Power customers plead for "No" vote on rate increase

Charles Martins, center, questions the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada on Monday night during a consumer session in Carson City.  A capacity crowd of mostly disgruntled energy customers filed in to protest a proposed rate hike.

Charles Martins, center, questions the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada on Monday night during a consumer session in Carson City. A capacity crowd of mostly disgruntled energy customers filed in to protest a proposed rate hike.

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If Sierra Pacific Power could have harnessed the heat generated by the bodies of 160-plus disgruntled electricity customers on Monday, the power crisis may have been solved.

Customers from all over Northern Nevada filled the state's Public Utilities Commission meeting hall in Carson City to standing-room capacity to speak out against a plan to increase power rates by an average of approximately 10 percent. The company says it needs the money to recoup $205 million in costs incurred during the peak of the western energy crisis, but one-by-one consumers offered dissent.

"They are a cost-suck company and have no incentive to be cost efficient," Carson City-resident B. Avakian told the listening panel of company executives, commission members and the state's consumer advocate. "How many of us have watched four, five, eight men on a crew with one man working?"

The overflowing crowd is representative of the strong opposition to two separate rate adjustments proposed by Sierra Pacific in November and January.

According to the company, a general rate adjustment would increase for large-volume energy users, but decrease for residential customers, while the proposed fuel and purchased power rate would increase across the board. The combined adjustments would raise rates an average of approximately 5 percent for typical residential customers.

Despite skepticism from consumers, and Consumer Advocate Tim Hay, Sierra Pacific Power has said its purchasing practices last summer were prudent given the extreme financial upheaval of western energy markets.

Those arrangements are central to many consumers disapproval of the proposed rate hikes.

"At the peak, or near the peak (of high-cost wholesale energy) Sierra Pacific purchased power as a business decision," said Bill Baxter, manager of a Lyon county manufacturing company. "If you choose to reward Sierra Pacific for their mistakes, then you are an enabler."

David Piel, a Carson City resident, went as far as advocating re-regulation, saying the price for power should not be beholden to a power company's investors.

"Sierra Pacific wants us to cover their sloppy business practices," he said. "In a civilized society, power is not a luxury, it's a necessity."

"I'm here to protest the rate increase because it's grossly unfair," said Carson City-resident Tom Wilson. "When I was a businessman, if I bought high and sold low, it came out of my pocket. When the utility does it, it comes out of rate payers' pockets."

Wanda Wright, a Palomino Valley-resident who has gathered close to 16,000 signatures in opposition to the rate hike, even wore a sandwich board proselytizing her views. She said supporters turned in 4,000 signatures to her prior to the meeting.

In Southern Nevada, where power service is provided by Nevada Power, a subsidiary of Sierra Pacific Resources, consumers have stood their ground in opposition to a proposed rate hike designed to recover $922 million expended for fuel and purchased power.

In that case, scheduled for a decision in the next two months, Hay has publicly opposed the hike, on the grounds of ill-advised purchasing decisions.

Other groups, including casinos and the commission staff, have also suggested reduced alternatives.

Although Hay has not definitively committed to the same position in Northern Nevada, he said Monday, "If what we learned in the Southern Nevada case proves to be true in Northern Nevada, we will be suggesting a substantial reduction."

Hay advises the commission in rate decisions.

The Nevada Power increase would increase a monthly $193.49 bill to $224.47 after April 1 if the plan is approved by the commission, according to state calculations.

In that case, Hay has chided Nevada Power for what he calls "imprudent buying decisions" made during a time when the Western energy crisis reached red alert, and the price per unit of the power was extreme.

Earlier this month, Walt Higgins, chairman and chief executive officer of Sierra Pacific Resources, Nevada Power's parent company, defended his company's decisions, calling Hay's rhetoric a "campaign of misinformation."

The same issues that have plagued the Nevada Power case in the public consciousness may be raised in Northern Nevada when Hay files testimony in April. The company has requested the rate changes to take effect June 1. Public testimony start April 8.

Another public meeting will be held March 4 at the Carson Valley Inn at 6 p.m.


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