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Green energy, politics on tap for Vegas 'summit'

Ken Ritter, Associated Press

LAS VEGAS (AP) -- The politics of renewable energy is on the agenda Tuesday in battleground Nevada, where Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is hosting a fifth annual green energy conference at a Las Vegas Strip resort.

Obama administration Interior Secretary Ken Salazar plans to open the event touting plans for a San Francisco-based developer to begin producing electricity Wednesday on a 12-square-mile wind energy farm in Nevada's White Pine County. Pattern Energy's Spring Valley wind power project is expected to produce to up to 150 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power 45,000 homes.

Salazar, who last month announced plans for a 3,000-megawatt wind power complex in Wyoming, is expected to also outline administration hopes for offering leases by the end of the year for the first Atlantic Ocean wind energy projects off the Rhode Island and Massachusetts coasts. The U.S. currently has no operating offshore wind farm.

National Clean Energy Summit 5.0 at the Bellagio hotel-casino will feature an afternoon address by Bill Clinton, a "fireside chat" involving the former president and his former White House chief-of-staff, John Podesta, and a closing speech by Reid.

Clinton and Podesta have appeared at earlier annual Reid energy summits in Las Vegas. Podesta co-chaired Barack Obama's presidential transition and now heads a liberal think tank in Washington.

Energy is a wedge issue in the presidential campaigns of Obama and Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.

The candidates differ on plans for domestic production of coal, oil and gas reserves. Republicans have blamed Obama for granting more than $500 million in federal stimulus loan guarantees to the Solyndra Inc. solar power project in California. Solyndra became a model for Obama green energy hopes before it declared bankruptcy in September.

A second solar company failed last month when Abound Solar Inc. announced it will seek bankruptcy liquidation. Abound, based in Loveland, Colo., had a more than $400 million federal loan guarantee and a plan to build a new plant in Tipton, Ind. Its representatives have complained that Chinese manufacturers undercut the price of solar panels.

Beacon Power, a Massachusetts-based energy-storage firm that got a $43 million federal loan guarantee, also declared bankruptcy last year.

The Obama administration said losses were expected when Congress set aside $10 billion for high-risk program loan guarantees to projects that would have trouble obtaining private financing. It points to a report by a former Treasury Department official that says more rigorous financial oversight and stricter performance standards could reduce the risk of future defaults.

In Nevada, a North Las Vegas green energy plant folded last month, a little more than a year after it began producing concentrated photovoltaic solar power systems. Seal Beach, Calif.-based Amonix Inc. had received a $15.6 million federal Energy Department grant in 2007 under the Bush administration. The company began laying off workers several weeks after its chief executive died in a plane crash last December.

But Nevada is home to the Hoover Dam hydroelectric power plant on the Colorado River and is third in the nation for utility-scale solar projects. It has served several times as a stage for Obama and Reid to highlight renewable energy projects.

In March, the president visited the largest photovoltaic solar power plant in the nation, about 20 miles east of Las Vegas. He praised its ability to produce 48 megawatt of power, or about enough for 14,000 homes. A Copper Mountain Solar 1 official said $50 million in federal tax credits represented about 30 percent the cost of building the project. The plant sells its output to a California utility.

The $225 million Pattern Energy wind farm that Salazar is due to talk about will be Nevada's first and will plug into the Silver State power grid under a 20-year agreement with NV Energy Inc.

The state's dominant electric utility faces a state requirement to draw up to 20 percent of its power from renewable sources and conservation by 2015 and 25 percent by 2025. Critics complain NV Energy relies too heavily on coal.

The Pattern Energy project went ahead after settlement of a lawsuit alleging the federal government unfairly fast-tracked approval. Environmentalists argued the 66 giant turbines standing about 30 stories tall will be too near caves that biologists call a key roosting point for migrating Mexican free-tailed bats.

Other scheduled participants in this year's energy summit include filmmaker Chris Paine, director of "Revenge of the Electric Car," Tesla Motors co-founder Elon Musk and FedEx chief Frederick W. Smith. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Jon Wellinghoff of Nevada is due to take part in an afternoon panel.