When Alaina Burtenshaw tries to explain her career at cocktail parties, she said she often sees people's eyes start to glaze over.
But it shouldn't be that way: Burtenshaw, the new chairwoman of the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada, has spent nearly two decades at the agency, shaping important policies that affect Nevadans' power and water bills and chasing down staffers who can help consumers with service problems.
Through it all, ratepayer feedback has proven essential to her work, and it's that kind of public input she said she plans to emphasize in her new job.
"We find out things in consumer sessions that we will not find out anywhere else," Burtenshaw said in a Friday interview discussing her plans for the job, which Gov. Brian Sandoval appointed her to on Feb. 2. "The things they tell us can make a difference. I really appreciate it when someone says, 'I have a problem here, and I can't get it fixed.' A lot of times, it's the first time people hear about an issue."
That's why Burtenshaw, who replaced retiring Chairman Sam Thompson, said she'd err on the side of scheduling a higher-than-average number of consumer sessions. State law requires such public meetings on just three occasions: during the deferred-energy cases that determine how much a utility can charge for purchased power and fuel for its plants; during general rate cases that utilities file to set rates that cover operating costs; and once each fall, in a general session designed to field comments relating to all utilities.
The next consumer session, scheduled before Burtenshaw took the commission's reins, is planned for 5:30 p.m. Feb. 23 inside the commission's local office, at 9075 W. Diablo Drive, Suite 250. The session will revolve around electric utility NV Energy's request to recover expenses and lost revenue resulting from energy-conservation programs.
The commission will likely hear even more from consumers after June, when NV Energy files its next general rate case.
Burtenshaw said the rate case could be "very large." The company's 500-megawatt Harry Allen Generating Station 30 miles north of Las Vegas, near Apex, is expected to come on line in 2011, and the utility continues to arrange renewable-energy purchase agreements and developments to meet its state mandated renewable portfolio standard. Expect at least some of those projects to find their way into the upcoming rate case, Burtenshaw said.
"What's most important to me is that we're very transparent -- that people understand what we're doing, and that we are as transparent as possible," she said. "I'm more of a process person. I want to make sure if folks have a problem, they have a chance to be heard. We certainly have an economy right now in Las Vegas, in particular, and in Reno, that we haven't seen for decades. But I think if people have confidence in the process and they feel like they can come here and be listened to, it helps a lot."
One of the commission's challenges is to help consumers understand regulating processes, Burtenshaw added. For example, NV Energy must file an integrated resource plan every three years that details its energy sources. The commission vets that proposal and approves projects and plans that it finds come at a just and reasonable cost, she said. Those resource plans in turn drive much of what happens in general rate cases, which help finance the outlined generating plants and transmission infrastructure.
"The rate case is almost a fait accompli because of what happens in the integrated resource plan," she said.
This may be Burtenshaw's first stint as commission chairwoman, but she's not new to the board. She joined the agency in 1992, working first as a staff counsel and assistant staff counsel on electric, natural gas and water cases. In 1997, Burtenshaw took over as principal commission attorney in some larger energy rate cases. She also represented the commission's regulatory-operations staff in cases involving environmental impacts, renewable energy and railroad safety.
Burtenshaw moved to Southern Nevada in 1987, right out of law school at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and worked in private practice here for five years before joining the commission. The Idaho native moved to Pahrump in 2005 after visiting the area for some consumer sessions and falling for its small-town appeal.
In addition to Burtenshaw, the commission has two other members. Commissioner Rebecca Wagner has served on the board since 2006. And Gov. Brian Sandoval on Tuesday appointed Luis Valera, currently the government relations director for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, to the commission to replace the vacancy left by Burtenshaw's promotion.
Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4512.