Darren Daboda knows every affliction on Segmiller Road, an asphalt line cut like a gash into the base of the Paiute reservation, 50 miles north of Las Vegas.
“The majority of people in this house have asthma,” he said. “Allergies in this house. This is a vacant home. This one has allergies. Respiratory problems in here. This house has allergies and inhalers. All her kids have asthmatic problems. Her son had allergies. There are allergies in this house.”
There’s no uniformity to the layout of these houses. They stick out of the dirt like crooked teeth, all stucco and wood, with a couple of bedrooms and small concrete porches. Cars and trucks rest in the driveways and toys litter the yards.
He slows his truck at the end of the street, where a modest home and an aging trailer occupy the foreground. Behind them, the four stacks of the Reid Gardner Generating Station, operated by NV Energy, send wisps of white smoke into the sky, which flicker and disappear into the blue. Daboda, the tribal environmental director, points to the house closest to the plant, which is similar to the others except in the degree of its suffering.
Two brothers lived here until recently. One passed away last year, and the other is in the hospital with end-stage cancer. Soon, their house will be vacant, too, a pause in an incantation of cardiovascular maladies that’s recited like a tribal song.
Every time someone dies, Salt Song singers from the Southern Paiute Nation converge on this tiny community on the banks of the Muddy River. Singers from the Kaibab reservation in Arizona, the Chemeheuvi in California and the Cedar band in Utah travel to Southern Nevada to accompany the spirit of the deceased as it joins its ancestors. Recently, they’ve been making a lot of trips to the reservation at Moapa. And sometimes the all-night singers complain of sore throats and short breath after a marathon session at the tiny cemetery, Daboda said.
The members will never know for certain whether these deaths and illnesses are directly related to Reid Gardner. No comprehensive health study has ever been done. The Paiute population is small, maybe too small to ever serve as a scientifically viable sample. But the absence of proof doesn’t change what many members believe: that Reid Gardner is killing them.
The Moapa Band of Paiute Indians has long blamed the hulking power plant for the host of illnesses that have decimated its people. Vickie Simmons had a brother who worked at the plant and died of an enlarged heart. He was 31 years old. Then her neighbor died when he was 33. The environmental committee she serves on recently lost a member. So did the health committee.
“I am an avid walker,” Simmons said. “And I walked all over the place. But now I don’t do that anymore. I feel like our land is poisoned and I am endangered.”
The Moapa Band of Paiutes want to shut down Reid Gardner. Until recently, the 557-megawatt plant was one of the dirtiest in the country. Two studies, one by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in 2002 and another by the Environmental Integrity Project in 2006, named Reid Gardner as one of the biggest producers of carbon dioxide emissions in the county. NV Energy spent millions installing scrubbers and bag houses, which are like vacuum bags designed to capture particulates and other pollutants, in the 47-year-old facility to clean the emissions. It has gotten better, tribe members say, but it’s still not great. High winds blow coal ash into the community. The powdery leftovers of cooked coal contain toxic substances such as cadmium, lead and selenium. Then there’s the legacy of all those years of pollution, the sense that the fertile land that supports small farms has somehow absorbed more than 40 years of industrial pollution.
And here’s the real kicker: The tribe doesn’t even get any electricity from the plant. The reservation buys power from the Overton Power District, and an expensive diesel generator powers its Travel Plaza on I-15.
“The tribe receives none of the benefits, but they receive much of the pollution,” said Dan Galpern, an attorney who represents the Moapa Paiutes.
So it makes sense that they want the plant closed. But now they’ve got some allies. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called on NV Energy to close the plant, which is named after a former NV Energy employee, not the senator.
“That’s why it’s time to close the dirty relic Reid Gardner,” Reid said during the Clean Energy Summit. “For NV Energy, the first steps should be turning out the lights at Reid Gardner, and turning them out forever.”
Reid joins the Moapa Paiutes and environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and Nevada Conservation League. And they’re right: Reid Gardner is not just a potentially toxic neighbor to a small tribe of Southern Paiutes. It is a smoke-belching symbol of our pact with dirty energy, and an obstacle to renewable energy progress.
The Paiutes have already imagined a future without Reid Gardner. Developers have proposed two solar energy projects on the reservation. The K Road plant could supply as many as 350 megawatts, enough to replace the electricity generated by Reid Gardner units one, two and three, and power the Paiute Travel Plaza. The 200-megawatt RES America solar plant has been expedited by the federal government. Both projects still have hurdles to clear. They need buyers for the electricity, for one. But they are close to the grid and to the utility corridors that serve Reid Gardner, which could turn out to be an unlikely windfall.
“We’re setting the example to provide clean energy,” said Tribal Chairman William Anderson. “Instead of just complaining, we are showing that there are other ways.”
Only about 180 members live on the reservation in Moapa. But Reid Gardner provides power for hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses in Southern Nevada. Why should those people worry about a plant 50 miles away? Well, because, in addition to its toxic emissions, operating Reid Gardner is starting to become more expensive than it’s worth.
The Public Utilities Commission of Nevada is investigating six retirement scenarios for the Moapa plant. In some of them, NV Energy would retire all or most of the four units in the next year or so. In others, the company would continue to operate Reid Gardner until 2023. The power company claims that operating Reid Gardner for another decade would be the least costly option, and that shutting down the units in the next couple of years could cost ratepayers $51 million, the cost of purchasing extra energy from natural gas and other sources. The Sierra Club says shutting it down now would save $59 million. Both sides are surely cooking the books a little bit to make their points. A spokesperson from the Sierra Club said NV Energy used unreasonably high natural gas costs to formulate its figures. NV Energy said in a response to the Sierra Club that the group’s energy efficiency figures came from programs in other states with older housing stock, where efficiency savings are much higher.
There’s also an element of prognostication in those figures. Both NV Energy and the Sierra Club have to estimate the costs of fuel, future demand and the potential economic impact of new environmental regulations and carbon taxes.
Either way, $50 million over the next 10 years is not a lot of money, especially measured against the annual costs to operate Reid Gardner. Earlier this year, the company spent $25 million to upgrade the plant. It spends at least $400 million every year on coal for the entire state, according to Lydia Ball of the Clean Energy Project, a Las Vegas nonprofit that promotes clean energy in Nevada. Then there are the salaries for more than 100 employees. NV Energy can and should close the plant soon.
“We’re not asking them to do an impossible task,” said Scot Rutledge, executive director of the Nevada Conservation League. “They could shut it off tomorrow and nobody would know the difference.”
Trends are pushing more utilities away from coal power. The cost of natural gas is lower than it’s been in years, and is projected to stay that way for some time. While natural gas isn’t perfect, it has half the carbon emissions of coal and no sulfur dioxide or mercury. The most important thing about it right now, at least as far as companies are concerned, is that it’s cheap.
Dallas Burtraw, an economist and senior fellow at Resources for the Future, a D.C. think tank devoted to the study of resource economics, said advances in efficiency have lowered the demand for energy during the same time that natural gas prices were dropping.
“The change in relative fuel prices and the decrease in demand have had a profound change in profitability,” Burtraw said. “Older, inefficient coal plants are just getting substituted by natural gas.”
The trend is clear. In 2011, utilities retired a little more than 2 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity, enough to power every home in Nevada — with a little left over. This year, they are expected to retire four times that much, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In its own filings for the Nevada Public Utilities Commission, NV Energy admitted that is using so little coal power that supplies of coal are piling up at the power plants. To deal with the excess, the company may have to conduct planned coal burns — not to generate electricity, but to get rid of fuel. At Reid Gardner, that would mean subjecting the Paiutes to extra pollution just to get the coal off of the company’s hands.
The trend away from coal has already affected Reid Gardner. California’s Department of Water Resources will no longer own two-thirds of the power from the plant’s Unit 4, the biggest of its stacks, starting in 2013. Ditching Reid Gardner is part of an effort to bolster reliance on renewable sources.
NV Energy declined to comment for this story, but in general it defends Reid Gardner as a reliable source of low-cost energy. Natural gas is cheap right now, but its prices have fluctuated by a factor of four during the last 15 years, Burtraw said. Coal doesn’t have that problem. But most experts think the price of natural gas will stay low for the foreseeable future, which will create less and less demand for coal-fired power.
Now, most environmentalists aren’t crazy about natural gas, either, since it still creates carbon emissions and requires fracking, a controversial extraction method. The Sierra Club says NV Energy could replace Reid Gardner with energy efficiency, through programs that weatherize houses and encourage people to purchase more efficient appliances. These programs are much less expensive to implement than building new power plants or solar facilities. In NV Energy’s response to the Sierra Club, it insisted that the company couldn’t roll out an efficiency program fast enough to replace Reid Gardner in the next two years.
Reasonable people may disagree on the best way to replace Reid Gardner, but not on the urgent need to replace it soon. Sen. Reid is right. Reid Gardner is a “dirty relic” that has soaked up billions of dollars in fuel and upgrades over the years. The plant consumes 2.7 million of gallons of water from the Muddy River every year, water that could be diverted to other uses. Ratepayers can expect to pay more than a billion dollars in the next 10 years just to keep it running, said Ball, of the Clean Energy Project.
“We are sinking all that money into a plant that is a depreciating asset,” she said. What if that money was spent to develop renewable resources right here in Nevada?
“I would rather bet that the sun will still be shining 10 years from now than that natural gas will still be cheap,” she said.
Solar energy is the great hope for Southern Nevada, which doesn’t produce coal or natural gas, but does absorb loads of sunshine. Vernon Lee, a member of the Moapa Paiute tribe, said he could envision 2,000 megawatts of solar energy on the reservation. Still, the costs still don’t quite pencil out right now, at least according to UNLV environmental economist Helen Neill.
“We have to ask ‘When does it make sense to switch?’” she said. “I don’t know that it’s quite there yet.”
The problem with solar is that it hasn’t been built. Utility-scale solar fields are expensive to construct. The price of photovoltaic panels is coming down, but still can’t compete with coal plants that were built and paid for decades ago. It might require a push by federal and state governments, in the form of carbon taxes and renewable standards, to get utilities to abandon coal plants, Neill said. Right now, it’s just easier to keep doing business as usual.
Business as usual won’t cut it if we want to transform our economy and lead the region in renewable energy. Closing Reid Gardner would show Southern Nevada’s, and NV Energy’s, commitment to clean power.
“The Paiutes want to shut down this coal-powered plant and put in a 300-megawatt solar project,” Rutledge said. “I think that’s a great story about the transition from dirty old technology to renewable energy. That would send quite a message that Nevada could be proud of. And for the Moapa Band of Paiutes, it’s a matter of life and death.”
“We’re looking toward the future, not just five or 10 years down the road,” said William Anderson, the tribal chairman.
In the meantime, the youngest generation of Moapa Paiutes suffers from asthma and allergies. Surita Hernandez lives on Segmiller Road with her husband and five children. Four of them suffer from asthma. Her second child suffered from a series of colds when she was younger, and at 7 years old had to be airlifted out of the reservation during a particularly bad asthma attack. Asthma didn’t run in the family until she had her kids.
“I would like to stay in our heritage and our traditions,” Hernandez said. “But I’ve thought about moving away.”
Discussions of the costs of closing Reid Gardner don’t factor in the human toll.
“I think it’s really hard not to avoid the public health costs,” Ball said.
If running Reid Gardner doesn’t make much sense for taxpayers, then it definitely doesn’t make sense in Moapa.
“NV Energy needs to ask, ‘What does a 21st century utility look like?’” Ball said.
Chances are, it won’t look anything like Reid Gardner power plant.