LAS VEGAS -- President Barack Obama's planned visit today to the Copper Mountain Solar 1 plant in Boulder City builds on his vow to replace American dependence on foreign crude oil with greater domestic use of green energy.
It's part of his "all-of-the above" energy strategy that includes not only more oil and natural gas development at home, but also increased use of solar, wind and geothermal energy, all of which are in abundant supply in Nevada.
This represents the president's third visit to Southern Nevada to highlight his energy policies. He toured Nellis Air Force Base in May 2009 to tout its solar photovoltaic array. He also spoke at a United Parcel Service depot in Las Vegas in January where he used natural gas-powered UPS delivery trucks as a backdrop to promote environmentally friendly fuels.
The Obama administration's foray into Nevada also has included proposed solar energy zones aimed at speeding up the permitting process for solar power developers in designated areas. One is proposed for Dry Lake, 13 miles northeast of Nellis Air Force Base. The Energy Department also issued a $737 million loan guarantee to Tonopah Solar Energy for construction of a 110-megawatt plant near Tonopah.
But Republicans charge that Obama, a Democrat seeking re-election this fall, isn't doing enough to prevent the upward surge in gasoline prices that are approaching $4 a gallon in Las Vegas.
The Copper Mountain Solar plant, the nation's largest photovoltaic solar facility, is designed to generate up to 58 megawatts, enough to power 17,000 homes annually. The plant, which uses close to 1 million solar panels near U.S. 95, is expected over its lifespan to generate $135 million in revenue for local, state and federal governments.
But solar power plants aren't panaceas for Southern Nevada's double-digit unemployment rate. While it took 350 workers to construct Copper Mountain Solar only five full-time workers operate the facility, according to owner Sempra Generation. Still, Obama isn't the first prominent elected official to shower praise on Copper Mountain Solar.
When the plant was dedicated last March, Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval was in attendance and had this to say: "This project exemplifies my goal of making Nevada the renewable energy capital of the country. Projects of this magnitude provide hundreds of jobs and invest millions of dollars in our state."
That would seem to insulate Obama from partisan criticism for making an energy speech at the same solar plant. But it won't stop Republicans from attacking his overall energy policies, something the president concedes.
During his weekly address from the White House Saturday, Obama addressed rising gas prices by stating there was no quick fix.
"The truth is, the price of gas depends on a lot of factors that are often beyond our control," Obama said. "Unrest in the Middle East can tighten global oil supply. Growing nations like China or India adding cars to the road increases demand. But one thing we should control is fraud and manipulation that can cause prices to spike even further."
Obama also said that simply drilling more wouldn't bring gas prices down.
"Under my administration, we're producing more oil here at home than at any time in the last eight years, that's a fact," he said. "We've quadrupled the number of operating oil rigs to a record high, that's a fact. And we've opened millions of acres on land and offshore to develop more of our domestic resources."
He then argued that if this country doesn't develop other sources of energy -- and the technology to use less energy -- it will continue to be dependent on foreign oil.
"Since I took office, America's dependence on foreign oil has gone down every single year," he said. "In 2010, for the first time in 13 years, less than half the oil we used came from foreign countries. We can do better. And we will."
But Republican Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said last week that the Obama administration's actions have contributed to rising energy prices.
"You look at 2011, the average price for the year for a barrel of oil and a gallon of gas, it's higher than any time in 150 years," Jindal said. "That's bad for consumers, it's bad for the economy, it's bad for manufacturers."
Jindal said the reason for much of the increase in energy production during Obama's term is based on decisions made before he was president, including more exploration on private land..
"When you look at off-shore permitting, that process has slowed down even before the BP oil spill, but even today that permitting activity is still down 30 percent from the three-year average, the historical norm prior to the spill," Jindal said. "You look at onshore leasing, it is now down to the lowest amount since 1984 for leasing on federal lands for onshore drilling."