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March 20, 2019

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Jon Ralston on why Sierra Power’s head honcho is taking on Reid over renewables

If you are under attack by the most ruthless politician in Nevada - and one of the most powerful in the country - who has said he means to destroy your $3.8 billion project and make your black hat even blacker, the least you can do is be meek. Or, perhaps, hide.

So when the man in the black hat, Michael Yackira, the chief executive of Nevada Power's parent, Sierra Pacific Resources, said he would come on "Face to Face" to answer questions about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's jihad against coal and, especially, the company's Ely Energy Center, I didn't know what to expect. I certainly didn't anticipate this response one month after Reid had appeared on the program and declared the Ely project and two other coal plants as dead as Jacob Marley.

"I don't think he's right," Yackira declared. "I don't think he's right for the state of Nevada."

Harry Reid not right for the state of Nevada? Heresy, I say. Outrage, I tell you. Unless, of course, you are at GOP HQ.

In a performance that was hardly meek and ipso facto not hidden, Yackira staunchly defended the company's decision to move forward with the coal plant, insisted that the utility is environmentally sensitive and made an unvarnished prediction about Reid's anti-coal legislation. If you tuned in halfway through the program (not that anyone ever does that!) and didn't know who the interviewee was, you might have thought I was questioning the president of a different Sierra - the club, not the utility.

"We believe that less carbon in the air is a good thing for the environment, and we are foursquare behind that," Yackira said, surely putting Reid in his place and quieting the noisome protests of the greenies. Or, perhaps, not.

But whatever sops the company provides to enviros - and there is lots of rhetoric on the Ely Energy Center Web site making it sound like a green paradise - Yackira knows the company is on the wrong side of the politics here. And he and his coterie of skillful advisers surely realize that even if they have some potent facts that say all renewables all the time will not work yet, Reid does not like to lose and is playing in a different political atmosphere.

Sierra Pacific/Nevada Power doesn't lose too many state battles. But this is one where Reid is playing the national game (love the enviros, use green to turn states blue) while the utility's main ally, Gov. Jim Gibbons, is playing the domestic version (love the free market, keep the rurals red).

Gibbons helped the company sidestep protests at the state Environmental Commission by writing a letter that sounded as if Yackira had penned it. (He scoffed when I wryly suggested as much Tuesday. Scoffed, I tell you.)

When Yackira talks about a commitment to renewables, he has the bona fides. He came to Sierra Pacific from FPL Energy, which is an outfit with a national reputation on wind and solar power. But, I wondered, is he just the perfect front man for a utility under siege from irate customers, fuming environmentalists and a determined Senate majority leader?

Yackira insisted that Sierra Pacific will be making great strides in renewables, but that they are not the immediate panacea Reid and the enviros believe.

"We're committed to improving the environment," he said. "We're committed to delivering safe, reliable power to our customers at predictable prices. All these things really factor into what our plans are."

One thing Yackira and Reid agree on - despite what Gibbons has implied - is that clean coal remains an oxymoron. It will be a decade, Yackira said Tuesday, before some of the renewable techniques are commercially viable, which will sound to many (hello, Senator) like a delaying tactic. And Reid is not waiting around, having introduced a bill recently to use transmission line requirements as a backdoor way to kill the coal plant.

And if Reid can declare on television that his plant will not be built, then Yackira has a message from the senator about his bill to make that happen.

"I don't think it's over," Yackira said. "I don't think the bill is going to pass."

His hat was still black when he left the set Tuesday. But Yackira clearly had sent the message to Reid that if the senator thought Sierra Pacific was going to roll over and play dead, this power struggle over power is far from over.

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