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In Fighting Coal Pollution, Nevada Tribe Will Sell Solar Power to L.A.

A cloud of coal ash blows over the Moapa River Indian reservation in Nevada | Photo courtesy Moapa Band of Paiutes

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) has agreed to buy all the power produced by a 250-megawatt solar facility on the Moapa River Paiute Reservation northeast of Las Vegas, Nevada. The Moapa Solar Energy Center, being built by K Road Power, will place photovoltaic arrays and a concentrating solar power tower on about 1,000 acres of tribal land about 35 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

The plant, the first utility-scale solar facility approved on tribal lands in the U.S., was given the green light in June by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar -- welcome news to many in the Moapa Band of Paiutes, who hoped the plant would help phase out a nearby coal-fired power station. So far, it hasn't.

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LADWP will also be buying up to 210 megawatts of solar electricity from Sempra Gas and Power's Copper Mountain Solar 3 facility planned for the Boulder City, Nevada area. That expansion of Sempra's Copper Mountain facility, slated for completion in 2015, will add 250 megawatts to the complex's total capacity, planned for just under 460 megawatts total. The first phase of the project, online since 2010, produces 58 megawatts of power via PV modules. Copper Mountain 2 is still under construction.

LADWP's power purchase agreement with the Moapa facility runs for 25 years. Both projects are expected to be delivering power by 2016, and the agreements grant the utility periodic options to buy both facilities. LADWP will pay an average of about 9.5 cents per kilowatt-hour for the power.

"The K Road and Copper Mountain 3 projects, along with a proposed LADWP-owned property that will support a solar project in the California High Desert, will represent over 7% of the total renewable energy goal of 33% by 2020," LADWP General Manager Ronald O. Nichols said in a press release. "These are among the largest solar projects of any public utility in the nation and a major step forward in our efforts to secure more renewable energy in a cost effective manner."

K Road's Moapa project enjoyed significant support from the tribe, who have seen it as an alternative to the nearby Reid Gardner Power Station, a 557-megawatt coal-fired power station owned by NV Energy that is adjacent to the reservation. "Everyone is extremely excited, hopeful and jazzed about the future of this project," said Yvette Chevalier, Moapa Band of Paiutes Tribal Administrator, after Salazar's thumbs-up. "It creates financial and educational opportunities for the Moapa Band of Paiutes and gives us the ability to use tribal lands for good, healthy economic development. This is an exemplary demonstration project for the community and for other tribes considering large scale solar projects."

Long opposed by the tribe, the Sierra Club, and Senator Harry Reid, the Reid-Gardner coal plant has been accused of harming air quality and visibility in National Parks downwind, including Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon. "Each year for the last 47 years, more than 2.8 million tons of climate-changing carbon dioxide -- not to mention thousands of pounds of toxins such as arsenic, mercury and lead -- go up in the plant's four giant smokestacks," said Reid of the Reid-Gardner plant earlier this year.

The coal plant has spurred more local concerns as well: Coal ash from the plant is allegedly dumped in landfills near the reservation, and tribe members complain that the ash blows off the landfills in thick clouds, poisoning the air, land, and wildlife.

The Reid-Gardner plant has become such a political hot potato over the last few years that it's losing a co-owner. California's Department of Water Resources, which has used 235 megawatts of energy from Reid-Gardner since 1983, will be giving up its share of the plant when its contract runs out in June 2013.

Despite the opposition, the coal plant was recently given a new lease on life by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which decided to allow the plant to keep operating if it installed emissions control equipment. Paiutes who felt that the Moapa solar plant would provide a reason to shut down the coal power station may well be a bit disappointed. It remains to be seen whether tribal income from K Road's lease will alleviate that disappointment somewhat.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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