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Promise of Jobs from Solar, Wind Power a Hard Sell in the Desert Promise of Jobs from Solar, Wind Power a Hard Sell in the Desert

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Energy / ENERGY

Promise of Jobs from Solar, Wind Power a Hard Sell in the Desert

President Obama tours a solar power site with Col. Howard Belote and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas in 2009. Nellis has North America's largest solar photovoltaic power plant.(Photo by John Locher-Pool/Getty Images)

photo of Coral Davenport
August 29, 2011

SEARCHLIGHT, Nev.-- It’s easy to find Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s house in his tiny desert mining hometown. “You looking for Dirty Harry? Just look for the house with the wind turbine in the yard and the big solar panels on the roof,” said a patron at the Searchlight Nugget Casino bar. 

Reid’s passionate personal commitment to the promise of renewable energy-–often subdued when he is in Washington–-is visibly evident throughout his home state. In the scorched desert 20 miles outside of Searchlight is a vast million-panel solar electricity array, similar to more than 60 other major solar, geothermal, and wind projects that Reid has worked tirelessly to bring to the state.

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Nevada is now by some measures the top producer of solar power in the country and home to some of the largest solar arrays in the world. But it also has the nation’s highest unemployment rate. And many voters in the politically important state say the need for real jobs today outweighs the promise of future benefits from clean energy.

Tuesday in Las Vegas, Reid is hosting his fourth annual Clean Energy Summit, a confab of leaders in clean-energy policy and technology, which sets the table for a renewable energy push in Congress each fall. 

That’s all due to Reid’s absolute belief in President Obama’s vision of a clean-energy economy--the ambitious and controversial idea that transforming the nation’s energy system from fossil fuels to renewable sources can also generate millions of jobs that could bring the nation back from a spiraling recession. 

In his politically divided home state, Reid has worked to sell a Nevadan clean-energy economic sector to farmers, ranchers, miners, and the millions of Nevadans who’ve lost their homes and jobs, making Nevada’s 12.9 percent unemployment rate the highest in the country. The hope is that clean-energy jobs can help diversify a state economy that for decades ran on gambling, mining and prostitution--and replace thousands of construction jobs lost in Las Vegas as tourism plummeted and new casino construction slowed.

And the question of whether Nevada’s voters see clean-energy jobs as a vehicle for economic resurrection will be crucial in 2012. Obama may have to win Nevada—where he beat John McCain in 2008—to retain the presidency in 2012. And it will be a key battleground in Democrats’ fierce fight to retain control of the Senate.

Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., who kicked off her Senate campaign in the spring, is embracing Obama's and Reid’s mission. In a campaign promise to focus on “jobs, jobs, jobs,” she said she intends to “help Nevada become the clean-energy capital of the world.” But Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., is lining up with colleagues targeting government spending on clean energy in this fall’s fight to slash $1.2 trillion from the federal deficit. 

So what do Nevadans think? Interviews with about two dozen voters in Searchlight, Las Vegas, and the key swing city of Henderson yielded remarkably similar responses: The clean-energy boom may have brought a sliver of new jobs, but nowhere near what’s needed to restore Nevada’s staggering economy. 

“Name one person in this town who has a job in the solar industry,” said Tim Williams, a bartender at the Searchlight Nugget, where Reid is a regular when he’s in town. A dozen patrons shook their heads. “I don’t think clean energy is a bad thing, but it’s not bringing us any jobs,” said Williams, describing himself as a Democrat who sees “Obama as too far to the left but the tea party as too far to the right.”

Kirstin Peart, a tileworker who lost her job in Las Vegas about 18 months ago and came out to Searchlight to find work in the mines, said she doesn’t know anybody who has found employment in the renewable energy industry. “The solar places don’t hire anybody from Nevada,” she said. “It’s all people from California, Arizona--there’s very few from Nevada. But there’s so many people in Nevada [who] need the jobs. The unemployment rate is horrible right now. People are hurting bad.”

Peart, a registered Democrat, says she will support Berkley for Senate, because Berkeley is committed to improving education, which Peart hopes can help her autistic 7-year-old son. “Also, I know her--she bought Christmas presents for my son.”

Tom Allen, an unemployed construction worker in Searchlight, conceded that building solar panels may create a few construction jobs, but said: “It’s a temporary solution; it’s a couple of hundred jobs for however long it takes to complete the job, and then they may hire a 10 or 15 people for the permanent jobs.”

While Nevada Democrats want to make renewable energy a new cornerstone of the state economy, Allen said, “Nevada should be what it was from the days we were in elementary school: gaming, mining, cattle, and prostitution.”

Allen has also made up his mind about his 2012 votes. “For Senate, Dean Heller.” For president? “I like Rick Perry.” 

Fifty miles away at the El Torito Café in Henderson, pastor Toni Boveda, having lunch with her family after church, echoed those views. “As far as employment, we know two people that got jobs because of the solar panels, so that’s a good thing. But as far as everything that’s happening with the economy, the foreclosures?  Has [renewable energy] made a big difference? No.” Boveda said she also likes Rick Perry for 2012. “It’s got to be anyone but Obama.”

Complaints that the renewable energy industry creates relatively few jobs is probably accurate, say energy and economic experts. While renewable energy generation is growing fast in Nevada, it’s still just a fraction of the overall economy. The Nevada Commission on Economic Development has been aggressively pushing renewable energy projects, but as a percentage of the state’s total jobs, “it’s not much, to be honest,” said Lindsay Anderson, director of business research and development with the commission. “It’s in its infancy-–as a percentage of our employment, it’s probably not even measurable, it’s probably not even a blip in our radar. But it’s something we’re willing to invest in for the future.”

A July report by the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, “Sizing the Clean Economy,” said jobs connected to clean energy make up just 1.2 percent of the economy in Las Vegas, and just 2 percent nationwide.

Energy experts say while the administration should press policies to scale up innovative new sources of energy to wean the nation off oil, they may not become the massive job generators Obama claims—and certainly not in the next couple of years.

“This claim was false from the beginning. The claim that you were going to get lots of cost-effective, viable jobs with the green energy revolution was always highly suspicious,” said David Victor, an expert on energy policy and co-director of the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation at the University of California, San Diego. “For now, the industry’s dependent on subsidies, and if the subsidies go, the jobs go.”

Reid disputed that idea at an appearance on Monday at the Las Vegas casino Aria, where he headlined an event promoting electric vehicles. Reid plans to push a bill this fall that would fund research and development for electric-vehicle infrastructure.

“We’ve talked for years about diversifying our economy,” Reid said. “There are now hundreds, moving into thousands of new clean energy jobs in Nevada.  Anyone out of a job, we understand that that is important.... I know that people are disappointed about not having more jobs, but I believe fervently in years to come that renewable energy will be a major jobs program in Nevada.”

That may not be soon enough for Michael Stringfellow, an ironworker laid off three years ago who now patches together a living from unemployment benefits and odd jobs. “It don’t help me much,” he said Saturday night at a gathering at the Blue Diamond Saloon, south of Las Vegas, to celebrate a friend’s birthday. “The way they build these things is, they put a couple nails into the ground to hold it up. They don’t need much construction for that.” It was his first time in a bar in seven months, Stringfellow said, and he had to stretch to afford it. He carefully peeled off two wrinkled dollar bills to pay for a bottle of Budweiser.

Like so many others, Stringfellow said he is hoping for the casino industry--which had been the driver for so many construction jobs and so much money flowing through the economy--to turn back around.

Ruefully, Nevadans did point out one new group of high-rolling gamblers starting to pump money back in through the casinos: the Chinese. Said Tim Williams, the bartender at the Searchlight Nugget: “We’ve just got to hope the Chinese keep coming here to gamble.” 

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