What is Renewable Energy?

Renewable energy is result of natural atmospheric, geologic, and biological processes on the earth. Renewable energy sources include solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass. They are available in abundance in the western US and continually renew themselves, although they vary spatially and temporally within and between years. In other words, these energy sources can not be depleted. Heat and light from the sun, wind, thermal gasses, and organic waste can all be harnessed to produce electricity, power machinery and automobiles, while providing a cleaner environment, better air quality, and water availability in comparison to traditional fossil fuel energy sources.

Just over 50% of the power used in the western US is generated with fossil fuels. Fossil fuels include coal, natural gas, and oil, all of which are non-renewable energy sources. These fuel sources will eventually be depleted, causing the costs of these sources to increase dramatically as supplies fall. There are many environmental and public health costs associated with non-renewable energy sources as well. Coal and gas extraction often necessitate land and natural environment degradation. Additionally, fossil fuels used to operate power plants and generate electricity produce 40% of total US carbon dioxide emissions, 63% of US sulfur dioxide emissions, and 20% of US nitrogen oxide emissions, both causes of urban haze, brown clouds, and acid rain.

Why is Renewable Energy Development Important?

In addition to the health and environmental benefits of renewable energy sources, there are also economic related benefits. Many renewable energy development projects are completed in rural areas, which may lead to economic development in terms of new business generation and employment opportunities. For example, wind farms which use windmills to harness wind power and convert that power to electricity are often located in large open areas including range land, crop land, and mountain ridges. Additionally, renewable energy can provide reliable energy sources to rural areas where electricity was previously unreliable or unavailable.

Renewable energy will also reduce the longterm costs of power and stabilize energy prices due to its renewable nature. Market prices for energy as well as most other goods change in accordance with supply and demand forces. Renewable energy sources would provide a constant supply of energy, stabilizing energy prices. Studies show that renewable energy sources will be more than able to accommodate the increasing US population and its growing demand for energy in the western US.

Although the potential for renewable energy sources are great, there are currently many issues which must be addressed before these resources can be fully developed. These include, but are not limited to technology, transmission capabilities, and environmental impact studies.

The State of Nevada has abundant solar, wind, and biomass energy sources, but has a greater potential for geothermal energy production of any other state. In 2001, Nevada implemented the most aggressive renewable portfolio standard, calling for 15% of the state’s energy usage to come from renewable sources by 2013 (Senate Bill No. 372). This fact sheet is the second in a series of four publications, which provide an overview of renewable energy sources and current projects in Nevada, including resources for further information, and funding for renewable energy project development.

What is solar energy?

Solar energy comes directly from the sun in the form of heat and light. Solar power is renewable as long as the sun continues to burn its hydrogen core. Solar power can be harnessed through two main technologies; solar thermal and photovoltaic. Solar thermal technologies include concentrating solar power systems and passive solar heating designs. Concentrating solar power systems generate electricity through the use of sunlight to heat fluids which are then passed through a generator to convert the heat to electricity. Passive solar heating designs use architectural features such as large south-facing windows and heat absorbent building materials. The building floors and walls heat up during the day and then slowly release the stored heat at night. Large windows also provide day lighting from the natural sunlight entering the building. Photovoltaic systems convert sunlight directly into electricity. They use negatively charged metal plates, that free electrons when UV light strikes the plates. The electrons are then attracted by electrostatic forces creating electrical direct current (DC).

How is Solar Energy Used?

Solar energy has many potential residential, commercial, and agricultural uses. Solar energy can be harnessed for crop and grain drying, space and water heating, greenhouse heating, remote electricity supply, and water pumping.

Crop and Grain Drying

People have utilized the sun to dry crops and grain for hundreds of years. Solar energy is not widely used in the US for drying because the cost and variability in drying rates differ substantially from natural gas or propane dryers. Smaller scale solar dryers are often used for drying vegetables and fruit for home use. In some developing countries solar dryers are more common than in the US. The basic components of solar dryers include an enclosure or cover, drying trays or racks, and a solar collector.

Space and Water Heating

Confined livestock operations often have large air ventilation and heating requirements. Hog and poultry operations especially require controlled temperature and air purification to eliminate moisture, gases, odors, and dust. Heating and cooling requirements depend on geographical location. Solar air and space heaters can be used to heat incoming fresh air and also to increase ventilation during the summer months. Solar water heating systems can provide low to medium temperature water for many uses including cleaning. Commercial dairies require large amounts of heated water to clean equipment and animals. Up to 40% of the energy used on dairies can be attributed to heating water and cooling milk. Solar heating systems can provide a portion of these energy requirements.

Greenhouse Heating

Most commercial greenhouses rely on the sun for light, but usually not for heat. Gas or oil heaters are typically used to supply heat for plant growth. However, solar greenhouse designs are easily converted to solar heat. Solar greenhouses have a thermal mass to collect and store heat for release at night and during cloudy periods. Most are oriented toward the south to maximize glazing exposure, while insulating the northern side. A back-up fossil fuel heater may be utilized for extra heat, and to increase carbon dioxide levels for quicker plant growth.

Remote Electricity Supply

Photovoltaic (PV) systems convert sunlight directly to electricity. They can power many small electrical appliances or store solar energy in batteries. Potential uses include electrical fences, lighting, and perhaps most appropriate for Nevada ranch situations, pumping water for livestock at remote locations. PV systems can be less expensive than running power lines and step-down transformers in some situations for watering and lighting in isolated areas.

Water Pumping

When no power exists near isolated livestock watering areas, photovoltaic systems may be the most cost-effective option. These systems, when properly installed, are very reliable and require minimal maintenance. The size and cost of the system depends on many things such as amount of sunlight, water depth, volume of water required, and the unit price and installation costs.

What is the Status of Solar Power in Nevada?

Nevada has an abundance of solar energy due to its year-round clear and sunny skies. Figure 1 (at the bottom) shows the solar energy potential that has been tested and mapped for the state. As is demonstrated, the majority of the state has the ability to produce 5.6-7.0 kWh (kilowatt-hours) per day of energy from solar sources.

Las Vegas, the fastest growing city in the US, is located in an ideal area for solar power. Smallscale PV projects including street lighting, pool heaters and water pumping systems, offer an excellent opportunity for residents and small businesses to offset energy bills. The picture on the previous page demonstrates the use of PV lighting at bus stops on the Las Vegas strip.

Where Can I Find Funding for Solar Projects?


USDA-Rural Development: This grant authorized by the 2002 Farm Bill, provided funds ($22.8 million in 2004) to ranchers, farmers, and rural small business for renewable energy projects, including wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal sources. Grant funds, which can be used for up to 25% of total project costs, are awarded annually. For more information see USDA.

HUD-RHED: Rural housing and economic development grants provide funding for buildings, educational programs, economic development activities, and feasibility studies with an emphasis on energy efficiency. For more information see HUD.

USDA-SBIR: Community development grants to small business for new technology studies, market and feasibility studies.

Rebate Programs

There are a number of rebate programs in Nevada, including business and personal property tax rebates, sales tax rebates, and utility bill rebates. The Federal Government also provides rebates including corporate tax credits such as the business energy tax credit of 10% available to commercial businesses that invest in solar or geothermal equipment and structures. A complete listing of all State and Federal programs is available at DSIRE.

Sierra Pacific Power provides rebates for photovoltaic installations for both residential and business customers. 

Where Can I Find Additional Information?

Web Resources

U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) web site at NREL has a number of links to other excellent web sites concerning solar energy. The following is a partial listing:

  • Agricultural Applications of Solar Energy
  • The Borrowers Guide to Financing Solar Energy Systems
  • Passive Solar Design for the Home
  • Sunspaces and Solar Greenhouses: Reading List
  • Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy
  • Solar Energy International

American Solar Energy Society : ASES

Nevada State Office of Energy: NV Energy

Sandia National Laboratories:  SNL

Solar System Contractors/Providers

Salmomma, Inc.

806 Buchanan Boulevard, Suite 115
Boulder City, NV 89005

D & L Henson Enterprises

2433 E. Tropicana #354
Las Vegas, NV 89121

Essential Strategies, LLC

1005 Terminal Way #110
Reno, NV 89502

Alternative Energy Solutions

195 N. Edison, Suite 16
Reno, NV 89502

Independent Power Systems, Inc.

1320 Freeport Blvd. Suite 101
Sparks, NV 89431


Nelson, Mike and Gary Shaver. The Washington State Solar Electric Industry: Sunrise or Sunset? A Closing Window of Opportunity. Washington State University Extension Energy Program. WSU.

Nielson, John, Susan Innis, Leslie Kaas Pollock, Heather Rhoads-Weaver, and Angela Shutak. Renewable Energy Atlas of the West: A Guide to the Region’s Resource Potential. A project of the Hewlett Foundation and The Energy Foundation. Produced by Land and Water Fund of the Rockies and Northwest Sustainable Energy for Economic Development. 

Renewable Energy Policy Project. Solar Power: FAQs. REPP.

U. S. Department of Energy, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Agricultural Applications Fact Sheet. GOV Energy.

Figure 1. Nevada Solar Energy Potential

Nevada map of solor power

Curtis, K., Breazeale, D., Riggs, W. 2004, Nevada’s Renewable Energy Resources: Solar, 2004

Authors of this scholarly work are no longer available.

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