As Air Force One approaches Las Vegas on Monday, President Barack Obama can peer down and survey some of the millions of solar panels dotting the Nevada desert.
When he arrives at the National Clean Energy Summit in the city, he’ll address a crowd including executives from electric-car maker Tesla Motors Inc., Republican lawmakers who support renewable energy development and leaders from the world’s largest supplier of rooftop solar panels.
Bipartisanship has been the exception as Obama has sought to advance climate initiatives across the country. Republicans - - and some Democrats -- in Washington and state capitals have bristled at the cost of subsidizing clean energy and have accused the Obama administration of waging a war on the coal industry.
Nevada stands as something of a green oasis for Obama’s clean-energy vision, with a rapidly growing solar industry, bipartisan political support for reduced carbon emissions and wide swaths of federally owned lands repurposed for massive renewable energy projects. Tesla is building a huge battery plant called the “gigafactory” near Reno, with help from tax incentives approved by Governor Brian Sandoval, one of the few Republicans to embrace Obama’s clean energy goals.
“Nevada has been a utopia for clean energy,” said Will Craven, director of public affairs for SolarCity Corp., a rooftop solar-system provider that received state tax incentives to expand in Nevada last year. “The sunshine here could be compared to Saudi Arabia’s or Venezuela’s oil reserves.”
Obama’s plan to cut U.S. carbon emissions and fight climate change depends largely on replacing foreign oil and domestic coal with renewable energy sources and natural gas. This month, he proposed to cut carbon emissions from power plants 32 percent by 2030. His administration proposed this week to cut emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from oil and gas production by more than 40 percent by 2025.
In a series of recent speeches and video statements, Obama has cast his climate agenda as critical to the future of the planet.
“We’re the first generation to feel the impact of climate change,” Obama said after announcing his Clean Power Plan on Aug. 3. “We’re the last generation that can do something about it.”
The Clean Energy Summit is sponsored by Senator Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat; the Center for American Progress, a Democratic Party-aligned nonprofit in Washington, D.C.; the Clean Energy Project, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Las Vegas; MGM Resorts International and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Most Republicans in Washington panned Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which prods states to move from carbon-emitting coal plants to renewables like wind and solar. Several Republican governors have sued the Environmental Protection Agency, saying the federal mandates represent an abuse of executive power.
“The administration is now trying to impose these deeply regressive regulations, regulations that may be illegal,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said Aug. 3 on the Senate floor. “I’m going to keep doing everything I can to fight them.”
Critics of Obama’s push for renewables highlight his administration’s failures, such as Solyndra LLC, a solar-panel manufacturer that filed for bankruptcy protection in 2011 after receiving more than $500 million from taxpayers.
Nevada stands out as a Republican-led state at the forefront of the shift from coal. The state legislature in 2013 voted to shut down a coal plant and replace its production with renewable energy sources.
Obama’s Interior Department has approved more than 50 solar, wind and geothermal projects on public land since 2009, with Nevada leading all other states, according to the Bureau of Land Management.
“It’s sun-drenched,” said David Hayes, a former deputy secretary of the department who left in 2013 and now teaches at Stanford Law School. “Something like 90 percent of the state of Nevada is public lands. It’s got all the ingredients.”
Solar jobs in Nevada grew 146 percent in 2014, providing the state the most such work per capita and the fastest growth in the country, according to The Solar Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. Nevada trails only California in producing geothermal energy, and has the largest untapped geothermal resources, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The Bureau of Land Management approved three solar projects in June as part of a new “energy zone” near Las Vegas. NV Energy, owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., plans to build a 660-acre solar plant on the site.
On the other side of the state, Tesla is constructing its $5 billion gigafactory, which will make more lithium-ion batteries than any plant in the world. Nevada lawmakers unanimously approved $1.3 billion in tax incentives to lure the carmaker into the state.
Federal funding for renewable energy meanwhile is under attack in Washington. Republican leaders in Congress have sought to cut funding for the EPA and subsidies for renewable energy projects. They promise to block implementation of Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
Obama has threatened vetoes, and a prolonged budget standoff could force a shutdown of the U.S. government.
After returning from Las Vegas, the president will travel to New Orleans on Aug. 27 to mark the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Obama has regularly cast extreme weather events as a consequence of climate change.
On Aug. 31, Obama will travel to Alaska, becoming the first president to tour the U.S. Arctic. He has blamed global warming for melting permafrost and retreating glaciers in the state.