Nevada lawmaker reflects on need to diversify renewable energy sources

Senator Spearman calls for energy independence, need for diverse energy portfolio with run for North Las Vegas mayor

During Nevada’s recently concluded biennial legislative session, Senator Pat Spearman sponsored Senate Concurrent Resolution 10, a measure that would have mandated a study to explore new energy resources in Nevada. The legislation died quietly in the Assembly Ways and Means Committee. It sought to explore potential energy and economic resources like hydrogen, lithium and vanadium and the roles they could play in diversifying renewable energy resources, spurring economic development, and helping ensure energy independence.

While renewable energy resources like solar and wind will play a crucial role in an energy independent future, Spearman stresses the need to look at energy comprehensively.

“I’m a strong advocate of solar as a resource because we have that readily available to us, so let’s use it,” Spearman said by phone. “But at the same time, we have to look at renewable energy policies comprehensively. There’s not one resource that we can jump on and say, ‘This is the horse that will lead us to energy independence.’

The 2021 Legislature approved a bill intended to help meet the RPS goal, but it focuses exclusively on the development of solar energy resources, enhancing the the state’s energy-grid infrastructure, and the electrification of transportation.

For Spearman, who represents Senate District 1 in North Las Vegas, the idea of energy independence is critical, particularly as our dependence on foreign energy resources, like oil, at times is directly related to national security issues for the United States.

“There are some statisticians who have said that six out of every 10 [military] deaths that have happened in Iraq, came as a result of convoys guarding oil. This is tough for me because these are not just numbers, they are flesh and blood families that will never have that person home to celebrate another birthday, anniversary or graduation. So right now, our dependence upon a foreign energy resource is very dangerous.”

An additional national security risk exists in our reliance on China for the lithium batteries that power our devices and electric vehicles. According to Spearman, by relying on a single source for something like lithium battery cores, we’ve potentially positioned ourselves to experience a similar crisis that the oil embargo wrought on the country in the 1970s.

“As a country, we are at a crossroads much like we were back in the ‘70s when everything was dependent upon fossil fuels and OPEC was not pleased, so there was an oil embargo. They just stopped making as much and we didn’t have access to it, so gasoline went from 33 cents a gallon up to like 80 cents a gallon, and people were livid. It almost brought our economy to its knees because that’s what we were depending on, and lithium today is much the same way,” Spearman said.

Consequently, lithium was included as an energy resource to be explored in SCR 10’s proposed study. While the state of Nevada is considered to have the largest lithium deposits in North America, lithium mines proposed at Thacker Pass in Humboldt County and Rhyolite Ridge in Esmeralda County, 40 miles southwest of Tonopah have been swarmed in controversy due to the damage they’re projected to have on the environment.

Tiehm’s buckwheat exists almost exclusively on a proposed lithium mine at Rhyolite Ridge in Esmerelda County. The plant has been listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act, which imperils the mine’s approval – photo: Patrick Donnelly/Center for Biological Diversity

It’s because of this controversy, however, that Spearman believes the study proposed in SCR 10 would be so critical. 

“In Nevada, we probably have the largest lithium deposits in North America and right now I don’t know how to get that out of the ground in a way that doesn’t hurt the environment,” Spearman said. “But studying ways to do that could really reveal those answers, but if we don’t study it, we’ll never know. 

“That’s important because if we were to do something that would get China so displeased with the United States that they decided to either cut or eliminate their [lithium battery] supply to us, then what are we going to do? So we need to figure out how to mine it, process it, develop it and do whatever we need to do so that we can be energy independent.” 

An additional key resource named in the projected study was hydrogen, which has recently been gaining momentum and publicity as an alternative fuel source for vehicles. 

“Hydrogen is not the ‘Next Thing,’ it’s already here with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles [HFCVs],” Spearman said. “One of the things that states wrestle with is: how do you recover the lost revenue from EVs [electric vehicles] because if people aren’t buying gas, then they’re not paying a gas tax and the revenue that is used for roads and highway construction and repair grows smaller. Well, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles answer that because basically, you recharge it the same way you would put gas in your car and you can put whatever tax on it at the pump, just like you would on gasoline.”

The Air Liquide hydrogen fuel plant under construction in North Las Vegas, Nevada – photo: Western States Hydrogen Alliance

The prominence of the burgeoning hydrogen economy, for Spearman, is exemplified by the fact that it wasn’t until after she presented SCR 10 to the Senate that she learned the industrial gases company Air Liquide had already started building a hydrogen plant in her district in North Las Vegas, intending to fuel HFCVs already on the roads in California. 

“Their initial investment is something like $200 million in the plant that’s going to bring not just the direct jobs with the production, but it’s all those other jobs that are in the ecosystem that they’re going to bring to liquefy the hydrogen before it’s going to be trucked to California,” said Spearman. “We don’t have a lot of hydrogen fueling stations here in Nevada, so there are a number of jobs that are going to be created. I think the same thing applies with lithium and vanadium, that we have to look at these resources because we’re never going to get to 50 percent by 2030 if we’re not including looking at resources other than electrification.”

With an eye toward meeting the mandated goal of 50 percent renewable energy sources by 2030, Spearman stresses that there are few legislative cycles left in order to reach the Renewable Portfolio Standard goal set by the state legislature in 2019.

“Since we are a body that only meets every other year, it’ll be 18 months before we go back and by that time Air Liquide will be up and running and we don’t know how many other hydrogen fuel cell companies will be here,” Spearman explained. “Back in 2019, we passed legislation that said by 2030, we will be at 50 percent. That means that in 2021, we should have been working on ways to make that come true and to the extent that we did is great, but to the extent that we didn’t, we will come back in 2023 and have to make up for lost time. So to be at 50 percent, we have 2023, 2025, 2027 and by the time the legislature reconvenes in 2029 we better have a clue because that’s the last chance we get to make sure that we’re ready to move forward with 50 percent by 2030. So we’ve got to realize the urgency of a comprehensive energy plan, because we’re not going to get there if we don’t.”

A hydrogen refueling station in Berkeley, California – photo: California Fuel Cell Partnership

While Spearman considers the death of SCR 10 as a missed opportunity for the state, she has already been preparing for alternative means of conducting the study.

“[SCR 10] was a missed opportunity for us to make a formal statement as a state legislature about our commitment to the future. But I’ve already started talking about a Plan B because by the time the legislature reconvenes in 2029, we better have a couple of clues as to how we’re going to get to 50 percent and that has to be more than just electrification.” 

Spearman attributes SCR 10’s failure due to legislators’ inability to recognize the diverse energy portfolio needed to reach the state’s ambitious climate goals. So while the details of her Plan B option to study what roles hydrogen, lithium and vanadium can play in Nevada’s energy future are worked out, Spearman hopes legislators will be better prepared to embrace the potential of these resources during the next legislative cycle. 

“[SCR 10 failed because] when you start talking about new things that people don’t understand, it causes some trepidation. But in the meantime, this gives us another opportunity to continue to educate our legislators about why these types of bills are important. So when they have experts testifying in support of it, they listen to expand their knowledge of what that is and then make the very best decision that they can based upon the information they would have been given,” Spearman said.

A significant hurdle to understanding the need for a comprehensive energy plan, however, is the often quickly-drawn conclusion that our renewable energy future can rely on one single solution or resource.

“The question of energy independence has been around for the last 25-30 years and as technology innovations rise to the top, sometimes people have a tendency to think, ‘Oh, this is it,’ but there’s no silver bullet,” Spearman said. “Unfortunately, when it comes to legislation, it doesn’t matter whether it’s at the municipal, county, state or federal level, most legislation that is passed, is not passed by people who are intimately familiar with all of it. But it’s passed by people who understand it as best we can and then we make the best decision we can, based upon the information that we have.” 

So in order to address the urgency of developing a diverse energy portfolio to attain energy independence, understanding all our available options for energy resources needs to reach leaders at all legislative levels. 

“The other thing that we haven’t done well is involve county commissioners, mayors and city councils,” said Spearman. “For example, if we’re talking about hydrogen recharging stations inside a municipality, it’s not the state that decides that, it’s the mayor or the city council because they’re the ones that decide the zoning requirements.”

With this understanding, Spearman now intends to support her constituents at a more local and direct level and do her part to bring forward an energy independent future.

“I am running for mayor of North Las Vegas because a lot of these decisions will be made at the municipal level,” Spearman said. “The folks that really need us to get it right are at the local level and you have the most impact on people’s lives at this level. It’s not that I’m not satisfied with the state, but in looking at where we have to go and especially the economic development piece of it, I really believe I’m the best one for that job. I believe that I’m the best one to be next.”

Lead photo credit: The Air Liquide hydrogen fuel plant under construction in North Las Vegas, Nevada – photo: Tom Glynn

Scott King writes about the environment, science, and technology for the Ally. Support his work.


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