Power to the people, for less

The Nevada Public Utilities Commission said Tuesday that consumers have seen their power rates jump enough in 2009.

The commission voted to leave unaltered a key rate that covers the cost local power utility NV Energy pays for purchased electricity and natural gas to run its generating stations, and the commission's decision to decrease a separate form of rate will mean a drop of $2.92 a month in the average power bill, NV Energy said.

First, about that unchanged rate: NV Energy had requested a 3.2 percent increase in its deferred-energy rate, which the commission sets annually. The boost, designed to help NV Energy recoup $77.5 million it spent for power and fuel in 2008 but didn't gain back from ratepayers, would have increased the average monthly power bill by $6.55 a month.

But Rebecca Wagner, the commissioner presiding over the case, decided against NV Energy's request, citing today's economic climate and the commission's June order for a 6.9 percent boost in NV Energy's general rates.

Commissioner Sam Thompson and commission Chairwoman Jo Ann Kelly agreed with Wagner's finding and voted to approve her order.

The commissioners also reduced the base tariff energy rate, according to NV Energy's recommendations. The rate, which covers changes in purchased-power costs and which the commission tweaks quarterly, will fall nearly 2 percent for residential consumers, NV Energy said, and that's where that $2.92-a-month rate decrease comes in.

Eric Witkoski, the state consumer advocate who represents consumers in utility rate cases, had asked the commission for a deferred-energy rate decrease that would have shaved $4.60 a month from the average power bill. He didn't get the drop, but Witkoski said he was glad the commission overruled higher rates.

"With high unemployment and the foreclosure rate, we're trying to do the best we can to help ratepayers," Witkoski said. "We're concerned because we do have the increase coming Jan. 1 from the general rate case. It would have been nice to have some more reduction, but we're appreciative that they didn't increase rates."

Locals can still expect a rise in their power expenses, but the increase comes from a separate rate case.

The Public Utilities Commission ruled on June 24 that NV Energy would receive a 6.9 percent bump in general rates, which cover business costs such as asset depreciation, maintenance, labor expenses, debt interest, taxes and profits. To ease the burden on consumers, the commission divided the higher rate over six months, with 3 percent of it kicking in on July 1 and the remaining 3.9 percent scheduled to take effect Jan. 1. The new rate will cost consumers nearly $125 a year more in electric bills.

Unlike with general rates, NV Energy can't collect profits through deferred-energy or base-tariff rates, and must pass directly to consumers the cost of purchased power and fuel.

With the cost of natural gas dropping precipitously from its 2008 levels, consumers might see lower power invoices in 2010, Witkoski said. NV Energy's base tariff energy rate should continue to drop each quarter in January, April and July, and that would mean smaller electric bills.

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