Locals show opposition to proposed power-rate increase

Wow. Tough crowd.

As executives of local power company NV Energy made their case Monday for a 16.7 percent increase in residential rates, some of the 100 or so locals attending a 1 p.m. public hearing at the Las Vegas Convention Center couldn’t contain themselves.

Take, for example, the response to Senior Vice President Tony Sanchez as he explained the utility’s rates would remain competitive compared with rates of other regional utilities.

“Move on,” an audience member shouted.

Or consider the feedback as Senior Vice President Roberto Denis talked about the company’s efforts to build its own capacity and avoid pricey spot-market buys.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” a consumer muttered.

Attendees cheered and clapped as each of their brethren took the podium to pepper a panel of NV Energy executives, public utilities commissioners and consumer advocates with words such as “unconscionable” and “appalling” and “price-gouging.” You could even catch the occasional “amen.”

The only things missing were torches and pitchforks.

Pretty heated for a routine public meeting designed to let consumers weigh in on a regularly scheduled rate case.

NV Energy filed its case Dec. 1. Company officials say they need to recover costs of changing how NV Energy obtains the power it distributes to customers. While single-family residential rates would rise 16.7 percent overall, all users would see a general boost of 13.6 percent.

Before consumers testified, NV Energy explained the rationale behind the proposed increase.

The utility has spent $1.5 billion to move the Silver State toward energy independence, with the objective of generating power for Nevadans in Nevada, Sanchez said. In 2005, NV Energy got 39 percent of its power through its own plants. That share will jump to 77 percent in 2009.

Denis also promoted the utility’s efforts to add eco-friendly renewable energy to its mix of electricity sources — 9 percent of its juice came from renewables in 2008 — and talked of the $200 million in efficiencies it’s found in its plants.

Sanchez also assured the audience that NV Energy would take steps to buffer the blow of higher prices. Company officials want the Public Utilities Commission to delay the start date for the higher rates from summer to fall, and they’ve asked for a rate freeze for low earners.

A diverse crowd took it all in. On hand were seniors, young adults and housewives with babies, as well as serious citizens duded up in business suits and casual folks in shorts and T-shirts. Community gadfly Knight Allen stopped by, as did Barry Gold, director of government relations for AARP Nevada.

As disparate as they were, they all brought a similar message: Ouch!

How, they wanted to know, could utility officials and commissioners even consider raising power bills as locals wrestle with unemployment, shrinking salaries, fixed incomes and spiraling health care costs?

Las Vegan Lorinda Johnson came to the hearing with her four children, ages 21 months to 10 years.

Johnson, a housewife, returned to college because her career in construction “is gone.” Her husband, a plumber, is “out there every day fighting for his job,” she said.

“Somebody please tell me how much more I have to take,” Johnson said.

Johnson has lived in Las Vegas for 34 years, and Monday was the first time she’s ever been riled up enough to attend a public hearing.

“Your CEOs are pocketing this money and going on nice vacations while we scrimp and save on food,” she said. “I’m wondering how we’re supposed to pay a $400-a-month power bill. Why do we have to keep suffering for what you guys do?”

Jean Stanks of North Las Vegas called the size of the increase “unconscionable” given the recession.

Stanks and her husband, Tom, have lived in the same 1,450-square-foot house since they arrived in Southern Nevada 13 years ago, and though their power use has stayed stable, their electric bills have doubled.

Other attendees offered solutions for NV Energy and the Public Utilities Commission.

John Baietti, a local caterer who said he’s participated in commission hearings since 1997, had two ideas. First, the commission should work with bondholders and banks to reduce interest rates on NV Energy’s debt.

Second, state officials and NV Energy should work to get the utility’s delayed, coal-fired power plant in Ely back on track. If part of the problem is uncertainty over federal carbon-tax laws that could make coal-powered generation prohibitively expensive, then state officials should be prepared to sue the Obama administration for “predatory” taxes on the plant, Baietti said.

Allen suggested the commission suspend the interclass subsidy, which reduces the bills of some consumer groups. The subsidy went on hold after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as the local economy grappled with 6.7 percent unemployment, Allen noted. Lifting it now could hold down any rate increase by a couple of percentage points, he said.

Panelists mostly didn’t respond to the crowd, though they took notes as people spoke.

Three hearings on the rate case’s evidence will happen before the commission makes a decision.

The commission will consider cost-of-capital issues April 21-24. It will examine revenue requirements May 4-8. Finally, it will hold sessions on rate design May 11-15. The hearings are scheduled to happen at the commission’s offices at 101 Convention Center Drive.

After the last hearing in May, the commission will draft an order and decide the case.

 

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

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