Sunday, April 19, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Before Jon Wellinghoff invites visitors into his 11th floor suite at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, he leads them to the office of a fellow commissioner down the hall for what might be regarded as a little gloating.
Inside the office, Wellinghoff looks up, not exactly mocking the light bulbs in the ceiling but clearly wanting a visitor to take note. The four-foot fluorescent bulbs look like the kind above any cubicle.
Now down to Wellinghoff’s office. It is bathed in a calm glow. Wellinghoff had all the fixtures replaced with energy efficient bulbs shortly after he was appointed in 2006. (They were donated.) A sensor detects the presence of the sun and adjusts the lights accordingly.
The changes have cut the energy bill for his suite in half.
So when the commission chairman is asked about lawmakers in his home state of Nevada considering a tax on the state’s nascent renewable energy exports as a way to generate cash, he suggests another approach to money making.
He suggests they dim the lights.
“It’s not farsighted to try to figure out how to tax those resources,” said Wellinghoff, who was tapped by President Barack Obama in March to lead the federal commission.
“One of the biggest resources Nevada has is not necessarily sun or geothermal. The largest resource Las Vegas has is energy efficiency. It’s a gold mine.”
Wellinghoff recently told business leaders in Las Vegas they could expect up to 30 percent returns on their investment in energy efficiency systems.
“That’s the first thing they need to do,” he said.
Wellinghoff’s 2006 appointment to the commission came at the recommendation of Nevada Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, now the majority leader. The two go way back — to Reid’s days as lieutenant governor and Wellinghoff’s time as a governor’s intern.
The Washington offices of Nevadans often feel like Wellinghoff’s. They have a bit of the West.
It’s not just in Wellinghoff’s boots, though they set a tone. It’s the geothermal map of Nevada on the wall. The black-and-white portraits of old Strip landmarks. It’s the cactus (a cactus!) growing on the windowsill.
The West has lost some of its luster these days, what with the housing bubble and its painful aftermath. Yet the promise Nevada brings as the nation’s renewable energy capital fosters dreams of another boom.
That a Westerner is leading this pivotal federal agency now is no coincidence.
Wellinghoff and Reid will play key roles in advancing Obama’s ambitious agenda to turn the country away from fossil fuels and foreign oil to green sources.
A Reid bill would give Wellinghoff’s commission vast authority to situate new power lines — using eminent domain, if necessary. Transmission lines are crucial, many believe, to carrying power from the sunny desert or windy hilltops to urban centers.
In fact, Wellinghoff blames Nevada’s lack of a north-south trunk line for the state’s inability to meet the standard he wrote that requires a portion of its energy from renewable sources.
That last point is noteworthy as Congress takes up legislation that would require a renewable energy standard nationwide. If sunny Nevada can’t meet the standard, how can other states?
“We can’t get there without renewables and we can’t get to the renewables without transmission,” Wellinghoff said.
At one point in the conversation, the chairman pulls his iPhone out of a hip holster. He punches an ap. It shows his hourly energy use at home. The new frontier, indeed.