State workshops delve into Nevada energy choice measure

A top state regulatory official on Tuesday likened a controversial ballot measure that would allow Nevadans to pick their power provider to getting a tattoo.

“It’s going to be hard to remove without a scar,” warned Joe Reynolds, chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada, during a workshop at the agency’s Carson City office. “It’s planting a goal post in that we’re not going back.”

At the center of the debate is the Energy Choice Initiative, a measure approved by nearly 73 percent of voters two years ago. The measure, which requires a second approval by voters this November, would amend the Nevada constitution to establish an “open, competitive retail electric energy market.”

Ned Ross, a spokesman for the Retail Energy Supply Association, compared energy choice to iPhones and groceries.

“The competitive market will make prices as low as they can be and services as high as they can be,” Ross said. “All those things have to compete on costs. No one would pay more for power if they don’t have to.”

But opponents such as Randy Ewell, who manages Mt. Wheeler Power Inc., an electric cooperative that serves four Nevada counties, said deregulation ultimately hurts customers, especially those in rural areas. It’s unclear whether co-ops would be exempt from the measure.

“It was written to let people have a choice, but we have some of the lowest rates in the state,” Ewell said. “The way this is unfolding, they want us to divest ourselves. This just adds more regulation and costs.”

The workshop Tuesday was one of nearly a dozen scheduled for the next two weeks by the PUC to investigate how the measure would be implemented.

Supporters of the measure, including Las Vegas Sands Corp., raised $3.4 million for the effort. Opponents, including state labor unions, which fear job losses, raised just under $1 million, finance records show.

Reynolds said Tuesday he’s worried about enshrining the changes into the state’s constitution, which would trump any statutes passed by the Nevada Legislature. Though state lawmakers would decide how to restructure Nevada’s energy market, they could not override the will of the voters or the constitutional changes.

Matt Griffin, a Las Vegas attorney who helped draft the measure, said there were “political” reasons for crafting it that way.

If the measure passed in November, Nevada wouldn’t be the first state to deregulate its electric market. Though no state is entirely deregulated, Texas comes close — about 85 percent of the state has access to energy choice.

But Nevada would be the first to deregulate its energy market through a constitutional amendment, opponents say.

The state is served by multiple electricity providers, but the companies typically aren’t allowed to operate in one another’s territories. The largest power provider is NV Energy, which serves about 1.3 million customers.

NV Energy spokeswoman Jennifer Schuricht would not comment Tuesday, but the agency last month submitted 255 pages of comments opposing the initiative on the grounds that it could be risky and costly.

The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson.

Contact Ramona Giwargis at Follow @RamonaGiwargis on Twitter.

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