Newspaper column: Can Nevada lawmakers correctly introduce energy choice?

Let’s get one thing straight, the Energy Choice Initiative — Question 3 — on the November ballot is not deregulation of the electricity market. It would replace Nevada’s regulated energy monopoly with a regulated competitive energy market.

It would amend the Constitution to require lawmakers by July 1, 2023, to “establish an open, competitive retail electric market, to ensure that protections are established that entitle customers to safe, reliable, and competitively priced electricity …” This would include provisions to reduce costs to customers, ensure reliable service and prevent unfair practices. It would not require competitive transmission and distribution systems.

The initiative passed in 2016 with 72 percent voting in favor, but, since it amends the Constitution, voters must again approve of it this fall.

The ballot measure is being pushed by several large power users — chiefly the Las Vegas Sands hotel-casino company and the data company Switch. NV Energy, the monopoly power company that serves 90 percent of Nevada was silent on the issue in 2016, but has now pledged to join with opponents in spending $30 million to defeat Question 3. This past week four organizations that favor renewable energy — the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Southwest Energy Efficiency Project and Western Resource Advocates — announced opposition to the measure, saying they feared it would hamper efforts to increase “clean power” generation.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt supports Question 3, while Democratic opponent Steve Sisolak opposes it.

Recently the Guinn Center — named for former Gov. Kenny Guinn and self-described as a nonprofit, bipartisan research and policy analysis center — put out an analysis of the ramifications should Question 3 pass that squarely straddles the fence.

In a conference call with the press, Meredith Levine, Guinn Center’s director of economic policy, said the organization was not taking a position but was providing historic and analytical data for the voters.

As to whether the initiative would result in lower or higher power bills, Levine said, “We have no idea what will happen. We could only say this is what could happen, what may happen, what other states have experienced.”

The report indicates the success or failure of Question 3 depends on how lawmakers write the rules.

One of the principal concerns seems to be whether NV Energy would be required to divest, or sell off, its generating plants and its power purchase contracts — possibly at a loss that would have to be passed on to customers.

“Question 3 does not require divestiture explicitly,” the Guinn report states. “However, as one industry expert explained to the Guinn Center, it might be inferred: in order to afford meaningful choices among different providers and ‘to promote competition and choices,’ if the utilities were to retain control over generation assets, it would contravene the spirit of the initiative petition.”

NV Energy has estimated this so-called stranded cost to be 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.

The Guinn Center reported that some states that have instituted competitive power markets have seen prices rise due to fluctuations in fuel costs and other factors.

But it also noted that a Pennsylvania PUC commissioner reported its introduction of competition resulted in residential and commercial customers in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh paying 40 percent to 56 percent less for power in inflation-adjusted dollars than they did in 1996 and residential customers saved $818 million in 2016.

A 2015 study found that overall competition has been beneficial. From 1997 to 2014 states that had adopted customer choice for power saw inflation-adjusted residential rates fell 5.2 percent, while monopoly states saw those rates rise 3.9 percent.

So, the question for voters this fall may not be whether Question 3 is good or bad but whether we trust our lawmakers to be able to learn from the experiences of other states and write regulations that will be beneficial. Of course, that may also depend on what lawmakers are elected on the same ballot.

Frankly, we are torn.

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.

Newspaper column: How will energy choice affect rural Nevada? — part 2

If the Energy Choice Initiative (ECI) amending the state Constitution to create a competitive market for electricity passes again in the fall its impact on power bills in rural Nevada will depend on how the Legislature writes the rules to make it happen.

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 — notes that proponents of the ballot measure insist existing utilities should divest themselves of their power generating assets and current contracts to purchase power.

Luttrell says there is uncertainty about what energy choice would look like in the coming years, saying, “The vast majority of it will be written by the next couple of sessions of the state Legislature. The only thing that really you can point to in that document and that amendment language is that a single person in the state of Nevada will have choice of some sort.”

One of the problems faced by the rural cooperatives Luttrell points out is fixed cost. While NV Energy has 40 to 50 customers per mile of power lines, rural cooperatives statewide only have five customers per mile, while in Lincoln County there are only two per mile.

The way the cooperatives keep rates competitive is that many get as much as 80 percent of their power from very low cost hydroelectric generation, such as that from Hoover Dam. That hydropower is limited to public, not-for-profit organizations such as rural electric utilities.

“If we are precluded in any way from doing that there’s going to be a negative impact. Does ECI mandate that, that we have to get rid of your Hoover power? No it doesn’t, as it is currently written in that one paragraph constitutional amendment,” the power district manager says. “But what it does is it puts that uncertainty to a future Legislature to make that decision. We know the proponents of the ECI are saying is all utilities need to get rid of their power sources, otherwise they have an unfair competitive advantage.”

Jon Wellinghoff, a consultant to the ballot question and former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chairman, has said in an interview with the news website The Nevada Independent that lawmakers could designate existing rural nonprofit power companies as the provider of last resort and allow them to keep their existing power contracts.

“It’s virtually a non-issue if we structure the legislation correctly,” he said.

And that’s Luttrell’s fear. Will the lawmakers structure the legislation correctly?

If his cooperative is required to divest its power contract for inexpensive hydropower in order to allow competitors to come in, Luttrell warns the rates in rural Nevada are going to go up dramatically.

“It leaves it all up to the Legislature to decide, but again proponents are saying you’ve got to make these utilities divest their generation, whether they be assets or power supply contracts in order to allow fair competition in all areas of the state,” he says.

“The real message I am trying to get out right now is that rural Nevada is a kind of unintended consequence,” he continues. “Energy choice was the brainchild of the casinos and Switch (a data processing firm that using huge amounts of electricity). They’re the ones who put this thing together. They’re the ones who largely funded it.”

Luttrell says industrial and commercial customers already have retail choice. Any customer with electrical needs greater than 1 megawatt, such as casinos, mines and industrial operations, already have the right to buy their own energy. “The problem, and this is why Switch and Sands and MGM and others don’t like it, is in order to exercise that right they have to pay an exit fee from the grid, from the NV Energy system and they don’t like paying that exit fee,” he says.

He notes that the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada demands exit fees to protect other customers, such as residential customers, who would have to bear the burden of paying for more generation capacity than is needed when large customers leave.

“Should a person in Wells, or a person in Ely or a person in Pioche, Nevada, pay part of those stranded costs? … We weren’t part of the planning that went into creating those assets, but we’re certainly part of the discussion of where they’re going to get spread. We don’t like that.”

Voters will decide. If approved, lawmakers must make fair rules.

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.

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.

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.