Green Businesses, Political Powerbrokers Mingle at Reid Cleantech Summit

Eighth annual Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas takes place as Nevada regulators hammer out crucial solar energy measure

Harry Reid
Harry Reid / AP
August 25, 2015

LAS VEGAS—Green energy businesses gathered in Las Vegas on Monday for an annual conference hailing progress in the cleantech industry and encouraging further government incentives for the types of firms that paid thousands of dollars to sponsor the event.

For a minimum $4,000 payment, businesses and other groups got a spot in the exhibit hall of the eighth annual National Clean Energy Summit, cosponsored by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) and the Center for American Progress.

"This prestigious event brings together the investors, industry executives, entrepreneurs, policymakers and advocates who are shaping the future of clean energy," NCES’s website says.

The exhibitor fee gets businesses access to "senior industry executives, corporate sustainability teams, leaders from all levels of government, project developers, financiers, utilities, representatives from state and federal agencies and media from across the country," in the words of a summit brochure.

The confluence of business and policy is characteristic of the event, which this year featured speeches and discussions from President Barack Obama, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, former Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, and CAP president Neera Tanden.

Reid himself is one of the event’s major draws. His office has bragged about its work in securing subsidies for donors to the Clean Energy Project, a group that serves as "the fiscal agent and the coordinating entity" of the summit, according to board member Sig Rogich.

The conference highlighted green-energy-friendly policies such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s new restrictions on coal-fired power plants, which are poised to remake the U.S. energy economy. Companies on the right side of that policy equation face a tremendous financial opportunity.

"It’s a big business opportunity," in the words of Tom Steyer, whose group Advanced Energy Economy is a CEP donor. "It’s a chance to make a lot of money."

Steyer also serves on the board of NCES sponsor the Center for American Progress, which has been accused of acting as a de facto lobbying arm of First Solar, another CEP donor whose chief executive spoke at Monday’s summit.

The timing of the event was auspicious. Taking place in Las Vegas while Nevada energy regulators hammer out crucial details of the state’s renewable energy incentive packages, attendees could witness and participate in discussions that might directly inform policymaking that would affect the bottom lines of the conference’s participants and financial supporters.

Just days before the event kicked off, utility NV Energy, a CEP donor and NCES exhibitor, announced that it had hit a statutory cap on incentives for its solar power customers. Its proposed rates in the absence of those incentives would seriously damage Nevada solar industry, its advocates say.

Those issues received significant play at the summit during an afternoon debate moderated by Rose McKinney-James, a former CEP board member and current Nevada lobbyist.

In the latter capacity, McKinney-James represents Valley Electric and Bombard Electric, both of which are also CEP donors and were featured in NCES’s exhibit hall. Both also have a stake in the outcome of the net metering debate.

When NV Energy reached its previous net metering cap in May, McKinney-James helped broker a deal between the utility and the Alliance for Solar Choice, a rooftop solar advocacy group.

To the extent that the policy goals of various conference sponsors were opposed on the net metering issue, Reid very clearly took a stand, criticizing NV Energy’s rate proposal.

"The world’s changed, and they should change with it," he said at a press conference opening the event.

Reid expanded on that position in the summit’s opening remarks.

"I believe Nevada can meet this challenge and begin the process of transforming our grid to fully valuing clean energy technologies," he said.

He offered Valley Electric as an alternative, the type of company cooperating with his policy preferences rather than impeding them.

In a sign that it was aware of the ongoing controversy—and where the event’s more powerful voices stood on the issue—NV Energy adorned its exhibitor booth with signs and literature extoling the company’s commitment to renewable energy in general, and rooftop solar in particular.