Friday, April 13, 2012 | 6:26 p.m.
CARSON CITY — The Public Utility Commission is examining cutting electric bills for low-income Nevadans.
NV Energy has an estimated 140,000 low-income customers and its sister Sierra Pacific Power Co., of Reno, has 50,000, according to a study presented to the PUC.
The state has been running an assistance program to help those on welfare pay their power bills. But it has been hit hard during the economic downturn.
Mike Willden, director of the state Department of Health and Human Services, says 32,638 recipients got assistance checks in 2011 with an average payment of $860.
This year an estimated 25,000 persons will receive assistance checks averaging $470.
Willden said the state had federal stimulus money in 2011 but it's gone. And the state had a big reserve permitting it to increase the number of recipients and the amount in 2011. But that's been spent.
The 2011 Legislature, acting on the recommendation of Gov. Brian Sandoval, sliced $11 million from the budgets in each of the two fiscal years in this biennium. The Legislative Fiscal Analyst says that means more than 11,000 eligible recipients would not get any energy assistance.
The Public Utilities Commission in 2009 directed NV Energy to look into the potential of reducing the power bills for low income consumers. The utility hired Tetra Tech, which surveyed 2,720 customers. It found that low income customers spend 14.2 percent of their income to pay the energy bill compared to 3.5 percent for the average consumer. Low income consumers live in smaller homes and tend to use electricity which is more expensive and less efficient.
Approximately 57 percent of low-income households reported that they live in homes built in the 1970s or earlier, while only 43 percent of the other households live in homes built in that timeframe, said Tetra.
Comparing the same size single-family homes, Tetra Tech says low income residents consume 209 kilowatt hours less than the non-low income customer.
The state Bureau of Consumer Affairs says Nevada is near the bottom in receiving federal funds for the energy assistance program.
No matter what the PUC does, relief may be on the way for welfare recipients.
Miki Allard, staff specialist in the state Division of Welfare and Supportive Services, said the agency couldn't determine what Congress was going to do with the budget last year. So as not to make changes in the grants in the middle of the year, the agency drafted a conservative assistance program. Allard said this coming fiscal year is different and the program may be expanded and the assistance checks increased.