Energy bills abound


The man who led a successful effort to create a utility consumer advocate for Nevada in 1982 says 2007 will go down as another big year for electric power measures.

"This was probably the best effort I've seen in a long time in terms of overall energy policy," state Sen. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno, chairman of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, said about the just-finished Legislature's record on energy-related bills.

Townsend was a private citizen when the state created the consumer advocate's office, but he has played a central role writing energy legislation in recent years.

Townsend said he is particularly pleased by this year's bipartisan legislative efforts to encourage energy conservation.

The Nevada State Office of Energy estimates that Nevadans pays $3 billion yearly for power to residences and businesses. The Legislature wants to cut that expense through renewable energy projects and conservation programs, he said.

"Conservation is absolutely a primary concern to Nevada, and we have to have social change on how people view this," Townsend said.

One of the bills that is intended to help conserve energy is Assembly Bill 178, which awaits the governor's signature or veto. The bill would ban the sale of light bulbs in Nevada by 2015 if they emit less than 25 lumens of light per watt of electricity.

While several measures promote use of renewable energy, some of the most important bills passed by legislators this session would change the way regulators and utilities set rates.

Senate Bill 437 would require Nevada Power Co. and Sierra Pacific Power Co. to make quarterly rate adjustments to compensate for changes in what the utilities are paying for wholesale power and fuel used in generating electricity.

By making adjustments quarterly, the power companies could maintain lower balances of unrecovered past expenses for wholesale power and fuel. Analysts say that would lower the interest expenses that are included in customer rates. The electric utilities are allowed to add a 9 percent interest expense for unrecovered fuel and power expenditures.

That 9 percent finance charge can add up. Nevada Power charged customers $160 million dollars for the expense of carrying unpaid fuel and power expenses between April 2001 and April 2006, state consumer advocate Eric Witkoski said.

"By just changing the process, we can save a lot of financing costs," Witkoski said.

Michael Yackira, chief operating officer of Nevada Power parent Sierra Pacific Resources, said quarterly adjustments will result in electric rates that more accurately reflect current market prices.

SB 437, which awaits Gov. Jim Gibbons' signature or veto, also would require the utility companies to evaluate energy consumption for residential properties, an analysis by utilities commission spokeswoman Kristy Wahl shows.

When a home is sold, the energy-use report must be provided to the buyer -- unless both the buyer and seller agree to waive this requirement.

The bill would also allow schools and other public entities that install certain energy-efficient systems to obtain financial incentives under the Solar Energy Systems Demonstration Act and creates the Wind Energy Systems Demonstration Program Act.

Gibbons has signed Assembly Bill 103, which directs Nevada Power to file general-rate cases less frequently. General-rate cases deal with the utilities' costs of operations, administration and maintenance, as well as utility profits. The bill calls for general rate cases every three years instead of every two years.

Nevada Power could still seek rate adjustments for some anticipated expenses that would occur between the filing of the rate case and the rate case decision deadline.

GREENER TIMES AHEAD IN NEVADA

Lawmakers and lobbyists say Nevada's energy systems will grow a lot greener because of bills that passed the session that ended this week.

"I think we're leading the way (nationally) now in renewables," said Assemblyman Marcus Conklin, D-Las Vegas, who focused on energy bills as vice chairman of the Commerce and Labor Committee.

He mentioned measures the Legislature passed to allow schools to install more solar energy plants and for more residents and businesses to install renewable power generators on their sites.

"I think that's big. It brings us sort of into the 21st Century," Conklin said.

Rose McKinney-James, a lobbyist for the Clark County School District, was happy that Assembly Bill 186 increased the maximum amount of solar power the district can generate to 2 megawatts compared to 570 kilowatts. A megawatt is a million watts, and a kilowatt is a thousand watts.

Each school can generate up to 50 kilowatts of power from solar power equipment. Conklin liked that limitation, because it encourages the district to install solar plants at more schools, giving more students an opportunity to see how solar power works.

Assembly Bill 178 increased the amount of electricity customers may generate on their premises from renewable sources, such as solar power. Through net metering, customers get credit against their power bill for excess electricity he feeds into the electric grid. Under the bill, customers may qualify for net metering if they generate as much as 100 kilowatts on their site, up from 30 kilowatts.

Senate Bill 437 allows schools to try a pilot project where third-party companies can use wind, solar or geothermal (hot underground water) to create power for use in a school building. The private company could pay for the cost of the facility and charge the school for power at prices below the cost of electricity from the local electric utility.

The senate bill also provides for wind and water power demonstration programs. The wind programs are for schools, other public property, private residences and agricultural properties. The water demo program is for agricultural properties.

Not everything was sweet and lightness during the renewable energy lawmaking process. Nevada Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas, blamed Barrick Goldstrike Mines for blocking a measure that would have increased the portion of renewable energy that electric utilities must get from solar from to 6 percent from 5 percent.

The gold mining company must comply with Nevada's renewable energy standards, just as utilities such as Nevada Power Co. are required to do, because Barrick Goldstrike operates a conventional power plant 15 miles east of Reno to supply some of the electricity Barrick consumes.

McKinney-James, a lobbyist for Barrick, said the company has committed to build a large solar plant that will satisfy the existing 5 percent requirement.