Protests are few at NV Energy consumer session


NV Energy's plan to test peak-power pricing didn't draw major protests in a Tuesday night consumer session.

Just eight citizens came down to Cashman Convention Center to share their opinions about NV Energy's proposed dynamic-pricing trial, a voluntary program that would charge participants substantially more for electricity during high-demand hours.

Though the meeting drew few participants, those who spoke had much to say on both sides of the issue.

Start with retired senior Benjamin Gecko, who took each side all by himself.

Gecko, a Native American, said he supports any environmentally friendly program that promotes the health of the "Earth mother."

But Gecko also lives on a fixed income with two timber wolves, six cats and his cancer-stricken wife, and he's concerned about his household's summertime safety.

"I'll sign up for it (the trial), but I need assurance that I'm not going to have my electricity cut off," Gecko told a panel that included NV Energy officials and attorneys with the state Bureau of Consumer Protection.

Other consumers lined up on either side of the peak-pricing divide.

"I object to this technology. If this were not a voluntary program, then I feel it could be a slippery slope and be forced down our throat at some point," Las Vegan Malcolm Petrie said. "We may not be able to opt out in the future, and that's my concern."

Senior Bonnie Shufton added that turning her air-conditioning off on hot summer afternoons would force her down to the mall to stay cool, and she doubted any shopping center would let her bring her dogs along for relief from the heat.

Other seniors, stay-at-home parents with small kids and homebound, disabled people would face the same issues, Shufton said.

Other attendees spoke out in favor of peak pricing.

Ratepayer Aleta Dupree said it's important to develop technologies that let consumers and businesses take control of their power use.

"It's an option, and I believe it's a necessary option," Dupree said. "Electricity, like anything we buy, is something we need to pay attention to, much like when we fill our gas tanks. It's very important that we have programs that will drive our energy use away from those time periods when energy is not only expensive and relatively hard to get, but it also tends to be very dirty."

And Jane Feldman volunteered on the spot to sign up for the trial.

Feldman is a spokeswoman for the Southern Nevada chapter of the Sierra Club, and she said the group supports peak pricing because it will upgrade the area's electric infrastructure and increase energy efficiency.

After her formal statement on behalf of the Sierra Club, Feldman spoke as a retired senior on a fixed income.

"I am looking forward to cheaper rates in nine to 10 months out of the year, and I'm looking forward to educational materials about how I can manage my electricity consumption better," Feldman said. "It's all going to end up putting money in my pocket."

NV Energy has asked the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada to let the power company test whether higher power prices between 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. in Southern Nevada's four hottest months would yield less demand for power during peak consumption periods. Curbing power use at the utility's busiest times would help the company avoid additional investments in new power plants and skip expensive wholesale power buys on open markets.

The rates NV Energy wants to test run several times higher than existing rates.

The utility currently charges a flat 11.5 cents per kilowatt hour, regardless of time of use. It's proposing a voluntary peak-pricing trial that would bump afternoon rates up to 38 cents or 45.7 cents per kilowatt hour in July and August, with 14 critical peak events during which rates would rise to 78.3 cents per kilowatt hour. In June and September, afternoon rates would increase to 14.4 cents or 16 cents, with a rate of 46.8 cents during four critical peak periods.

The utility plans to offset those rate hikes by dropping its off-peak rate to 7.2 cents per kilowatt hour, which is nearly 40 percent below today's flat fee.

Volunteers who sign up could see their July and August bills jump from around $260 a month to roughly $425 a month if they make no changes in afternoon power use, though bills could drop to $388 with big cuts in consumption. In every other month of the year, invoices would drop, in most cases by more than a third. That means annual power expenses should stay flat or even drop, by anywhere from $9 to $100.

But NV Energy officials told ratepayers on Tuesday night that the company has built numerous consumer protections into the optional trial.

For one thing, they'll allow trial participants to sign up for a payment plan that charges a flat monthly fee based on power use over a year. That level-billing program would mitigate some of those summer spikes, they said.

Also, the utility will offer bill protection for the first year of the two-year trial to ensure that customers would not pay more annually by participating in the pricing trial. Plus, volunteers could opt out of the program at the end of the first year.

The public utilities commission has scheduled a hearing in the case for Feb. 3, at 10 a.m. The public can attend a teleconference of the session inside hearing room A at the commission's Las Vegas office, at 9075 W. Diablo Drive, Suite 250.

If the commission approves the proposal, the Southern Nevada peak-pricing trial will run from Jan. 1, 2012, through Dec. 31, 2013, and will cost $11.8 million to operate. NV Energy expects to defray the pilot's costs with U.S. Department of Energy grants.

To see the full testimony NV Energy has offered in the case, visit pucweb1.state.nv.us/pucn/. Click on "docket info," and choose "electric dockets." The docket number is 10-08014. The filings are labeled "testimony" and are dated Nov. 22.

NV Energy also launched a telephone hotline and website for consumers who want more information on the company's smart-metering and dynamic-pricing programs. For details, call 402-4273, or visit nvenergize.com.

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at jrobison@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4512.

 

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