Newspaper column: How will energy choice affect rural Nevadans?

One of the big questions lingering about a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would end electric power monopolies and create an open and competitive market electricity is: Just how will it affect customers of rural Nevada’s power cooperatives?

Question 3 on the 2016 General Election ballot — the Energy Choice Initiative (ECI) — passed by an overwhelming 72.4 percent to 27.6 percent. Because the measure would amend the state Constitution, it is back on the ballot this fall for final voter approval, but now a coalition headed by NV Energy is campaigning to defeat it.

David Luttrell — general manager of the Lincoln County Power District No. 1, president of the Nevada Rural Electric Association and a member of the Governor’s Committee on Energy Choice — said his power district has not joined the coalition opposing the initiative, but he is concerned the initiative’s impact on rural Nevada, should it pass, is not being adequately addressed.

“As we’re moving toward energy choice we were hopeful that there would be some recognition that the rural organizations, by definition, offer choice, so there are choices,” Luttrell said in a recent interview. “They were created by the people they serve for the people they serve. So at a very fundamental level that is choice.”

None of the rules will be written until and unless it passes again in November and goes to lawmakers. Luttrell said what is really going on at this stage is a kind of record building and fact finding.

“If you look at some of the comments of proponents of energy choice, one of the things they very strongly believe is that existing utilities do not and are not allowed to be retail energy providers, and their argument, I understand, I get the basis of their argument, is that an existing utility, retail energy provider, they do have an advantage that others that want to come into the area will not be able to compete against,” he said.

The proponents say it would be unfair and hinder real competition intended to lower overall power bills if the existing utilities are allowed to continue to generate power at the facilities they own and maintain existing contracts with outside suppliers.

While that argument is being made, it is not necessarily mandatory. The initiative itself simply requires the Legislature to pass a law providing an open, competitive retail electric energy market by July 1, 2023. The law must include provisions to reduce customer costs, protect against service disconnections and unfair practices, and prohibit the granting of monopolies for power generation, but could leave in place regulation of transmission or distribution systems.

On their website the backers of the initiative say it would be up to lawmakers to decide if current utilities would have to divest their generation facilities.

“In some energy choice states, energy consumers do not have to choose a new supplier. They can choose to remain with the incumbent utility. Other states have chosen to prohibit the utility from generating and selling power to consumers,” the ECI website offers. “In both cases, the utility retains ownership of the transmission and distribution grid and responsibility for maintaining the system and billing customers. Energy choice states simply give consumers the right to choose a new supplier, aggregate a community to purchase electricity, or generate their own power.”

But Paul Caudill, CEO of NV Energy, has told the Governor’s Committee on Energy Choice that, if voters approve the amendment, his company is ready to divest all generation assets and all purchase power agreements. He said the company has no interest in being a provider of last resort and will most likely transform into a wires only company.

NV Energy has suggested divestiture could result in so-called stranded cost of as much as $7 billion that would have to be paid by existing customers.

The Public Utilities Commission of Nevada estimates those stranded costs could cause electricity rates to rise $24.91 a month in Southern Nevada and $6.52 Northern Nevada for residential customers.

But a report by the Garrett Group presented to the Governor’s Committee on Energy Choice recently on behalf of the initiative backers said such a sell off should be profitable, and, when coupled with the recent tax law changes, should cause power bills to drop by $11.16 a month.

If rural power cooperatives have to divest their contracts for cheap hydroelectric power, Luttell says bills will necessarily soar.

Next week: Part 2

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

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Whither future power bills if voters approve Energy Choice Initiative?

Will power bills go up or down, if voters approve the Energy Choice Initiative on the November ballot? Depends on whose assumptions you believe.

The Nevada Public Utilities Commission, in a 109-page report recently released, claimed passage would cause electricity rates to rise $24.91 a month in Southern Nevada and $6.52 Northern Nevada residential customers, because NV Energy  has threatened to sell off its power generation plants at a loss — even though there is nothing in the initiative requiring such a move.

But a report by the Garrett Group presented to the Governor’s Committee on Energy Choice on Wednesday said such a sell off should be profitable, and, when coupled with the recent tax law changes, should cause power bills to drop by $11.16 a month.

The Garrett report noted that one can’t use current market power plant sales to make projections, because current sales reflect the fact that all retail customers are captive customers of NV Energy. Market sales, if the initiative passes, would change to reflect the fact that customers no longer would be captive customers.

We suspect NV Energy has threatened to sell off generating plants because under the competitive market the initiative would create the company would no longer be guaranteed a 10 percent rate of return on investments and might have to settle for a smaller profit margin unsatisfactory to billionaire company owner Warren Buffett.

Under the initiative the company or some other entity probably would still maintain a monopoly over transmission and distribution along with a guaranteed return on investment.

In 2016 voters approved the Energy Choice Initiative by an overwhelming 72.4 percent to 27.6 percent. Because the measure would amend the state Constitution it is back on the ballot this fall for final voter approval, but this time around a coalition headed by the state’s largest power monopoly, NV Energy, has vowed to spend $30 million to defeat it.

Voters will have decide who they believe and what is in their best interests. Capitalism or monopoly?

Newspaper column: PUC tilts at power choice initiative

The Nevada Public Utilities Commission, which is tasked with regulating the state’s monopoly utilities, has put out a 109-page report detailing a litany of things that could go wrong if voters again approve at the ballot box in November a constitutional amendment creating a free market for electricity.

In 2016 voters approved the Energy Choice Initiative by an overwhelming 72.4 percent to 27.6 percent. Because the measure would amend the state Constitution it is back on the ballot this fall for final voter approval, but this time around a coalition headed by the state’s largest power monopoly, NV Energy, has vowed to spend $30 million to defeat it.

The PUC report reads like an in-kind contribution to that effort.

A foreword signed by PUC Chairman Joe Reynolds declares that, while the concept of open markets is quintessentially American, “ensuring a non-stop supply of electricity to every home, business, and governmental entity in Nevada every second of every day of the year, regardless of the weather or economy, makes it unique from other goods and services. Electricity is a basic necessity of modern life. Like air. Like water. Like food.”

The Nevada Independent pix by Jeff Scheid

Thank goodness for those government regulated monopoly grocery stores.

While Reynolds says the report neither supports or opposes the initiative, the bulk of its findings appear to find fault with the proposal.

The initiative would require the Legislature to pass a law providing an open, competitive retail electric energy market by July 1, 2023. The law must include provisions to reduce customer costs, protect against service disconnections and unfair practices, and prohibit the granting of monopolies for power generation, but could leave in place regulation of transmission and distribution.

One of the chief arguments for the measure is that competition would drive down cost.

But the PUC report claims the proposal is likely to increase monthly electric bills in the first decade of implementation. The bulk of this cost is attributed to the supposition that NV Energy will be forced to divest its generation assets, though there is no language in the initiative even suggesting any such requirement.

The report argues that this presumed divestiture would cost Southern Nevada residential power customers $24.91 a month and Northern Nevada residential customers $6.52, because NV Energy might have to sell off its power plants at a loss. A presumption compounding a presumption.

At one point the report seemingly declares that the system isn’t broken, stating, “Our residential rates are on average, and our commercial and industrial rates are lower than average.”

In its conclusion the report feigns solicitude for the poor residential ratepayer and warns that residential customers might suffer the most if the initiative passes.

“If history and experience are any type of guide, commercial and industrial customers, will fare far better, at least initially, than the average Nevada residential family through this proposed change,” the report states. “Large commercial customers, who currently cannot depart bundled electricity service pursuant to NRS Chapter 704B may financially benefit the most, as they cannot currently access a competitive open marketplace that may offer benefits to high-volume users.”

This is the same PUC that currently sets those residential, commercial and industrial rates.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which is cited as the source for that earlier mention of low rates on average, the residential rate set by the PUC were the highest among the eight Mountain states in January 2018, while the commercial rate was the third lowest and the industrial rate was the second lowest in the region.

While residents paid 12.36 cents per kilowatt-hour, commercial customers paid 8.04 cents and industrial users paid only 5.28 cents. Thirty-one states have lower residential power rates than Nevada, according to the EIA. Only four states have lower industrial power rates. Only three states have lower commercial rates. (The EIA site now has February rates.)

Aren’t you glad your state regulators are looking out for you?

The report does point out a potential legal conundrum. While the initiative creates a “right to sell trade or otherwise dispose of electricity,” it also says lawmakers retain the power to establish “policies on renewable energy, energy efficiency and environmental protection.”

A right would appear to trump a policy. The report asks whether a mining company might have the right to buy power from a coal-fired plant, despite a state law closing all such plants.

In a section on the impact on jobs, the report snidely concludes, “Lots of Nevada attorneys may also gain new work from the Energy Choice Initiative.”

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

PUC feigns concern of residential power customers

It is passing strange that the Nevada Public Utilities Commission has put out an unsolicited speculation on what might happen if the voters were to again approve at the ballot box in November a constitutional amendment ending the electric power monopoly in the state. The so-called Energy Choice Initiative passed by more than 72 percent in 2016.

But it is downright laughable how the report expresses feigned solicitude for the poor residential ratepayer.

While the report suggests that power rates might go up rather than down, as initiative backers claim, it warns that residential customers might suffer the most.

“If history and experience are any type of guide, commercial and industrial customers, will fare far better, at least initially, than the average Nevada residential family through this proposed change,” the report states. “Large commercial customers, who currently cannot depart bundled electricity service pursuant to NRS Chapter 704B may financially benefit the most, as they cannot currently access a competitive open marketplace that my offer benefits to high-volume users.”

This is the same PUC that currently sets those residential, commercial and industrial rates.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the residential rates set by the PUC were the highest among the eight Mountain states in January 2018, while the commercial rates was the third lowest and the industrial rate was the second lowest in the region.

While residents paid 12.36 cents per kilowatt-hour, commercial customers paid 8.04 cents and industrial users paid only 5.28 cents. Thirty-one states have lower residential power rates than Nevada, according to the EIA. Only four states have lower industrial power rates. Only three states have lower commercial rates.

Aren’t you glad the PUC is looking out for you?

 

 

 

Editorial: Voters should dump a tax, add a tax and end a monopoly

Early voting in Nevada (R-J photo)

Early voting in Nevada (R-J photo)

Correction: Nevada no longer has some of the highest electricity rates in the West. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, as of August, only Idaho had lower residential rates than Nevada in the Mountain West states.

Nevada and many other states were well on the way to breaking up the electricity monopolies 15 years ago until the Enron market manipulation debacle that led to blackouts and price spikes scared lawmakers off. A free market was not the problem, it was criminal collusion and fraud.

Now, Nevadans have another chance to let free markets set the price of electricity instead of monopoly power companies and public utility regulators.

Question 3 on the statewide November ballot, if passed, would start the process of amending the state Constitution to prohibit granting electricity monopolies or exclusive franchises.

The argument for passage of Question 3 — the Energy Choice Initiative — points out that Nevada has some of the highest electricity rates in the West, this is partly due to the fact  electricity rates are dictated by the Public Utilities Commission, which by law must guarantee a profit for the monopoly utility companies. This is determined by setting a rate of return on equity, which incentivizes the power companies in the state to build expensive power plants when cheaper power might be available on the grid in an open and free market. There is no competitive pressure. There is little incentive to innovate.

Though the backers of Question 3 tout the potential of renewable energy development, the real benefit of passage is competition and innovation to achieve the most efficient and cost-effective power supply, whatever drives the generators.

Yes, Question 3 is supported by the large corporations and casinos who would benefit from buying cheaper electricity on the open market instead of from the monopoly NV Energy owned by billionaire Warrant Buffet, but residential customers also should benefit in the long run. Data from states that have adopted energy choice reveal a nearly 20 percent cost savings for consumers.

This newspaper endorses passage of Question 3.

Question 4 on the November ballot would also amend the state Constitution. Approval would require the Legislature to exempt durable medical equipment, oxygen delivery equipment, and mobility enhancing equipment from any sales or property taxes.

This would not only reduce the cost for those who require the equipment but also for all of us in the insurance pool who bear the cost.

We recommend a vote in favor of Question 4.

In each county in November the voters will be asked whether to index the tax on vehicle fuel to inflation with all resulting additional revenue going to build and repair roads specifically in those counties.

The 2015 Legislature allowed all counties to put a fuel tax indexing question on the ballot. This would allow the existing tax per gallon to increase at the same rate as the Producer Price Index, but with a cap of 7.8 percent per gallon. Some counties may choose a lower cap.

In this case the taxpayer-road user has a clear benefit in return for the outlay and thus a rare real return on investment. We think the voters would be wise to approve this tax.

(2016-ballot-questions-public-booklet)

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.