LAS VEGAS – The politics of renewable energy headed the agenda in battleground Nevada on Tuesday, as Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar opened a fifth annual green-energy conference with the announcement that a 12-square-mile wind energy farm in rural White Pine County will begin producing electricity.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton brought star power and some advice to wrap up the daylong National Clean Energy Summit 5.0 on the Las Vegas Strip.
U.S. renewable energy efforts lag behind those in other countries, Clinton said, recalling losing Senate backing for the 1997 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The U.S. never ratified the treaty, dubbed the Kyoto accord, that aimed at cutting greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.
Clinton said it will take what he called “a bias toward action, a bias for cooperation and a bias toward thinking big” to change the future.
“The power of example changes consciousness,” he said, adding that slow change shouldn’t discourage development, and government can help with programs such as tax incentives for renewable energy projects.
Germany and China have used such incentives to become leaders in solar power around the world, he said.
Clinton also took several one-on-one questions from his former White House chief of staff John Podesta, now the head of a think tank and an energy conference organizer. The former president didn’t take questions from the audience or the media at the conference focusing on wind, solar and geothermal energy.
Reid and Salazar hailed San Francisco-based Pattern Energy’s Spring Valley project as the first major wind farm in Nevada. It’s designed to produce to up to 150 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power 45,000 homes. Salazar called it an example of an Obama administration strategy toward freeing the use of federal lands for energy production.
In Washington, the administration announced Tuesday that seven solar and wind energy projects in Arizona, California, Nevada and Wyoming would be fast-tracked. Officials said they together could produce nearly 5,000 megawatts, or enough to power 1.5 million homes.
“We’ve come too far to allow the clock of progress to be turned back,” Salazar said.
President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney have differing approaches to domestic energy production.
Obama touts renewable energy, while Romney wants to reduce obstacles to coal, natural gas and nuclear energy development. Romney also supports opening the Atlantic and Pacific outer continental shelves to drilling, as well as Western lands, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and offshore Alaska. He says green power has yet to become viable and the causes of climate change are unknown.
Reid declined to comment Tuesday about Arctic drilling, saying he wanted to keep the focus of his conference on renewable energy projects. But in his opening comments to the conference, Reid derided those who deny that the burning of fossil fuels has contributed to global climate change.
“Those people aren’t just on the other side of the debate,” he said, “they’re on the other side of reality.”
A Romney aide said Tuesday that Congress should let a tax break for wind energy producers expire at the end of the year. But Salazar said the Senate Finance Committee agreed last week on a bipartisan proposal to extend the production tax credit for wind energy.
“That shows it ought not to be a Republican or Democratic issue, it ought to be an American issue,” Salazar told nearly 700 people during his morning speech at the Bellagio resort. “Our national security, our economic security, our environmental security, those are American issues and everyone should stand behind them.”
Reid told reporters he’d like the measure to pass before the November election, but he was confident it would pass by the end of the year.
Salazar told the conference that a planned 3,000-megawatt wind power complex in Wyoming would provide electricity to homes as far away as Nevada and California. He also touted administration efforts to spur the first Atlantic Ocean wind energy projects. The U.S. currently has no operating offshore wind farms, but Salazar said the Cape Wind project off Massachusetts has received permits to become the first.
Republicans have blamed Obama for granting more than $500 million in federal stimulus loan guarantees to the Solyndra Inc. solar power project in California. The venture declared bankruptcy in September. Other companies with smaller loan guarantees have also folded.
The Obama administration said losses were expected when Congress set aside $10 billion for high-risk loan guarantees to projects that would have trouble obtaining private financing. It points to a former Treasury Department official’s report saying more rigorous financial oversight and stricter performance standards could reduce the risk of future defaults.
In Nevada, Pattern Energy Group LP’s $225 million wind farm, some 200 miles north of Las Vegas, will plug into the Silver State power grid under a 20-year agreement with NV Energy Inc.
The state’s dominant electric utility faces a state requirement to draw up to 20 percent of its power from renewable sources and conservation by 2015 and 25 percent by 2025. Critics complain NV Energy relies too heavily on coal.
The project went ahead after settlement of a lawsuit alleging the federal government unfairly fast-tracked approval. Environmentalists argued the 66 giant turbines standing about 30 stories tall will be too near caves that biologists call a key roosting point for migrating Mexican free-tailed bats.