Those of us who live in water-stressed areas are accustomed to creating abundance for our sometimes-unforgiving desert homes. Among U.S. cities, Las Vegas ranks last in annual rainfall, yet it’s famous for swimming pools, golf courses and shark tanks. The city has found a way to combine the exuberance of the Bellagio Fountains with the “cash for grass” program, which pays people to replace their grass lawns with native desert landscapes. Las Vegas locals are among the world leaders in water recycling, with most wastewater treated and returned to Lake Mead.
Despite all the state does to conserve water, Nevadans were recently dealt a serious blow to conservation efforts in one of the most water-intensive industries: energy. Last December, the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada (which regulates the state’s energy policy) approved a new rule for people with rooftop solar systems that significantly increases monthly fees they pay their utility and significantly decreases the value of unused solar energy they sell back to the grid.
Although Gov. Brian Sandoval’s New Energy Industry Task Force recently recommended that existing solar customers be returned to their previous rates, new solar installations have ground to a halt.
Traditional power plants generate electricity by burning coal or natural gas to boil water and create steam. That steam drives a turbine, creating electricity. This takes a lot of water — more than a gallon to light a single 60-watt bulb for an hour. Nationwide, the electricity industry is the second largest user of water, after agriculture and well ahead of household use. Nevada uses more than 6 billion gallons of water to generate power each year, according to the Desert Research Institute. In fact, more water is probably used for generating electricity for your own home than you use washing dishes, watering your lawn, showering and washing your clothes combined.
With its endless sun and decades of experience managing scarce water resources, Nevada should be a global leader in clean energy as well as water conservation. The desert sunshine that brings tourists from around the world also makes the Silver State ideal for solar power. Solar panels require virtually no water to operate, as they directly transform abundant solar energy into electricity. In 2014, even though solar provided less than 3 percent of Nevada’s total energy, solar helped the state save 56 million gallons of water, enough to fill the Bellagio fountains twice over.
That’s what makes Nevada’s solar rate hike so baffling.
The decision arrived at a precarious moment. Despite Nevada’s unprecedented water conservation efforts, Lake Mead hit a record low Wednesday and is expected to drop another 3 feet in June. Last fall the Southern Nevada Water Authority completed an $800 million project to build a “third straw” underneath Lake Mead so water can keep flowing when the level falls below old intake pipes. Under these circumstances, it’s time to consider every option. Solar should be at the top of that list.
Of course, solar energy also has numerous other benefits over fossil fuel generation. Solar panels produce no toxic emissions, helping to improve our health and reduce the incidence of diseases such as asthma. Solar brought thousands of good-paying jobs to a state still feeling the aftermath of the Great Recession. Before Nevada’s rate hike, the Silver State was No. 1 in solar jobs per capita in the country. And, of course, solar helps people save money on their utility bills. That’s why the Nevada solar industry grew so quickly over the past two years.
Clean energy and water conservation go hand in hand. Given the urgency, you’d think the state would welcome innovative, popular and water-saving technologies that help people save money.
Instead, Nevada killed its own solar industry, forced 1.000 people out of work and set us back on addressing our most challenging environmental issue: climate change.
The Nevada Legislature, and voters, should seize the opportunity to undo the Public Utilities Commission’s inexplicable, dangerous decision.
Kate Zerrenner is the manager of energy water initiatives for the Environmental Defense Fund and a member of the Bring Back Solar Alliance.