Environment

[Alternative energy]

Eclipsed by the competition?

A solar convention in Las Vegas gets a disastrously low turnout

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ACCIONA’s Nevada Solar One array near Boulder City may be the only such project you’ll see in Nevada for quite some time.

The Solar Convention proved one thing: The future of solar is not sunny. Sorry for the bad pun, but what is there to say when you are looking at a Las Vegas convention hall with fewer than a dozen people browsing the tables of about as many exhibitors? The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority website predicted 5,000 attendees would come to the Convention Center for three days to discuss the bright (sorry, can’t be helped) future of solar. And a few months ago that made sense. A few months ago Nevada was almost already counting on all those new energy jobs showing up for our ample sunlight. Then the cost of energy dropped. Gas went from more than $4 a gallon to less than $2. Solar suddenly turned expensive. And even though the sun is free, apparently solar technology has yet to find a way to be as cheap as gas at less than $2 a gallon. A big electric car sits ready to offer a demonstration to anyone interested. During the 90 minutes I’m at the convention, the car performs zero demonstrations. No one cares.

In fact, to hear some of those at the convention tell it, the cheaper cost of energy has apparently decimated the American solar industry in just the past few months. It turns out that clean energy and global warming were not at all motivating to companies and individuals compared to financial pragmatism. And being energy-efficient has turned out to be a luxury item in a down economy. “Most of the time, money-saving is the motive, not altruism,” says Winslow Chou, an energy consultant for Nevada-based The Free Energy Store, whose clients are mostly local homes and local companies. “People want to know there is going to be a return on investment.”

Looking around the convention, Chou tells me he thinks most of the people who had planned to exhibit here in Vegas either pulled out or have gone bankrupt. “This is a new solar-industry downturn. The financing has totally dried up, and no one saw it coming. Even for home conversions, no one wants to do it when home equity has disappeared. A few months ago there was a show in San Diego with 200 exhibitors and thousands of people the first day. There were a lot more exhibitors scheduled for this. This is not a show; this is a small gathering of like minds.” As for attracting more solar and other new-energy jobs to Vegas, Chou notes that it would be nice if there were a manufacturing plant for solar panels in the area.

That point is also made by another exhibitor whose company is based in Israel (a few of the exhibitors are from Israel, another place with sun). He does not want his name used after I ask him what it would take for him to move his company to Nevada. He points out that after collecting all the sun in Nevada and transforming it into power, a substantial infrastructure investment is still required to move the power somewhere useful. Apparently, even if there is enough sun in the nearby desert to power all of Vegas, you still have to spend billions to move the energy even a few miles to town. Israel, he notes, has the USA licked on renewables.

Even Uri Aldubi, who introduces himself as CEO of SolarPath USA, says, “We have our development center in Tel Aviv.” There would be no huge infrastructure required for his company to come here. His company makes solar-powered street signs and traffic lights. In fact, he already employs 10 people in the United States at manufacturing plants. It is sort of the opposite of how we like to imagine jobs going overseas. In short, the thinking is done in Israel, and the labor is then outsourced here to the USA.

But none of Aldubi’s jobs are in Nevada. We are talking in front of his bright red “Stop” sign when I ask him what it would take for him to move his company to Nevada. The best he can offer: “We could do shipping maybe from Nevada. Shipping is very affordable in Nevada when you do international trade. Internationally, things are good now for solar.”

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Richard Abowitz

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