MILLION-DOLLAR POWER PLAY

State officials should keep $1 million from a discontinued energy program and use the money to give energy-saving assistance to low-income residents, a former Nevada utility regulator argued Tuesday.

Economist Carl Linvill, formerly a member of the Public Utilities Commission and energy adviser to Gov. Kenny Guinn, urged the commission to keep the money in the budget for improving energy efficiency of homes of low-income families in Southern Nevada.

"The most important reason to restore the full low-income budget is the impact of the recession and housing crisis on Southern Nevada," Linvill said in written testimony.

Linvill was cross-examined briefly Tuesday during a hearing at the utilities commission office Tuesday in Las Vegas.

Consumer advocate Eric Witkoski, who asked Linvill to make the case for the program, wants the money used to help low-income residents weatherize their homes.

With energy efficiency programs, "You not only help them with their bills," he said, "you help them with their bills for years."

The issue arose when NV Energy proposed to eliminate $1 million in money budgeted to buy energy-efficient air conditioners for low-income consumers in Southern Nevada during 2008 and 2009. The air conditioner program has been found to be an ineffective way of reducing power demand, given air conditioner program costs, according to the utliity.

Witkoski’s Bureau of Consumer Protection didn’t object to deleting the budget to buy air conditioners but proposed moving the money into a budget for weatherizing low-income homes. That would include adding insulation and sealing cracks that leak air and adding solar screens.

The companies contracting to weatherize homes of low-income people have said they could use the additional funding, said Larry Holmes, manager of customer programs and strategy at NV Energy.

In addition, the state has lots of unmet demand for low-income energy efficiency programs, Holmes said.

The utility’s conservation program helps about 1,000 yearly, and Holmes counted 120,000 low-income families that would qualify for assistance. Another 2,400 low-income families benefit from energy conservation funds from the Department of Energy and another utility program funded by a utility rate fee.

The staff of the utilities commission argued that rules prohibit changing the energy conservation budget until 2009, when the budget is established for the three years starting in 2010. Witkoski disagreed and called the low-income weatherization program a good and relatively small program when compared to the billions of revenues at NV Energy.

Many older homes were built when electricity was cheap, costing 2 cents to 3 cents a kilowatt hour, Witkoski said.

"We’re over 11 cents (a kilowatt hour) now and headed higher," Witkoski said, referring to a rate increase case expected Monday.

Contact reporter John G. Edwards at jedwards@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0420.

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