of the savings ratepayers enjoy from conservation. It
was a controversial measure that passed with little public

Former consumer advocate Timothy Hay says depending on how it's
enforced by the Public Utilities Commission, the provision could
cost ratepayers anywhere from millions to hundreds of millions of

NV Energy maintains that if that hadn't passed, it would have
had to cut back on its conservation program because the state isn't
growing as fast as it was.

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