Phasing out coal not embrace of renewables for NV Energy

After much gnashing of teeth, NV Energy has decided to grin and bear it when it comes to phasing out its use of coal to generate power.

Its recent announcement makes the electric utility sound as if it’s come to appreciate and fully embrace Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s passion for a dramatic increase in the use of renewable green energy such as solar, wind, and geothermal to power Nevada into the future.

NV Energy has stated it is prepared to start taking the generators at Reid Gardner out of service as early as 2014 with an expressed goal of shuttering the plant entirely by 2017. According to the company, its remaining coal-fired plants would cease operations by 2025.

That’s a remarkable shift in focus for the utility giant, which like most power monopolies has a longstanding relationship with coal-fired electricity generation.

Although the company surely would like its ratepayers to appreciate its environmental sensitivity and highly evolved view of energy production in the new century, others suspect its officials of strategically pursuing a path of least resistance in a state in which Reid is a paramount political force. If NV Energy essentially had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the kumbaya campfire, well, that doesn’t mean it isn’t willing to hold hands.

It was no stretch of speculation to predict a time that NV Energy might find itself in a tangle of costly litigation filed by environmental and tribal groups. Perhaps its officials had the strange feeling their every move was being watched by Reid and his renewable allies.

Reid Gardner has been part of the Moapa landscape for nearly half a century. The four-unit facility uses coal to generate up to 650 megawatts of electricity on the 480-acre site about 60 miles from Las Vegas.

With Paiute tribal land to the west and what has been an inactive dairy farm to the east (the future home of a solar-energy facility that will sell the electricity it generates to Los Angeles), Reid Gardner’s first unit went into operation in 1965. Its fourth unit went into service in 1983 — way back when only the most cockeyed environmental optimists openly discussed renewable energy ever replacing coal-fired generators.

Although Reid Gardner isn’t long for the world, we likely haven’t heard the last of it. There are bound to be costly environmental cleanup concerns even after they turn out the lights.

According to the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, “The Reid Gardner Station (RGS) has a number of raw water storage ponds, process water evaporation ponds, and fly ash settling ponds. Process water, which has been used beyond the treatable limits, is routed to onsite ponds for evaporation. Waste management units are present throughout the Site and surrounding area. NV Energy has implemented source control methods including salt and pond solids removal and pond lining.”

The state site continues, “Areas of known Releases of Environmental Contaminants from the station onto adjacent property include, but are not limited to, areas of Hogan Wash, property north of Pond 4A, property east of the power generation units,” as well as property in the area immediately surrounding waste management unit 4.”

What often gets lost in the politics and the environmental rhetoric, however, is the overall cost of producing energy. That will, as ever, roll downhill toward the average Nevada ratepayer. Coal is dirty, but it’s cheap.

NV Energy will rely increasingly on currently cost-effective natural gas, but its officials must know by now that they’re only a couple changes in statute away from being forced to acquire increasing amounts of electricity from renewable companies that are currently taking advantage of the Obama administration’s green energy philosophy and a certain Searchlight senator’s passion for power.

Nevada native John L. Smith also writes a daily column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Reach him at 383-0295 or at jsmith@reviewjournal.com.

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