PUC hears opinions on Sierra Pacific rate hike | NevadaAppeal.com
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PUC hears opinions on Sierra Pacific rate hike

by geoff dornan

A number of citizens questioned why they should pay more for electric power Wednesday as the Public Utilities Commission held its second public hearing on Sierra Pacific Power’s request for a $95 million rate increase.

If approved, the increase would eventually bump up overall electric power rates the company charges by 13 percent. But Bob Cooper of the Bureau of Consumer Protection pointed out that residential and apartment rates were going up more than the average – about 15 percent.

Only about 20 area residents went to the meeting at PUC headquarters in Carson City, and just eight addressed the PUC. But several attendees said that’s better than the turnout in Reno Tuesday.

Maria Masini said her family operates a 300-acre farm that requires a lot of electric power, and that they have no place to recoup the extra money they’ll have to pay. She questioned how much Sierra Pacific pays its employees and charged that existing residents were being forced to pay for growth needs caused by new development.

She was joined by Gary Barnett of Carson City, who said residents are “being penalized for the growth in Dayton,” sentiments echoed by speakers.

“My usage hasn’t gone up in over a year, but you want me to pay almost 10 percent more,” said Barnett. He and several other people questioned where seniors would get the extra money.

Utility president Jeff Ceccarelli said that as much as possible, the company tries to make growth pay for itself, but admitted that when Sierra Pacific must install new transmission lines and other major infrastructure, the cost falls on all its customers.

He said rising costs are the reason for the rate increase, explaining Sierra Pacific lost $17 million in 2002 and $22 million through last July.

Supporting farmers in the state, Nevada Department of Agriculture Director Don Henderson urged the utility to continue providing agriculture with a cheaper power rate. The proposal would change how that rate is calculated, which Henderson fears could increase costs to farmers.

Tony Pilant and Lou deBottari, both of Carson City, questioned why other states like Idaho, Oregon and neighboring parts of California have lower power rates.

Ceccarelli said much of that has to do with proximity to hydroelectric power generated in the Northwest. Hydroelectric is the cheapest source of power. He and Rates vice president Mary Simmons said recent increases in California have brought their rates to nearly the same as those in western Nevada.

Ceccarelli said Sierra Pacific is unable to get large amounts of hydroelectric power and must pay more for power generated primarily by natural gas.

Several speakers questioned why Sierra Pacific doesn’t try use more solar, wind and other renewable sources of power. Suzanne Johnson of Gardnerville said she used solar power when she lived in California and urged the utility to develop more renewable sources. Sandy Gailor urged more emphasis on windmills since Nevada has “a lot of wind.”

Ceccarelli pointed out that solar is one of the most expensive ways of generating electricity, but said the company is trying to increase renewable sources. He said he believes the company has a new contract with a firm planning to develop wind power.

But he said with some 8 percent of its power coming from renewable sources, the company is far ahead of most utilities in that area – although nearly all of that is from the geothermal plant between Reno and Carson City.

Ceccarelli said the average residential bill will increase a total of $8.65 if the increase is approved. He said the utility has proposed raising rates 9.7 percent overall in June and deferring the rest of the increase until 2005. The rate case is expected to take until then to complete.