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Valley Electric Association Goes Solar
Posting Date: 07/31/2012

By John Taylor
A major solar plant is planned for Pahrump, NV. Photo courtesy of Bright Source Energy Company.

A major solar plant is planned for Pahrump, NV.
Photo courtesy of Bright Source Energy Company.

[Editor's note: This is the second in a series of articles by reporter John Taylor that examines the energy industry in and around Mesquite. Also see Mesquite Citizen Journal story OPD Hit With Credit Downgrade]

Officials of Valley Electric Association are making a daring move that will catapult them into the hottest solar market on the West coast, make them a premier exporter of solar generated power to California and another utility considering breaking away from Nevada's power grid. If everything goes according to plan, Pahrump will plug into the California system in January.

In 1963, the tiny Amargosa Valley Electric Cooperative and the fledgling Pahrump Valley Utility merged in order to create a power distribution system between the two valleys. Today, those utilities are the Valley Electric Association (VEA) cooperative, a $52 million dollar a year company with 350 miles of transmission lines over 6,500 square miles, an area larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.

As VEA began to grow, it immediately ran into problems with Nevada Power, now known as NV Energy. When the utility began building connections in Pahrump, Nevada Power rushed in to also lay electrical transmission lines. Nevada Power attempted to beat the small utility to the punch for customers and when that seemed destined to fail, it joined with Southern California Edison to file lawsuits against VEA. During this time, the VEA was able to secure a loan from the federal government that turned the tide. VEA won out and finally became the primary electric utility for the area.

While Overton Power District is a non-profit general improvement district, VEA is a cooperative. In a cooperative each electric customer is also a member of the co-op and a part owner of the utility with equal say among other members. A co-op has several guiding principles: democratic control by members; economic participation by members; education, training and information provided to members; cooperation with other cooperatives for strength and unity: and working toward policies for the sustainable development of the community.

Like OPD, Valley Electric Association does not generate its own electrical energy, it buys power on the open market. That is where the similarity stops.

In 2011, after a lengthy and complex process, VEA executed a memorandum of understanding with California Independent System Operator (CAISO) that will form the basis of allowing VEA to become a member of the California association in January, 2013. CAISO is one of only ten independent system operators in North America that coordinate generation and transmission across large geographic area to keep supply and demand for electricity in balance.

The partnership with CAISO may have begun in 2006, when customers of VEA asked company management “why aren't we adding renewables to the company?” Management responded that it was not economically feasible.

“That question got us thinking,” said Tom Husted, Chief Executive Officer of VEA. “Our staff worked with our members to put together an exhaustive business plan to look at renewable energy. The company decided to take the micro approach rate than the macro approach. The first step was the water heater program. With the help of our members, we found sufficient interest to launch the program and while it did not put energy back on the grid, the averted energy was a great incentive.”

Susan Fisher, Executive Vice President of Government Relations and Marketing, said, “In 2009, VEA officially launched the largest domestic solar water heater program in the nation by providing solar panels and water heaters to its members at our cost and financing the expense at zero interest. To date, we have more than 700 units in place. At VEA, we believe that working with renewable energy is not only the politically correct thing to do, it is the “right” thing to do. Our members support our efforts to “green” the system.”

Fisher added that first step launched them into renewable energy.

That began the journey for VEA on the renewable power path and Fisher said, “by joining the CAISO, the cost of transmission construction will be spread throughout the CAISO system saving our members millions of dollars. This will help us keep our rates stable and provide VEA with funds for future expansion.”

VEA customers pay an average of $135 per month for electricity compared to Overton Power District customers who pay an average of $150 per month.

Fisher added that in 2011, VEA created a subsidiary, the Valley Electric Transmission Authority, which will lower future revenue requirements significantly and provide the transmission services necessary to connect to the Bright Source Energy project to the grid. Every utility looking to embrace renewable energy must first resolve its transmission problem. In other words, how to get that newly produced energy from the source to the end user.

Bright Source, a major builder of solar plants, plans

to build two 250 megawatt solar plants on Tecopa Road near Pahrump.

When utilities begin to reach the state-mandated renewable energy goal, there will be a tendency to reduce the demand for building new renewable projects. The other option is to sell the energy to California. That is what VEA plans to do.

Husted said, “The solar projects are what allow us to add kilowatt sales, to add jobs and economic opportunities, and to help VEA defray future rate increases. We view renewable energy in Nevada as an important factor in the diversity of Nevada's economy, much like the natural gas industry has done in other states.”

“Rejecting renewable energy just on the basis of the high cost does not take into consideration that a truly diversified portfolio of generation resources eliminates some market risk and thereby provides for greater rate stability,” said Fisher.

If Fisher is right, Valley Electric Association will become a major player in Nevada's energy plans.

The Bright Source project is a massive solar thermal system built near Primm in the California Mohave desert. It is designed to provide solar energy with low environmental impact to meet the goals of California's clean energy act, power 140,000 homes, and will provide 1,400 jobs during its construction which should be completed in 2013. Bright Source also has interest in the planned Amargosa 500 megawatt solar plant near Pahrump.

In 2008, Bright Source company executives attempted to partner with Overton Power District for a solar project near Overton airport that would produce 1,200 megawatts of energy and go online in 2012. Bright Source was willing to work with OPD to finance an upgrade for OPD transmission lines and offered to reserve a portion of the power for OPD to use as a green option for its customers. The deal fell through over right-of-way issues with OPD and government regulators.

VEA's web page currently has 20 current job openings and Husted has been invited to share the stage next month at the National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas with former President Bill Clinton and Senator Harry Reid to discuss energy policies.

So what does the future hold for VEA? “There is a gold rush of sorts,” said Stephanie McCorkle, spokeswoman for CAISO. “By state law, California must get a full 33 percent of its power from renewable resources by 2020. There is enough transmission to reach that goal. At some point, there will be enough generation that will make it harder for renewable projects to get on the (California) grid.”

Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval has repeatedly said Nevada is primed to become an important energy exporter to states like California which have a huge energy appetite.

“Most industry experts view is that California with have difficulty meeting its 33 percent goal with in-state energy resources,” said Kevin Smith, CEO of Solar Reserve, a California based solar company that is building a solar plant in Tonopah, Nevada. “That is what makes it a good market for Nevada.”

Solar Reserve was interested in building a solar plant on Flat Top Mesa just outside of Mesquite. The plan did not generate much interest from local Overton Power District officials or Mesquite public officials. Solar Reserve went elsewhere.

Like VEA, Boulder City’s utility department has eagerly embraced solar power. Solar companies were welcomed by city officials and, as a result, it will receive $12 million a year just in lease payments from solar projects that have already been built. In addition, the city was presented with a gift of $500,000 from a solar company to upgrade city buildings using the renewable energy of their choice.

“In 20 years from now, future city councils and the people will thank Mayor Roger Tobler and this council for what they have done,” said Scott Crider, an executive with solar company Sempra Energy. “Solar power is here to stay.”

One thing is certain: with states requiring that future energy needs be fulfilled by a significant percentage of renewable resources and the lengthy permit process requirements that a utility has to go through, it is clear that for progressive power companies, they cannot wait any longer. The time for change is now.

“If you are not in the renewable energy game right now, you will be left in the dust,” said Bob Cable, manager of the Nevada Solar 1 plant in Boulder City.

According to the National Clean Energy website, a national energy expert commented, “If we didn't pay a little bit more for new technologies, we would still be using typewriters instead of computers.”

[Editor’s note: While the residents and businesses of Mesquite are completely dependent on electrical rates determined by Overton Power, this series will look at other electric utilities near our community and their approach to providing power to their customers, their look at the future and how it will affect their customers. The series will finish with a second look at Overton Power District.]


  • Posted Date: 07/31/2012
    This article is an advertisement for Solar power without telling the whole story. It sure sound great when you only consider input from people that have an interest in building such facilities and who receive substantial funds from the government to do so. There are two basic facts that you do not include in your article and that is what happens to the cost per kwh when the government drops support and what do you do during the night when you cannot generate power to supply the needs of your customers. Without government support these solar companies would not be in the business because the cost per kwh is too high and your current electric bill would nearly double. As you know, the government cannot continue to suport these project because it does not have any money. During the day, you might be able to supply 250 megawatts but what happens during the nighttime hours when we still have the needs for this power. What source will it come from? Will it be a gas or coal fired power plant? If so, then you actually will need two power sources for the same customer and therefore twice the investment for the same kwh. That sure sounds like nearly twice the cost. So if you want to be fair and unbiased, then tell the whole story and not just one side of it.
    By: Elgin
  • Posted Date: 07/31/2012
    Elgin has a good point but my son works on the solar thing over by Primm. He says this will be the wave of the future not to mention it brought lots of jobs over there. He makes $29 a hour plus benefits. But what I really want to say was I would pay a litle extra if it would help Mesquite.
    By: Gloria
  • Posted Date: 07/31/2012
    I guess it all comes down to do we innovate, adapt and overcome or just sit here and do nothing. I wonder if it would hurt the city to put a few solar panels on various buildings and property and cut the electric bill with net metering. What about the new economic development group encouraging all businesses to put a few solar panels up and do net metering? Get some grants, get some loans, do something. How about bringing in one of the big solar companies from Vegas (Bombard Electric) to do a workshop on solar for homes or like the story says solar water heaters? It seems to make sense. A win-win. Mesquite could win and look good and folks would save money.
    By: Brent
  • Posted Date: 07/31/2012
    I work at OPD and we put a small solar unit on one of our buildings up there in Mesquite and the bosses cried, moaned and complained about it so much until we were sick of hearing about solar.
    By: Lineman
  • Posted Date: 07/31/2012
    Well done The real cost of fossil fuel produced energy is not included in the retail kwh cost when included the kwh costs far exceed alternatives. Also, solar is one of several alternative forms of energy that the city and overton have consistently failed to explore. The city should do an alternative energy study to identify potential business possibilities Several universities, such as Boise State University, do these studies. The results could focus the business recruitment drive of the effort proposed to be funded by taxpayer funds.
    By: mmcgreer
  • Posted Date: 07/31/2012
    I don't know about this solar stuff but I own a couple of rentals in Tonopah and that dumpy little town is going through a boom since that solar company built a major project there. Everybody is making money.
    By: freddy
  • Posted Date: 07/31/2012
    This story has me thinking, if we put the $2 million in RDA funds in a solar something in Mesquite rather than on a tent project, wouldn't that be a smarter use of money? RDA funds could be solar on some of these businesses along the boulevard. Just wondering.
    By: Vicky
  • Posted Date: 07/31/2012
    Well, there must be something to it since there ate 15 major and I mean major solar projects going on all around the west coast.
    By: Sandy
  • Posted Date: 07/31/2012
    GREAT ARTICLE again Barbara and John. It really points out what can and should happen when leaders have foresight and think progressively (let’s look forward and plan for the future) instead of conservatively (let’s not do anything different and just do what we always have). A little info for Elgin – You’ve got to quit listening to those who find all the reasons that something new won’t work and look to folks who instead, spend their energy figuring out how to MAKE things work. Your argument about costs and subsidies is just plain wrong. Do you have any idea how much we spend subsidizing the fossil fuel industry – the most profitable industry in the history of the world? And the cost of our military involvements in the Middle East to protect our supply? To quote you – “Without government support these solar oil companies would not be in the business”. All that aside, while the up-front capital cost of building renewable energy capabilities is high, the long-term future costs of producing energy are dramatically lower because there is no fuel to buy! And as a bonus we get cleaner air, lower medical costs, and the ability to tell Middle East dictators and oligarchs to literally pound sand! Investing in the future of our country (and our planet) is the way we have become great!
    By: John
  • Posted Date: 07/31/2012
    Sounds like we can debate this forever but OPD is locked into their current policy until 2018 according to their info.
    By: Bill
  • Posted Date: 07/31/2012
    Municipal buildings in Arizona are jumping on the solar bandwagon and they are saving substantially in their energy costs. No cost to cities in long term leases seem to be popular. What is Mesquite doing in this regard? Nothing. Why? Because the LDS Church has yet to bless this type of energy. Oh well. Great article.
    By: bobbiethompson
  • Posted Date: 07/31/2012
    I would rather pay more for renewables that pay for oil. Good point John.
    By: Brad
  • Posted Date: 07/31/2012
    Hey Bill, with some creativity maybe we can figure out a way to tell OPD to "pound sand" also!!
    By: John
  • Posted Date: 07/31/2012
    This story really makes me pretty mad. Why haven't the other newspapers covered this kind of issue? After the VVWD you would think that would be something of interest. Were they just waiting for the MCJ to be born? And how in the world did OPD manage to get us all into this mess? I am not happy. OPD better not ever even think of asking for a rate increase.
    By: Art
  • Posted Date: 07/31/2012
    As usual, you people are blaming the wrong people. It is not the General manager that makes the decisions it is the board of trustees who approve everything. If you have a complaint, it is with the trustees not those that follow their instructions. If you want to complain, at least put it in the right place. Shame on you.
    By: Vera
  • Posted Date: 07/31/2012
    I know nothing about solar stuff but I do know about real estate. Everywhere one of these big renewable projects go in, property values sky rocket. Local businesses profit. There is a town in N. Dakota called Williston that is having a major boom in oil. Biggest boom in N.D. history. Everyone is getting rich. There are 1000's of jobs, many paying a $100,000 a year. I even think our own assemblyman Cresent Hardy may have abandoned Mesquite and has his company there. Why he hasn't done anything here is another story. The point is there is a major shift going on it looks to me like we are missing it. They got oil, we got nothing. Seems to me like we better do something and since solar is the hot ticket, we better get on it. You can either be a boom town or a ghost town.
    By: Stan
  • Posted Date: 07/31/2012
    I moved here from Williston a few years ago after making a small fortune on my properties. Williston has a motto, "Where there is no vision, people perish."
    By: Braden
  • Posted Date: 07/31/2012
    People are being a little hypocritical about renewable energies. They want thier power company to provide those things but don't want to pay for it. I don't think you can complain about that. If you want to complain about OPS's lousy planning for the future, that's something else.
    By: darrin
  • Posted Date: 07/31/2012
    In this day and age, a power company without a full portfolio of plans for renewable energy projects is like our Mesquite pioneers in the early days saying, "We ain't buying one of those newfangled, gosh darn auto-mobiles. They are too expensive. We will stick with horses."
    By: Kathy
  • Posted Date: 08/03/2012
    OPD is never in favor of any Solar projects, because they want to be in control of everything. They think if they control the right of way, they can control the rate hikes. BELIEVE ME, OVERTON POWER WILL CONTINUE TO RAISE THE POWER RATES OVER TIME AND REAP THE PROFITS!! The City of Mesquite needs to Dump Overton Power and have their own Power companyu. Solar could be a part of iit.
    By: Here we go again
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