In the inky darkness, approaching Gerlach on Highway 447 from Reno can feel, improbably enough, like happening upon a dazzling oasis. For almost 70 unpopulated miles north of Fernley, 447 winds through sagebrush desert without benefit of streetlights, a long, lonesome drive punctuated by startled jackrabbits and southbound highbeams off in the distance. But mounting that last hill near Empire affords a heartening view: city lights, however few, undercutting the night sky like a phosphorescent algal mat carpeting a cave.
Say you are a resident of Gerlach, Nevada. You share this distinction with about 200 others, give or take a few vagrants. Like most in the town, you rely on electricity for any number of conveniences: heating, air conditioning, refrigeration, internet and so on. Also like most in town, you pay utility bills addressed to places like Allied Electric, based out of Sparks, Nevada (100 miles south), which has supplied mostly coal-fired power to Gerlach for almost 40 years. Perambulating the town’s three square miles takes less than an hour, and during this jaunt you see plenty of utility poles, miles of transmission lines, and a smattering of fully-powered homes. Remote as it is, Gerlach is wired into the grid. You hear swamp coolers rattling, TVs blaring, the local station KLAP FM wafting gently on the airwaves. You squint in the unmitigated sunshine, buffeted by a steady afternoon breeze. What you fail to notice on this walk—assuming you bypass the BLM station and the school—are solar panels in any concentration, or wind turbines, period. The sun and its aeolian counterpart are, for the most part, unharnessed in Gerlach—and this, in an area where NIMBY stickers are displayed next to cash registers, is perhaps unsurprising. Most of the residents here are older, retired, or otherwise far removed from the workings of society at large, and they probably couldn’t care less where their power comes from, as long as it isn’t an eyesore.
Nevada, which averages 250 sunny days a year across its 110,560 (mostly empty) square miles, possesses enormous potential for capturing solar energy. It is said that installing solar panels on just one tenth of one percent of Nevadan land would produce energy enough for all of its 2.75 million inhabitants. This observation has not gone wholly unnoticed by those with clout. Some 9.7 million acres, most in the southern, sunnier half of the state, have already been earmarked for solar energy production in the near future, but as yet Nevada trails behind California, Arizona and, remarkably, New Jersey in total megawatts produced. Meanwhile, Nevada’s population continues to grow apace, and the money it spends on coal, natural gas, petroleum, and other fuel—more than $11 billion in 2008—goes mostly to other states. Yes, Nevada—with its vast and sustainable prospects of solar, wind and geothermal power—buys most of its energy from elsewhere. Why is this? It’s bureaucratic, infrastructural. The reasons are multitudinous and manifestly boring, so in this forum they shall be omitted.
Back to your vicarious stroll through Gerlach. Your search for sustainable energy finally hits paydirt. A slight detour takes you past the solar array at Gerlach’s K-12 school, a 90-kilowatt system installed in 2007 with donated labor and materials—some provided by Burning Man, LLC—and subsidized by Nevada’s SolarGenerations rebate program. The 162,000 kilowatt hours of electricity generated annually by these panels meets almost all the school’s needs, and costs next to nothing. It’s too bad that there will be only seven students attending in the fall. Such scintillating rewards, so few to benefit.
Say you’re feeling ambitious in your ambulations, ambitious enough to walk the half mile out of town to the BLM Black Rock Station. Built in 2011 with funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the station was designed with sustainability in mind. Here you find solar panel installments on the roof of the barracks, as well as atop the carport. These provide power to the water heater that services both the barracks and the adjacent administrative building. They work so well that, in the words of park ranger Zach, “the water out of the tap will scald your gums” if you so much as brush your teeth with it. But the station draws electricity from the grid for other uses. And it imports propane gas for cooking. Still, its specifications indicate a step in the right direction.
If you were to climb a nearby hill and pack along a spotting scope, you might espy the San Emidio Geothermal Plant to the south, located a few miles outside Empire. It’s one of 21 such plants in Nevada that, all told, capture 539 megawatts of power from the proximate mantle rock found everywhere in the Great Basin. One megawatt equals 1,000 kilowatts, which is enough electrical power to serve 300 average-size homes. Nevada’s geothermal output, in electric currency, trails only California in the nation.
Straddling this hill with your spotting scope, you might feel more acutely the wind’s grating presence in the desert, howling up escarpments and contorting shrubs to hunchbacked ents, crouched and clinging to life. But you’re not likely to find any wind farms around, not even with the scope, not even if you moved your reconnaissance hundreds of miles across the state. That’s because there are hardly any, and the ones that do operate get some serious flak as it is. Wind power has yet to make any substantial contribution toward offsetting Nevada’s outsourcing of energy. Perhaps it never will. The NIMBY folks would find nothing amiss with that.