Highway 50 icon toils off the grid
The Loneliest Highway could get a lot lonelier.
A project to build a solar array to power a café, bar and motel in historic Middlegate Station – a one-time Pony Express stop and the only respite on Highway 50 between Fallon and Austin — has stalled due to lack of funding.
For 15 years, Fredda and Russ Stevenson, the businesses’ owners since 1984, have been trying to raise the money needed to replace a dirty and increasingly expensive diesel generator that supplies energy for their entire operation.
“That generator sucks the life out of our business,” says Fredda Stevenson. “It is a constant battle to try to stay in business.”
Over the years, the couple have applied for about 10 different federal and state energy grants and been denied each time, she says.
The reasons vary, but usually they are told it’s because the location is off the grid and many grants are designed to reduce the burden on the existing electrical infrastructure. Middlegate Station, 47 miles east of Fallon and 58 miles west of Austin, falls outside both NV Energy’s service area and Fallon’s municipal electric service range.
Or they lose out to another applicant with a church, school or other non-profit entities.
“We lost one grant seven years ago to seven people and a school in Alaska. It about broke my heart,” says Stevenson. “I just feel like we’re not underdog enough. But we are an underdog.”
Stevenson even applied for a program in Idaho when a power company there was working to bring solar energy to rural areas. She also wrote a letter to Warren Buffett when it was announced the billionaire was buying the Nevada utility.
“I never got an answer,” says Stevenson.
Now, the project has been turned down by the Governor’s Office of Energy for a revolving loan to help finance a 40-kW solar array and 75-kWh battery backup to be designed and installed by Black Rock Solar.
The Reno-based renewable energy company, which works with not-for-profits, tribes and underserved communities, initially applied for a $700,000 loan and was told by the office to cut that in half. Black Rock Solar reduced the project’s scope to its current 40kW configuration and reapplied for a $314,000 loan, but the application was rebuffed anyway.
Other monies might be available through U.S. Department of Agriculture programs such as the one announced last week, which covers renewable energy installations for rural small businesses, but only for up to 25 percent of the cost of a given project.
Stevenson says she has shied away from grants tied to historic preservation because they often come with unworkable restrictions.
“The project is dead at the moment because there is no funding,” says Rich Hamilton, director of Business Development at Black Rock Solar. “We are absolutely back to square one. It’s a drain on our firm and it’s a drain on Middlegate.”
Black Rock Solar has spent time designing the project, applying for the state loan and sending out an auditor three times to work on the energy efficiency portion of the plan.
That part includes replacing an electric hot water heater and electric stove with propane-powered devices; multiple freezers with a single, energy efficient walk-in model; all interior lights with 9w LED lights and exterior lights with LED solar ones; and insulating the motel rooms.
So far, Stevenson says they’ve scraped together the money to replace the water heater and add LED lights, and that’s already paying off.
“We’ve gone from $8,100 a month (for diesel fuel) and brought it down to $5,200,” says Stevenson. “That’s great savings right there. So we’ve made headway.”
Stevenson says she’s not looking for a handout, but hope people see the value in preserving a piece of American history and a Nevada tourist attraction.
The project has already drawn the attention of an independent filmmaker, Flyover Pictures, which is working on a documentary about Middlegate Station, tentatively titled “The Last Roadhouse,” to highlight the struggles of those who live off the grid and to help promote the place, says Lisette Cheresson, executive producer and director.
And Black Rock Solar hopes to continue working on the project, but is uncertain it can.
“Our mission includes underserved communities, and that’s how see Middlegate, a for-profit business, but also a cultural icon and something that really is distressed,” says Hamilton. “I don’t know if we’re going to give up on them. I don’t want to.”
As for Stevenson, she says she has little choice but to keep going on.
“I often think about how far in debt can I go before I just say I can’t do it anymore. I’m 72 and I work every day,” says Stevenson. “I’m probably here until the day I die. I love everything about it. And maybe I’ll die happy because I hung in here.”