Saving the Earth is a concept that proves relatively easy to sell to Nevadans when it comes to conservation ballot initiatives, since it would be difficult for any citizen to deny the damage inflicted annually by growing populations. Environmental observations and news reports cause concerned citizens to feel some responsibility and become willing to make sacrifices, but the actual amount of sacrifices are often withheld from general public knowledge. For this reason, an investigative look was made into the realities of achieving the goals of Nevada’s recently successful Question 6, which if successful again in 2020, will require energy companies in the state to purchase 50% of the electricity from renewable sources.
Nevada Revised Statutes (NRS) 704.7811 defines renewable energy as biomass, geothermal, solar, wind and water power. Despite these five major categories of renewable energy sources, the emphasis of Question 6 voter literature focused on wind and solar options. Both those power sources require significant amounts of land, but the statistics revealing realistic estimates have only recently become available. According to a scholarly study published in the prestigious Environmental Impact Letters journal during October of this year, Harvard engineering data produced by postdoctoral student Lee M. Miller and Professor David Keith suggested that for the United States to reach 100% of its electricity needs through solar and wind energy projects, previous estimates concerning the amount of land needed for such facilities underestimated the acreage necessary by 10 to 20 times. In effect, their study revealed it could require one-third of the country be covered by renewable solar and wind energy facilities to accomplish that dreamed of goal.
Extrapolating that information for individual states, Nevada’s mandate to achieve 50% of its electricity needs by 2030 could require covering 16.65% (one-sixth) of the land mass of the state, which is a chunk of geography that amounts to 18,409 square miles. To give the preceding statistic perspective, for Question 6 to be implemented fully, industrial wind turbines and solar panels would need to cover every square foot of Clark County, Washoe County, Douglas County, Storey County, Lyon County, Carson City area, plus the square footage of every major city or town in all the rest of the unnamed counties combined in order to produce 50% of the state’s electricity needs. As eye-opening as such statistics seem, this data may represent only a fraction of the actual amount of land needed to achieve the lofty goals of Question 6.
While the foregoing Harvard statistic might appear a worst-case scenario, conservatively optimistic calculations seem to paint a bleaker picture of the possibilities of Nevada possessing enough room to attain the goal of 50% renewable energy for several reasons. When performing land space calculations of sprawling solar and wind power facilities, it is necessary to consider that the “nameplate” amount of energy that is listed as potentially being generated by any particular renewable power plant might be far from the amount of energy it produces. When it comes to wind power, winds do not blow at optimal speeds 24/7, 365 days of the year. Often, winds could be blowing but wind turbines might not be producing any electricity. The speed at which most wind turbine blades start turning, known as the cut-in speed, typically ranges between 7 to 10 miles per hour. Most turbines
have a chance to produce their maximum rated power around 30 mph, but even that design speed is contingent upon the blades being new, clean, and without nicks or fractures from bird or bat impacts. Moreover, wind speeds can be too high, causing turbine blades to feather themselves and lock into a stationary position to avoid damage. This condition can occur between 35 to 55 mph, which is known in the industry as the cut-out speed. Due to those foregoing possibilities, highly-maintained wind turbines in Germany average 25% of their nameplate rating, while wind turbines in South Australia were found to produce 16% of their vaunted capability.
Statistics on how much land is required per each megawatt (MW) of power produced by industrial wind turbines varies according to the source that is providing the research. Accordingly, researchers at Johns Hopkins University calculated that wind turbines should be spaced two-thirds a mile from each other for optimal efficiency. Yale University calculated land usage for average-size industrial wind turbines as needing 1 to 3 acres per turbine. Tom Gray, former executive director of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), once wrote, “My rule of thumb is 60 acres per megawatt for wind farms on land.” Brochures for the recently denied Crescent Peak Wind project, outside Searchlight, claimed less than 750 acres of land would be permanently occupied, however, the project would have occupied 32,351 acres of public land, which amounts to 64.7 acres per MW, a figure that’s in the ballpark of the AWEA estimate.
The reasons for differing estimates often have to do with topography. Nevada isn’t a flat state. On the contrary, Nevada has more than 150 named mountain ranges, making it the most mountainous state in America, including Alaska. Due to the many ranges and peaks, not every wind turbine or solar array can be erected right behind another. Even if Nevada was composed of level deserts, and if it were possible for renewable energy developers to install wind turbines in straight rows, there would still be the problem of setback regulations, which regulate the amount of distance that an industrial wind turbine must be placed away from homes so that noise pollution remains within legal limits. Setback regulations vary greatly from state to state from twice the height of a turbine to 2 kilometers. When it comes to the setback distance for airports and military-controlled lands, setback distances can be set much larger. Part of the Department of Interior’s decision to recently deny the application of Crescent Peak Renewables, LLC, had to do with the radar interference the massive turbines would have caused to air traffic to McCarran and Jean Airports, as well as to Nellis Air Force Station.
For these many reasons, the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) wrote, “Up to one-fourth of the overall RPS [Renewable Portfolio Standard] goal can be met by energy efficiency measures, but half of those measures must be installed at residential customers’ locations.” The current RPS goal is for Nevada to use 25% renewable energy by 2025. As can be seen by the findings of the PUC, even cutting the mandates of Question 6 in half would require that per capita energy consumption be reduced and that half the power customers would need to acquire solar rooftop panels. Inexplicably, provisions for requiring rooftop solar panels was not made a part of the Question 6 mandate.
When it comes to real estate required for photovoltaic solar facilities, as opposed to wind, the prospects of having enough land to achieve 50% renewable energy is also daunting. The Suncyclopedia estimates it requires 2.5 acres per 1 MW solar panels and 4 acres if one includes space for required outbuildings associated with industrial solar power projects. That estimate is dependent upon whether the solar arrays have trackers that move with the sun. If not, the estimate increases to 6 acres per 1 MW. A clearer picture of acres needed per MW can be found in land-to-MW ratios from Nevada’s currently operating solar power plants. Nellis Air Force Base Solar Array’s nameplate claims a capability of 14 MW on 140 acres of land. Silver State Solar Power South, adjacent to Primm, lists a 250 MW potential with 2900 acres. Dividing acreage by megawatts reveals a need for 10 or more acres per MW.
Compounding the problem of available space for renewable energy power plants is the reality that much of Nevada’s renewable energy, while produced within the state, is not transmitted to consumers in the state. Silver State Solar Power complex in Primm is a case in point. According to a First Solar news release for investors, “All of the power from Silver State South will be provided to Southern California Edison under a long-term contract.” Likewise, all their power from the larger (250 MW) Silver State Solar Power South facility is sold to Southern California Edison.
Similarly, the 458 MW-generating Copper Mountain Solar Facility, located on the opposite side of the McCullough Range, is owned by Sempra Energy of San Diego. 100% of the electricity produced at that power plant is purchased by Pacific Gas & Electric, which supplies electricity to the northern two-thirds of California (Bakersfield to the Oregon border), and Southern California Public Power Authority, and Southern California Edison.
If 25% of solar and wind power produced in Nevada was made available to Nevadans, estimates for land coverage needed to meet Question 6 demands would have to be increased four-fold. Also, since sprawling solar and wind facilities already exist, they occupy thousands of acres of prime renewable energy real estate that is not available for Nevadans now or in the foreseeable future. Moreover, California was the first to build such facilities, which means they occupy the best energy producing hot spots. Even with Nevada being the seventh largest state geographically, there is less available land than might be expected when one factors in the vast tracts of land already occupied by residential and tourist facilities, government buildings, industry, freeways, roads, airports, parks and other recreational areas, military installations, lakes, rivers, streams, electrical right-of-ways, and gas lines. There’s also the issue that heat reduces the effectiveness of photovoltaic solar panels, and much of Nevada suffers from excessive heat from mid-spring through mid-autumn.
The manner in which European countries, such as the Netherlands, reach their impressive figure of using 69% renewable energy is eye-opening as to the realities of the goal worldwide. According to a special report from Argen Lubach, Dutch talk show host of the television program Zondag met Lubac, studies show that out of Netherlands’s 69% claimed use of renewable energy, the actual percentage of electricity generated by green means equals 2.2%. What happens is that energy providers are allowed to mix electricity from renewable sources with non-renewable energy, and then sell the entire bundle of power as being “renewable,” for which consumers are charged higher green electricity power rates.
Forbes magazine showed that due to the wind and solar energy industry, prices of electricity rose 51% in Germany between 2006 to 2016 and went above 100% in Denmark since 1995. Between 2011 to 2017, the price of electricity in California rose five times higher than the national average. Economist James Bushnell of UC Berkeley blamed the cause on, ”…a focus on developing renewable sources of electricity generation.” Currently, the most expensive electricity on the planet is sold in South Australia where there is a large focus on renewables. Similarly, three other close runner-ups for most expensive electricity rates due to renewable mandates include Italy, Ireland, and Portugal. How Question 6 might affect the pocketbooks of Nevadans was discussed by James Taylor of the Heartland Institute, who claimed that families will likely be paying $2,000 more per year on their utility rates if Question 6 becomes constitutional law in 2020. By contrast, natural gas prices dropped 72% between 2009 to 2016. Currently, 73% of Nevada’s electricity is generated from natural gas. The Strata policy research organization, which published The Footprint of Energy: Land Use of U.S. Electricity Production provided data showing it requires 350% more land for solar power and 570% extra acreage for wind power than for natural gas-fired power plants.
Proponents of renewable energy point out that if a state does not have enough land area to produce 50% of its electricity through green power sources, they have the option of buying it from neighboring states. A flaw in that reasoning would be that many of the same space limitations that apply to building solar and wind facilities in Nevada apply to other states. Considering that the low population density of Nevada ranks it as 48th out of 56 states and U.S. territories, and that only Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming are less crowded, it may be unlikely that a surplus of energy could be produced in any of the 41 more populated states.