Published Wednesday, May 15, 2013 | 6:01 p.m.
Updated Thursday, May 16, 2013 | 9:44 a.m.
Former Nevada Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa is leading a coalition to defeat a major piece of energy legislation pushed by NV Energy that would create a 10-year plan to divest from coal and launch a massive project to build natural gas and renewable energy plants instead.
She joins the Retail Association of Nevada, the Nevada Women’s Lobby, and former Consumer Advocate and Nevada Public Utilities Commission commissioner Timothy Hay in the newly formed group, the Nevada Consumer Protection Alliance.
She said the new group has solicited others to join the coalition against Senate Bill 123, the proposal sponsored by Sen. Kelvin Atkinson, D-North Las Vegas, and dubbed “NVision” by the utility
While supporters of the bill tout the policy of requiring the utility to get out of the coal business, critics say the measure would saddle ratepayers with significant construction costs for the replacement coal and renewable power plants. Critics further assail the bill for its regulatory changes, arguing the Public Utilities Commission’s oversight would be restricted.
“I see this as a consumer protection issue,” Del Papa said. “Never before has a bill been introduced that has such guarantees to shareholders.”
She said the bill’s provisions guarantee the utility a rate of return on the construction schedule detailed in the bill, which would be a boon to investors and a cost ratepayers bear.
Echoing concerns of the Public Utilities Commission, she said she worries that the bill would strip the regulatory agency of anything but cursory oversight of NV Energy, the regulated monopoly that provides power to most businesses and residences in the state.
The Legislature has held several hearings on the bill, but Atkinson said he’s never heard from Del Papa.
“The whole discussion is unfortunate,” he said. “All the folks who are weighing in from afar have had a chance to participate in the discussion.”
Atkinson, who chairs the Senate’s Commerce and Labor committee, said the committee hasn’t yet taken a vote on the bill because legislators are also concerned about ratepayers.
NV Energy spokesman Rob Stillwell said the utility expected a robust debate on the measure.
"The proposal is far from final, and we expect, and welcome, thoughtful discussion of the details as the concept is fully examined, and appreciate the consideration shown by the Public Utilities Commission," he said. "We remain committed to working through the details with all parties involved in this effort to reach a consensus. The goals of retiring coal plants, assuring electric reliability, increasing renewable energy development, and creating jobs are all important for Nevada’s energy future and our state’s economy."
Del Papa, who currently teaches a public policy class at the University of Nevada, Reno, said she was hesitant to wade into legislative matters because “Carson City is not my bailiwick anymore.”
“I judiciously try to wait, but it’s important to speak out when you think it’ll make a difference,” she said. “I think consumer protection is important.”
Marlene Lockhard of the Nevada Women’s Lobby said she and Del Papa, a longtime Democratic Party stalwart, are not receiving any compensation for working with the Nevada Consumer Protection Alliance.
While the utility has amended the bill once already to try to address concerns, the bill has been the focus of intense lobbying efforts at the Legislature.
It also has high-profile politicians taking sides.
Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval and U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., have said they support the bill’s provision that phases Nevada out of coal power. Del Papa said she also supports this idea but doesn’t like the utility’s way to replacing the coal power.
She’s not the only one upset with the bill. The Public Utilities Commission of Nevada voted to oppose the bill Wednesday at a regularly scheduled meeting.
Former Sen. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno, and Fred Schmidt, a former public utility commissioner and former consumer advocate, also drafted a letter in which they criticized the utility for not including energy efficiency measures in the bill.
Implementing energy efficiency measures that reduce energy consumption would be the least expensive and most consumer-friendly way to replace the power lost if Nevada shuts down its coal plants, the two wrote.
Instead, the utility wants to build natural gas-fired and renewable energy power plants. Energy efficiency would be less costly “by a wide margin.” They also noted that there’s little pollution and almost no risk from measures that reduce energy usage.
Other groups are concerned with an approximately 4 percent rate increase over 20 years that the utility has identified in the bill and the larger rate increases that the Public Utilities Commission and the current attorney general’s consumer advocate say could happen under the measure.
“We feel these will be detrimental to commerce,” said Bryan Wachter, lobbyist for the Retail Association of Nevada.
The retail association represents some of the large energy users in Nevada, but the biggest energy users have thus far been hesitant to say anything publicly about the bill.
Casinos are 10 of the top 20 energy users in Southern Nevada, and the gaming industry as a whole wields power in the halls of the Legislature. They could derail the bill with open opposition, but lobbyists representing gaming interests have declined to comment about ongoing negotiations with NV Energy, legislators and other parties.
“Obviously, we’re still working,” Atkinson said. “The committee has not signed off on it. Let us do our due diligence and vet the bill.”