As every Nevadan knows, our state sees a lot of sunshine. What is news to some, however, is how we’ve increasingly used that natural resource to our advantage by adding significant amounts of solar power to the state’s energy mix. And with recent cost declines – 85 percent since 2009 – solar is now frequently generating cost savings, in addition to helping make our state’s electricity production cleaner.
That’s why I was surprised to read a few months ago that the U.S. Department of Energy was commencing a study on whether or not the recent shift away from traditional baseload power sources (such as coal) to more renewable energy threatened the reliability of our nation’s electricity grid. However, a draft of the study reported on last month confirmed exactly what I’ve seen in my own experience tracking renewable energy for Nevada: no issues with reliability.
Although it’s certainly true that the sun doesn’t always shine, coal and natural gas plants aren’t always operating either. Routine maintenance, as well as unexpected failures, can and do happen, which is why our laws ensure that we always have enough reserve capacity ready to meet electricity demand. Nevada is blessed with abundant geothermal energy that can provide 24/7 baseload power.
Moreover, the modern electricity grid is well equipped to handle the variability of renewables such as solar and wind by using advanced weather forecasting and other new technologies that can quickly balance any changes in output. That’s why natural gas and solar are seen as a perfect pair: when the sun goes down, natural gas can quickly ramp up to deliver the needed electricity without impacting reliability. This is not unheard of. Nevada is home to America’s first solar plant with thermal storage that successfully generated electricity through the night.
It’s important to note that these changes to our electricity system didn’t happen overnight. For many years, the state of Nevada has focused on reducing energy usage and simultaneously encouraging the use of our renewable resources. It has taken years of research, development, and incremental progress – much of which was encouraged, supported, and spurred by our state’s educational system.
Institutions of higher learning such as the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; the University of Nevada, Reno; Nevada State College; the College of Southern Nevada; Truckee Meadows Community College; Great Basin College; the Desert Research Institute; and Western Nevada College have all made significant investments in renewable energy, reducing energy usage, and creating curriculums to train the next generation of energy innovators. Such a common-sense approach toward developing a cleaner energy future has yielded significant economic benefits.
The latest biennial report prepared for the Governor’s Office of Energy found that the 10 solar arrays at the Desert Research Institute have reduced costs by more than $330,000 annually and are expected to reduce purchases from the electricity grid by more than 40 percent. Similarly, solar panels have helped save the Washoe County School District more than $600,000 a year on electricity costs that can instead be spent improving classroom resources – like adding new technology, books, and other supplies. Solar has been so successful, the school district is currently performing an energy audit with the intent of reducing electricity use by at least an additional 20 percent.
The leadership shown by Nevada’s System of Higher Education and Washoe County School District on these issues should serve as an example of what is possible when the public and private sector partner to invest in a cleaner, most cost-effective future. We’ve managed to control our electricity costs – without impacting reliability – and I hope our example can help guide our national leadership in making decisions about the future of America’s energy choices.
Jason Geddes is a Nevada System of Higher Education regent and Energy and Sustainability Manager at Washoe County School District.
Solar panels checked. (Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto)
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