50% Renewables in NV Will Boost Investment, Cut Pollution

The 458-megawatt Copper Mountain Solar 1 (at left), and 64-megawatt Nevada Solar One (at right) plants, south of Boulder City, Nevada, with the Las Vegas Strip in the background.

Credit: Michael Adams

New modeling finds that a 50 percent renewable energy standard in Nevada would drive new investments in local solar power and storage, lowering harmful pollution across the state, and reducing Nevada’s dependence on out-of-state fossil fuels and power.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), NextGen, and GridLab performed an analysis conducted by renowned energy firm ICF to examine the effects of strengthening renewable energy standards across the Southwest, including Nevada’s Question 6. Question 6, on the November ballot and endorsed by NRDC, would require electricity providers in Nevada to serve half of customer electricity sales with renewable energy sources like solar, geothermal, and wind by 2030. Question 6 would guarantee Nevadans get 50 percent renewable energy, no matter what happens to the electric industry’s structure. Another ballot measure, Question 3, would require utility NV Energy to get out of the business of packaging and selling electricity to individual customers, affecting how power is sold in Nevada, but not directly addressing whether that power comes from clean or dirty energy sources).

ICF’s modeling, using assumptions developed by NRDC, NextGen, and GridLab, found that Nevada can meet a 50 percent renewable energy standard in a manner that could:

  • Drive 3.85 gigawatts of new solar development in the state by 2030, which will provide enough electricity to power 800,000 Nevada homes for a year;
  • Reduce harmful air pollution from the state’s power plants. Compared to 2017, power plant-related emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) would fall by 55 percent, and sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions would fall by 74 percent. When power plants emit less NOX and SO2, Nevadans breathe less soot and smog, resulting in fewer asthma attacks, ER visits, and premature deaths. Using standard benefit-per-ton estimates from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, these reductions in harmful air pollution would lead to between $12.7 million and $28.8 million of annual health benefits for Nevadans in 2030.
  • Reduce Nevada’s carbon footprint. Compared to a more fossil-fuel based future, annual power plant carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are 13 percent lower in 2030.
  • Avoid the construction of new gas plants. Investments in local clean power—driven by the 50 percent RPS—reduce the need for the state to build fossil-fired gas plants to meet electricity demand.

Achieving a 50 percent renewable energy standard with in-state projects would leave a healthier, economically vibrant Nevada for future generations. Nevada already supports over 6,500 solar workers. These new investments in local solar—amounting to $6.2 billion in new capital investments over the next decade—would increase the state’s solar capacity by 150%, which could support up to 9,800 new clean energy jobs in Nevada.

Assumptions and Inputs: What We Modeled

Our analysis of strengthened RPS targets was performed by energy consultant ICF, using their Integrated Planning Model (IPM®). IPM is a detailed model of the electric power system routinely used by the electricity industry and regulators, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to assess the effects of environmental regulations or policies. It integrates extensive information on power capacity and generation, technology performance, transmission, energy demand, electricity and fuel prices, energy-related policies, and other factors. IPM then determines the most cost-effective way to meet electricity needs based on its detailed representation of the U.S. electricity system. It can build new power plants, retire existing plants, or ramp them up and down to meet demand in the least-cost way.

NRDC, NextGen, and GridLab developed assumptions that ICF populated its modeling platform with, in order to project outcomes under a Reference Case and two different policy cases as outlined below.

  1. In the Reference Case (also known as the business-as-usual (BAU) Case), only policies and power plant additions and retirements already approved are explicitly modelled. Additional capacity expansion and retirement may occur only in response to relative economics.
  2. In the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) Case, Nevada utilities must get 50 percent of their electricity from renewable sources like solar, geothermal, and wind by 2030, with interim benchmarks along the way. To match how utilities have historically met Nevada’s existing renewable energy standard, this case includes a requirement that renewable energy resources used to meet the requirement be located in Nevada.
  3. In the Gas Expansion Case, in contrast, when power plants retire or demand increases, utilities meet two-thirds of the resulting electricity “demand gap” with new gas combined cycle units.

Assumptions for the policy cases relied primarily on publicly-available projections from various parts of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). For gas prices and energy demand, the model reflects business-as-usual projections from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), an independent statistical agency of the DOE. For power plant costs, we relied on the EIA for the costs of building new fossil-fuel-fired generation and new nuclear plants; we used the Annual Technology Baseline report, from the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, for the costs of building new wind and solar projects, which represent the lab’s expert view on the future costs of renewable technologies. Limits on variable renewable generation were incorporated to approximate the amount of solar and wind the Western grid could accommodate without significant additional integration costs not explicitly reflected in this platform.

Results: What does a 50 percent standard mean for Nevadans?

Capacity

In the RPS Case, Nevada sees major solar growth—adding 3.85 gigawatts (GW) of solar capacity by 2030, enough to power 800,000 Nevada homes, more than tripling the amount of solar power generation in the state, compared to 2017. In addition to solar, in the RPS Case, the model makes the economic decision to build 470 megawatts of new battery storage in the mid-2030s to help balance the system (2035 is not shown on the table): the model finds it more cost effective to build energy storage than new, gas-fired combustion turbines. Coal in both the Reference and RPS cases is driven down to just 200 megawatts (MW) of capacity in 2030. Compared to the Gas Expansion Case, the strengthened RPS also avoids the addition of 500 megawatts of new gas combined cycle capacity.

Nevada power plant capacity by source in each scenario.

The build-out of renewable energy capacity results in Nevada importing much less electricity from other states, as in-state generation grows and covers a larger portion of load. In the RPS Case, the state imports 2,770 gigawatt-hours (GWh) of electricity in 2020, but switches to becoming a net exporter of electricity in 2025, and in 2030 exports 5,307 GWh of electricity, providing clean renewable power across the southwest and reducing the state’s dependence on dirtier, out-of-state imports.

Health

By 2030, Nevada would see cleaner, healthier air—with nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions from the state’s power sector falling by 55 and 74 percent, respectively, compared to 2017 levels. Less NOX and SO2 mean less soot and smog, fewer asthma attacks and ER visits, and even fewer premature deaths. In 2030, these reductions in harmful pollution result in between $12.7 and $28.8 million of health benefits for Nevadans. Using a different comparison, avoiding the construction of new gas plants reduces emissions of nitrogen oxides. Compared to the Gas Expansion case, NOx emissions are 13 percent lower in 2030 in the RPS case.

Nevada sees significant health benefits from a strengthened RPS.

Carbon pollution emissions

A stronger clean energy standard for the state would also reduce the state’s carbon footprint. Carbon dioxide is the main source of climate-warming pollution—accounting for about 84 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions emitted annually by the U.S. Carbon dioxide emissions from Nevada power plants would be 13,510 thousand short tons in the RPS Case, 13 percent less than emissions in the Gas Expansion Case (15,466 thousand short tons), and lower than emissions in the BAU Case (13,920 thousand short tons).

Investment and jobs

The 3.9 gigawatts of new utility-scale solar would lead to around $6.2 billion of investment in Nevada, based on capital cost estimates from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s 2017 Annual Technology Baseline. This investment would create jobs. Nevada already supports a solar industry of 6,600 workers, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Extrapolating from this base, and the amount of solar already installed in Nevada, we estimate that an extra 3.9 gigawatts of new utility-scale solar would create around 9,800 jobs.

ICF is conducting additional, more robust, modeling on jobs and investment, which we will release shortly.

Conclusion

Nevadans should be confident of the benefits of moving to 50 percent renewables.

This blog was co-written with Amanda Levin, Climate and Clean Energy Advocate with NRDC's Climate & Clean Energy Program.

About the Authors

Dylan Sullivan

Senior Scientist, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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