Put power consumers first

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The debate over Sierra Pacific Power Co.'s request to increase electricity rates has taken on something of a "he said, she said" tenor, with the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada left to sort out the truth.

The focus has been on "prudent" purchases of power during last year's energy crisis. Sierra Pacific says it was buying power at high rates in order to keep the lights on. Critics, however, say the company was buying excess power in the hopes it could beat the market, a strategy that backfired.

All consumers see is residential rates that keep climbing, climbing, climbing. They're depending on the PUC to sort it out.

We've been critical of commission members in the past, calling them a rubber stamp for utilities. With the pressure on, it appears the PUC is making a serious effort to listen to consumers' concerns.

Ultimately, however, the answer is going to come from the numbers -- not the emotions. To be honest, we don't have the expertise to analyze the rate requests independently, nor do most consumers.

That's why we have to rely on Sierra Pacific, the Consumer Advocate's Office and the PUC to fairly represent us. So far, the power company and Consumer Advocate Tim Hay have wildly different opinions on the legitimacy of the rate proposals. The commission will have a tough decision to make.

We do see a couple of responses from Sierra Pacific, however, that simply fuel the anger of consumers.

One is that Sierra Pacific is decidedly downplaying its request for a general rate increase -- a request that would, indeed, enhance its bottom line. One request is to pass along power costs, but the other -- the general rate, a much smaller factor -- is intended to boost profits.

The other response is Sierra Pacific's apparent unwillingness to cut costs. The company's standard line is that overhead, including salaries, is such a small portion of the overall cost of providing power that cutting such costs wouldn't make much of a difference.

We disagree. It would make a significant difference in the tenor of the debate to know that while each and every customer of Sierra Pacific is having to make sacrifices in order to pay the power bill, the company itself is also willing to tighten its belt.

To grant Sierra Pacific a general rate increase at the same time the cost of power has gone through the roof seems, well, imprudent.

We're not asking the PUC to punish Sierra Pacific, even if some angry customers would like nothing better. We are, however, asking commission members to make Nevada's consumers their main consideration when it tallies the numbers.

It's not enough simply to listen to their concerns. It's time for the PUC to act on their behalf.


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