Solar-powered synthetic geothermal plant seeks exemptions from PUC

Sign for State of Nevada Public Utilities Commission on front of building.

A nascent Reno-based technology company planning to use experimental methods to create a solar-powered “synthetic” geothermal power plant is taking additional steps to ramp up operations.

The “RenewGeo” concept and future project by Reno-based company Unified Collective (UC) Won announced in February that it had secured leases at two existing geothermal production wells in Churchill County.

Its next step is procedural: a request for an advisory opinion from the Public Utilities Commission that the company not be considered a “public utility” and thus operate with more regulatory flexibility than other power plants in the state.

Though technical, filings made by the company reveal more details about the in-the-works effort to create a “unique and proprietary renewable energy generation project” that will use solar thermal heat to augment geothermal energy production. 

According to a white paper describing the project, the concept of renewable geothermal or “RenewGeo” is designed to address two problems — use of carbon-based fuels accelerating climate change, and difficulties in intermittent renewable-based energy sources, such as solar or wind, that are less reliable and produce most of their energy at non-peak times.

Instead, “RenewGeo” is an attempt to meld geothermal energy with large-scale solar — essentially using created solar power and “storing” it by pumping heat into the ground into old or unusable geothermal wells, where it can then be used on a controlled, regular basis to produce carbon-free, renewable energy. The white paper estimated that eight hours of solar power would create enough energy to provide 24 hours of reliable power from the geothermal process — a way to “store” renewable energy without producing or using lithium-ion batteries or other methods.

“This is bigger than renewable energy credits,” the group’s attorney Curt Ledford said. “This resource doesn’t require any back-up from fossil fuels. This product allows a customer to connect itself to a renewable energy system, grown here in Nevada, and then directly source that green energy for all of their operations, day and night. It’s game changing."

The white paper does acknowledge “modeling challenges” around the injection and retrieval of water heated by solar power, and also acknowledges that the cost of solar geothermal is likely higher than the cost of traditional geothermal power — but it states the potential for a renewably powered storage solution for solar power could pay dividends down the line.

“We also see an opportunity to bring new ideas and technology to an industry that has limited and antiquated approaches,” UC Won LLC co-founder and white paper author Mark Hauenstein wrote. “The improvements in performance and efficiency can bring revenue up to offset these additional costs.”

Although the share of solar-powered electricity created in Nevada has grown tremendously in the last five years (including 293 megawatts of solar in the first quarter of 2019, the third-highest of any state, the share of renewable power created from geothermal sources has remained flat.

Though Nevada (and California) produce the vast majority of geothermal-produced energy in the country, a variety of factors — from high-start up costs, risks in finding and developing sites and competition from the rapidly decreasing cost of solar — have kept demand for geothermal energy low, even amid knowledge of up to 500 megawatts worth of geothermal energy that is known and not currently being used.

In the application filed with the Public Utilities Commission last week, UC Won LLC largely focused on how the company’s business model should be regulated. It asks the commission to find that the company should not be considered a “public utility” because it plans to only provide power for a single customer. It also requested to not be subject to conditions in the state’s 704B law, which allows large power users to file applications to preemptively leave NV Energy, arguing that the company will be located outside of the utility’s service territory. 

“The entire structure is separate and distinct from the electric utility, completely detached from any of the electric utility’s customers, and has no impact upon the grid whatsoever,” the group wrote in its application. “In short, the Proposed Transaction has nothing to do with the electric utility.”

Raiders reconsidering leaving NV Energy for future Las Vegas stadium's electric service

Photo rendering of Las Vegas Stadium

Months after receiving approval from state regulators to pre-emptively leave NV Energy’s electric service, the Raiders and their future stadium are re-considering leaving the utility.

According to filings made with the Public Utilities Commission over the last month, attorneys for the Raiders have requested and received permission to suspend compliance with the terms of the under-construction stadium’s departure from its planned exit from NV Energy in order to assess an alternative offer by NV Energy.

In a letter sent to the commission last week, the Raiders stated that after the Commission approved their requested “exit” from NV Energy and be granted the right to purchase electric service from another provider in January, the organization was approached by NV Energy to enroll in a special tariff program “similar to how service is provided under” the current process for companies that have left the utility, but with NV Energy still providing the electricity.

The request made by the Raiders was to suspend the current compliance requirements — which it argues are unnecessary as the stadium is still under construction — to give the organization time to consider the new proposal, details of which are likely to become public sometime in June.

“Instead, if the Commission considers the new tariff to be in the public interest, there may be a benefit to NV Energy and its remaining customers from the Raiders staying in the NV Energy system under such tariff,” attorney Curt Ledford wrote in a motion to the Commission.

In a draft order published Thursday, the commission agreed to the arguments made by the Raiders and will allow for the extension of compliance reporting out to September 2019. The commission granted the Raiders the ability to contract with an outside electric utility without having to pay any exit fee in late January, deciding against an NV Energy request that the team pay $7.3 million to avoid other costs rising for other customers.

"We continue to work closely with the Raiders on a solution that retains them as a fully bundled customer of NV Energy and appreciate their openness to evaluating the proposed new tariff," NV Energy spokeswoman Andrea Smith said in an email.

Although the pricing program offered to the Raiders has yet to be introduced to the commission, NV Energy has already opened enrollment to companies eligible to leave the utility under a new Optional Pricing Program Rate. It’s also reached agreements to continue service in past weeks with large customers including the Las Vegas Sands, the Atlantis Casino Resort Spa, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, Golden Entertainment and the South Point.

Proposal extending rooftop solar to apartments rejected by utility regulators

Renewable energy advocates and lawmakers of both parties have for the past year touted the returning rooftop solar industry after slashed favorable reimbursement rates resulted in a year-long hiatus for solar businesses.

But even as the number of rooftop solar installations continues to grow, not all Nevadans have equal access — rooftop solar and other forms of distributed generation remains largely out of reach for the nearly half a million state residents who live in apartments and other non-single family residences throughout the state.

An attempt to expand rooftop solar systems to apartment dwellers was blocked Wednesday by the state’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC), which declined to take up a request for an advisory opinion that could open the door to allowing apartment dwellers and others who live in concentrated housing to participate in net metering programs.

The three-member commission rejected an application for an advisory opinion filed by Ovation MM, a property management company run by Alan Molasky that owns 38 separate apartment communities in Southern Nevada with more than 9,220 units. In a statement, Molasky said his apartment complexes already meet energy efficiency standards and have some solar panels on parking structures at several of the properties to power light fixtures, and that filing the application “just feels right.”

“I am disappointed that the PUC has denied our petition, but I do understand the reasoning,” he said in an email. “They are concerned that they have the statutory authority under Nevada law. Fortunately, this can be fixed. I know that many of our incoming legislators and our Governor-elect are very pro-clean energy, so I am hopeful we find a way to enable us with the authority to move forward soon.”

The company’s proposal called for creation of a so-called “Tenant Solar” initiative, which would in theory allow apartment owners — either directly or through a third-party — to install a distributed energy system (solar panels) on an apartment complex. The created electricity would be used and consumed by apartment residents.

But energy regulators and the state’s primary utility, NV Energy, recommended against adopting any advisory opinion or rulemaking without a clear directive from state lawmakers, as a similar concept was vetoed by Gov. Brian Sandoval in 2017. PUC staff warned that proceeding with the application would constitute “impermissible ad hoc rulemaking” in violation of state law.

Curt Ledford, the attorney representing the property management company in the docket, said in an interview that the commission’s decision was “not unexpected” and that the company would consider participating in other ways, such as a change in law or the opening of an investigatory docket.

“We knew the legal arguments were going to be challenging to overcome,” he said.

The company’s application, filed in October, acknowledged the lack of administrative rules that would guide such solar installations, and asked that the commission “acknowledge that the Legislature has opened up solar opportunities to a new group of Nevada’s residents.”

Although state law doesn’t expressly allow for community solar and other forms of distributed generation for multifamily housing units (such as apartment complexes), Ledford in the application pointed to a provision in a 2017 bill that created a “Renewable Energy Bill of Rights” for Nevada residents, including the right to “generate, consume and export renewable energy.”

In the application, Ledford added that the 2017 language was “clear and unambiguous,” and that residents of apartments or other non-single family homes should have the same ability to access distributed generation. He said the 2017 law “supersedes or impliedly repealed” a 2009 state law excluding the operators of apartments or other multifamily-living residences from operating rooftop solar systems, and that the rights granted under the 2017 bill would be “meaningless” without a way to access rooftop solar.

But PUC staff disagreed, saying no conflict existed between the two laws and any further “public policy goals” in relation to rooftop solar or net metering would first require legislative action. As a workaround, it suggested connecting individual rooftop solar panels to an individual apartment’s meter, or for the apartment unit itself to become a net metering customer (as opposed to an apartment complex selling power to its tenants).

Ledford — who said the structure of the “Tenant Solar” idea was kept purposefully vague to give regulators as much leeway as possible —  said it was “telling” that no other apartment owners were using the system described by the PUC as an alternative.

“There’s no reason to employ inefficient uses of technology just because the law doesn't allow you to,” he said. “It's better just to change the law.”

The proposal was also opposed by NV Energy, which cited legislative history showing references to community solar gardens were amended out of an initial version of the legislation, and the fact that the community solar concept was vetoed by Sandoval in 2017.

“Petitioner is attempting to circumnavigate the legislative process by asking the Commission to effectuate public policy that the Nevada Legislature has to date declined to enact,” an attorney for the utility wrote in a briefing.

Two pro-solar advocacy groups, Vote Solar and the Solar Energies Industry Association, submitted comments in support of the proposal.

In his veto message on the 2017 community solar bill, Sandoval expressed several concerns with the concept including worries that growth of the “gardens” would avoid the costs and regulations faced by other utilities, possibly compete with large-scale solar photovoltaic plants by giving them an “unfair” competitive advantage and not enough requirements that the gardens generate electricity for low-income residents or small businesses.

At the time, Sandoval also expressed concerns about how the measure would mesh with the proposed Energy Choice Initiative — now a moot point after voters overwhelmingly rejected the retail electric market ballot question on the 2018 ballot.

Democratic state Sen. Mo Denis, who sponsored the community solar bill in 2017, said in a brief interview that he was planning to bring the legislation back in 2019 and was working with the industry and NV Energy on potential changes, including limits on how much electricity each individual "garden" could generate and an aggregate limit on overall generation.