In July, Pattern Energy will switch on its 150MW Spring Valley project, the first in Nevada, filling an odd blank spot on the US wind map.
Pattern Energy chief executive Mike Garland says he still struggles to explain why it has taken so long for Nevada – a state favourable to renewable-energy development – to get its first wind farm.
“We found it kind of ironic because obviously [Democratic] Senator [Harry] Reid has been one of the champions of renewable power nationally, and not having a wind project in his state was, I think, a little bit of an embarrassment for the industry, so we were really pleased to make it happen,” Garland tells Recharge.
Reid, the Senate majority leader, noted in a report on Nevada clean energy last month that the state has enough wind resources to supply 60% of its electricity demand. It is also a national leader in geothermal and hosts two of the biggest PV projects in the US, with more large-scale solar on the way.
But several factors complicate wind development in the Silver State.
“Nevada is an unusual place in that it is a bit of an island,” Garland says. “There’s really one utility and there’s not a lot of access” to other utilities outside the state.
NV Energy is made up of Sierra Power, serving northern Nevada, and Nevada Power, in the south. Transferring power between the two has been challenging, but a new north-south transmission line, to which Spring Valley will connect, is designed to make that easier. The utility has also become more comfortable with renewables, Garland observes.
But the appetite for additional renewable-energy development in Nevada is limited now that NV Energy has contracted more than enough power to meet the requirements of the state’s 25%-by-2025 renewable portfolio standard (RPS).
With flat or declining load growth thanks to an economic downturn that has hit hard in Nevada, the utility can be discriminating in its procurement of new generation.
“Only truly the best opportunities are the ones that we will be contracting for,” says Bobby Hollis, executive director of renewables at NV Energy. He adds that mandates can change and the state utilities commission is expected to offer more guidance on the RPS rules this year, including a look at the economic benefits of new project development.
NV Energy’s geothermal legacy – with more than 300MW under contract, some dating to the 1980s, and another 200MW in development – “helps to moderate the impact of the more intermittent resources like wind. It lets us bring those resources on and still not have dramatic impacts to the system”, Hollis says.
Wind development in Nevada has also been slow because most of the state is federal land, meaning projects face a more arduous permitting process. Garland and other developers give the Bureau of Land Management high marks for efforts to accommodate renewables development.
Apart from the federal jurisdiction, Garland says the Nevada landscape offers few easy development sites. Developers must find gaps in the terrain that channel winds consistently. “Or you go to the top of the mountains, and the mountains in Nevada are pretty rugged,” Garland says.
This poses challenges in construction and in gaining local approval, because communities resist levelling their ragged mountain tops.
Pattern would like to do more wind development in the state, but NV Energy’s limited demand is somewhat discouraging.
He hopes Nevada could make good on its aspirations of becoming a renewable-energy centre, meeting a large portion of its own electricity needs with wind, solar and geothermal, and exporting clean power to neighbouring states.
“Wind has a really nice potential in Nevada, but I think it has to be put in the context of the other renewable projects that are potentially there – the geothermal and the solar,” Garland says. “It’s not like being in the panhandle of Texas or something.”
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