Despite higher RPS, Nevada unlikely to hit promised CO2 reduction goals without additional changes

Just seven months after state lawmakers passed and Gov. Steve Sisolak signed a “milestone” bill raising the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), an upcoming report will indicate that Nevada is unlikely to meet its ambitious carbon reduction goals over the next decade without taking additional steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

During a meeting of the interim Legislative Committee on Energy on Friday, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Director Brad Crowell gave lawmakers a sneak peek, as well as a wake-up call, on how projected greenhouse gas emissions are still trending higher than statewide emission reduction goals.

That comes in spite of a bill approved in the 2019 Legislature gradually raising the state’s RPS — a rough measurement of renewable energy use — to 50 percent by 2030. Crowell said the increase in renewable energy production will help the state lower emissions, but will possibly fall short of the emission reduction standards called for in the 25-state U.S. Climate Alliance, which Nevada joined in March and aims to match the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.

“The big point to underscore is that the RPS alone is not going to get us where we need to go,” he said during the meeting. “And so we’re going to need to be smart and innovative in enacting other policies, looking at the timescales and the dollar amounts needed to invest to achieve reductions in these other categories and meet the thresholds.”

The bill that prompted the discussion is SB254, a measure passed along party lines in the 2019 Legislature which increases the frequency of a state report on greenhouse gas emissions from once every four years to annual, and requires state agencies to set forth a “statement of policies”  that could help achieve statewide reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. 

The bill calls for the report to identify policies to reduce emissions (compared to a 2005 level baseline) by 28 percent in 2025 and by 45 percent by 2030, as well as a “qualitative assessment” of the policies support a goal of zero or near-zero carbon emissions by the year 2050. Emissions are categorized under the following labels: electricity production, transportation, industry, commercial and residential, agriculture and land use and forestry.

Those reduction goals are similar to the ones that Gov. Steve Sisolak agreed to meet by joining the U.S. Climate Alliance in March, an agreement by governors in 25 states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26 percent by 2025. The agreement was formed after President Donald Trump’s administration announced its intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, a 2015 international treaty designed to limit global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius this century.

In the most recently released report by the division, Nevada’s emissions were estimated at a little more than 44 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (standard measurement for measuring carbon emissions). Emissions in the state peaked in 2005 at 60.3 metric tons of emissions, but declined after the retirement of coal-firing plants and the 2008 economic recession, which caused business activity and transportation to decrease.

According to the draft report, Nevada’s projected greenhouse emissions in 2025 will be around 41.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide — a 23 percent reduction from 2005, or 12.2 million metric tons less than the high-water emissions mark. In part, the decrease is driven by the scheduled retirement of the two coal-burning Valmy plants, which NV Energy has scheduled to close in 2021 and 2025.

That emissions number is variable based on how the department measures the effect of land use and forestry as a possible offset of carbon emissions, meaning the projected emissions total has a possible 4.8 million metric ton possible swing in either direction — possibly enough for the state to meet the 2025 goal.

“Our 2025 target, we’re going to maybe just make it,” he said at the meeting on Friday.

But the draft report shown to lawmakers shows the state far away from its 2030 carbon emissions goal; projections estimate that even as the electric generation share of emissions continues to decrease over the next decade, estimated emissions will only decrease to 40.3 million metric tons — nearly 20 percent, or 11 million metric tons, off the stated goal.

To be clear, the legislation passed in 2019 does not give the department any new power to compel reductions in emissions, instead merely upping the reporting frequency and identifying potential ways to hit the 2025 and 2030 goals. And Nevada’s emissions make up only a small percentage (0.65) of the country’s overall emissions.

Crowell told lawmakers that the draft report was partially meant to show that just relying on the increased RPS and not taking other steps to reduce emissions in other areas would result in the state missing out on the stated goals.

“This is based on existing policy, so in order to get reductions in those other sectors outside of the electricity generation, we’re going to need to institute new policies to make sure that we can get to those thresholds,” he said. 

But finding potential solutions to reduce emissions in other areas is likely to be the hard part. Crowell said he was “hesitant” to share potential solutions before the release of the actual report, but noted that the department was already taking steps to reduce emissions in the transportation sectors — projected to soon become the largest net emitter of greenhouse gases as emissions from electrical generation is projected to decrease over the next decade.

Crowell did mention work that the Governor’s Office of Energy has done to install electric vehicle charging stations in rural areas of the state, as well as programs by the department to convert gas-powered vehicles to electric or upgrading diesel engines to more efficient models. This includes ground transport equipment at airports, natural-gas-powered refuse trucks in Clark and Washoe Counties and funding for clean-diesel school buses in rural Humboldt County.

But many of those programs are being funded through the state’s $24.8 million share of the Volkswagen Settlement — a finite source of funds for expenses that, as Crowell said, “cost a lot relative to the amount of money we have.”

Democratic Sen. Chris Brooks, who sponsored the emission reporting bill and is a member of the interim energy committee, agreed that the most likely policy solutions would target electric production and transportation sources, saying those two would have the biggest “bang for our buck.”

Brooks, who is up for re-election in 2020, said he did not have “concrete policy recommendations” at this point but that reducing emissions from transportation sources would require not only electric vehicle infrastructure but also improved public transportation and better urban planning. He additionally said that he and others were carefully watching the outcome of the Trump administration’s fight with California over the state’s ability to set emission standards more strict than the federal government, saying it could “weigh heavily on what we’re even able to do as a state.”

Brooks also mentioned that he wanted the committee to take a look at mileage standards in a way that resulted in less miles driven per person in the state, as well as a holistic look at changing the state’s algebra for its Highway Fund. The interim Legislative Committee on Energy, which is chaired by Democratic Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno, is tasked with authorizing two studies before the start of the 2021 legislative session — one on renewable energy development, and the other on alternatives for transportation funding in the state.

Brooks discounted some Republican skepticism of the ongoing Nevada DMV pilot project to track odometer readings — which could lead to a mileage standard down the road — saying that some of the comments made were intended to “muddy the waters.”

“Eventually, some of the politicians and elected officials in this state and in this country are going to realize that the majority of voters, especially younger voters, are really concerned about this climate crisis and want to see action from their elected officials,” he said in an interview. “I think, after they hear either at the ballot box or in their inbox from those voters, they’re going to understand that they need to act.”