The two gas-fired turbines being erected by NV Energy north of Las Vegas are scheduled to be operational by July 2024, amid hotter summers and longer wildfire seasons in a state that aims to have a zero-carbon power grid by 2050.
The Nevada Public Utilities Commission approved the plans last week. The turbines are needed to meet peak electricity demand during the summer months as increasingly drier conditions in the west continue to strain the region’s power grids and reduce hydroelectric output, including the giant power generators on the Colorado River — the Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon -Dam.
However, environmentalists have argued that the turbines represent a major step backwards in relation to Nevada’s climate goals.
“Both the state and the utility have set strong goals for the transition to renewable energy,” said Angelyn Tabalba, a spokeswoman for the Nevada Conservation League. “Rather than doubling down on fossil fuel use, they should focus on a clean energy future.”
Mike O’Boyle, senior director of electricity policy at Bay Area-based firm Energy Innovation, said the commission’s decision underscores rising tensions in the American Southwest.
“We’ve always looked at year-to-year variations when it comes to hydropower in the west. How much of that we have really depends on snowpack and what happened during the winter and spring,” O’Boyle said. “It’s not a new problem, but it has been exacerbated by the drought. Unfortunately, this is a new major contingency for utilities to reckon with.”
At least 21 other states as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have a goal of achieving 100% clean energy between 2040 and 2050, according to the Clean Energy States Alliance.
But as those deadlines near, scientists say the Southwest’s mega-drought is the worst in 1,200 years, severely taxing the Colorado River. Unless states start taking less from the river, large reservoirs threaten to sink so low they can no longer produce hydroelectric power or water farms that grow crops for the rest of the nation and cities like Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and others can supply phoenix.
Last March, for example, Lake Powell in Utah and Arizona fell below a critical threshold, raising new concerns about Glen Canyon Dam, an energy source that millions of people in the West rely on for electricity. If power production ceases at the dam, rural power cooperatives, cities and tribal utilities would be forced to look for more expensive options that could include fossil fuels.
Nevada has already shut down its largest coal-fired power plant, while North Valmy coal-fired power plant is scheduled to shut down its remaining units by 2025.
Another coal-fired power plant should be converted to natural gas production by the beginning of this year. Officials at the TS power plant, which operates the facility, did not respond to an email from The Associated Press asking for an update on the project.
About 60% of Nevada now runs on natural gas and 30% on renewable energy sources. Natural gas is primarily made up of methane, a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere about 25 times more than carbon dioxide, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
But NV Energy said the turbines will have minimal carbon emissions because they only operate during the summer months — or about 700 hours a year — and therefore won’t hinder the state’s zero-carbon goals.
“In addition to our commitment to reducing emissions, NV Energy is committed to providing our customers with reliable and affordable energy,” Katie Nannini, a spokeswoman for the energy company, said in a statement. “This decision ensures that NV Energy can reliably power Nevada residents, especially during the state’s hottest months of June through September.”
Feepayers will pay the project’s bill once the plant is operational, according to NV Energy’s plans submitted to the Public Utilities Commission.
The turbines will be built at NV Energy’s existing Silverhawk Generating Station gas facility in Moapa, approximately 30 miles (48 kilometers) north of Las Vegas. The Harry Allen Generating Station, also in Moapa, was the last gas-fired facility built by the utility in 2011.