By: Angel De Fazio, Investigative Reporter
Fast-food chain Wendy’s once had an elderly, spritely woman named Clara utter this famous question promoting its hamburgers. The PUC has not answered a similar question.
Where’s the proposed ruling?
The controversial draft decision regarding who will pay what for existing and new residences equipped with solar panels has not been issued. The subject is to be considered by Commissioners tomorrow morning, Tuesday, December 22nd. But as of 5:00 p.m. on the 18th, no information has been released to the public for its review. Where is the draft decision? As currently for the agenda meeting on the 22nd, according to the currently released draft orders etc., there are over 384 pages to read, review and formulate an opinion.
A PUC public meeting between November 18th and 20th discussed permanent net metering (credits to residential solar generators and appropriate costs 6,000 existing Nevadans and prospective solar generators incur when using the electricity grid). The public was unable to participate, only observe this three-day meeting, where attorneys and their paid witnesses attempted to leapfrog over one another. Over one month has passed and the PUC has produced nothing for the public to review after many hours of deliberations.
Hypothetically, the draft order could be simultaneously released to Commissioners and the public as little as one hour before the meeting. The PUC’s General Counsel, Carolyn Tanner, has stated in an e-mail that as long as the public and the Commissioners receive the information at the same time, there is no violation of state law. The rest of the agenda items and backup documents for the December 22nd meeting were issued last Thursday.
A last-minute distribution of the decision to be voted on would leave little time for the public or Commissioners to read, digest, comprehend, and formulate appropriate comments and questions about what has been assembled by the Commissioners’ personal administrative attorneys, the PUC’s multiple policy advisors and the PUC’s 56-person Regulatory Operations staff . As is the PUC’s standard practice, the public will receive no answers to questions it might ask about the proposed decision during public comment.
The PUC has little time to further extend deliberations, as it must meet a December 31st deadline to address this issue one way or another per the 78th Legislature’s Senate Bill 374. In a November 16, 2015 letter from four members of the state Senate Committee on Commerce, Labor and Energy to the PUC, the PUC was reminded it is “the appropriate lead entity to establish a separate, cost-based rate that fairly accounts for the cost of providing service to net metering customers.”
The PUC’s last-minute scramble is reminiscent of a college student failing to study the whole semester, then trying to pass the final exam by cramming the night before.
Conflicting Interests—Commissioners Thomsen and Noble
Newly-appointed Chairman Paul Thomsen has uttered conflicting statements on the subject of solar subsidies vs. self-sufficiency. While heading the Governor’s Office of Energy, Thomsen sent one of his employees to testify at the PUC’s August 21, 2015 temporary net metering regulation meeting. Thomsen’s employee stated Governor Sandoval would no longer allow solar to be subsidized by other ratepayers.
Thomsen stated to the August 5, 2014 Geothermal Energy Association’s meeting that “geothermal has been a slow, steady, reliable resource for us and a huge economic development driver in the state of Nevada.”
Then at the November 18-20, 2015 PUC meetings on permanent net metering rules, Thomsen stated “solar was responsible for 6,000 jobs in Nevada and that couldn’t be discounted.”
As a former aide to Senator Harry Reid, a prolific funder of renewable energy projects from the Federal treasury, and as Vice President of Government Affairs/Lobbying for Ormat Technologies, a large geothermal company, Thomsen comes to his newfound regulatory duties at the PUC with significant experience as a renewable energy advocate and connections to the renewal energy industry.
One of the other Commissioners, David Noble, has previously advocated for tripling the basic service charge in cases before the PUC. The basic service charge applies whether someone uses one kilowatt hour or 10,000, disproportionately hurting low-income Nevadans and modest users of electricity.
Noble has had legal troubles of late regarding his refusal to release public records. On August 25, 2015, his records of meetings and communications with NV Energy and the Edison Electric Institute, a utility company trade organization, regarding solar energy and net metering were requested under the Nevada Public Records Act. For the three and one-half year period at issue, Noble has refused to produce his personal meeting calendar, claiming privacy interests. Noble produced no text messages during this period, claimed he made one phone call to NV Energy, and has failed to certify he sent no e-mails on issues of public business over his personal smart phone. Noble’s PUC public servant role requires him to serve the public interest in an ‘open and transparent’ manner, per PUC publications and on-the-record statements by PUC staff to the Legislature. There is his perception of transparency and that of the rest of the state.
A search of public records shows Noble earned an $112,977 base salary in 2014 at the PUC. He and his spouse own two homes in Incline Village, an affluent Washoe county mountain community, with an estimated Trulia market value of over $2.3 million. Given Noble’s position on basic service charge increases and his lifestyle, his prospective ability to understand how hard it is for many Nevadans to pay their steadily-increasing NV Energy bills if the PUC approves continued subsidies to solar panel owners may be questioned on December 22nd. Given his unapproachable attitude towards ratepayers, it clearly shows he has no concept of what financial struggles Nevadans have while he lives in what apparently is a lifestyle of ‘luxury’.
Where are the cost savings?
Cost-effective operations at the PUC have been questioned in several recent instances.
One of the Commissioners accrued a $10,000 state credit card bill for one month of travel and entertainment charges in fall, 2015, per state financial records. Who did they entertain and at what level for costs this high?
Six PUC staff members (five attorneys and Thomsen) attended a NARUC (National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners) conference in Austin, Texas between November 8th and 15th. Most private businesses would send one or two people to such a conference, reporting back to their co-workers. Not the PUC, they aren’t paying for these conferences, so why should they care about costs. The newly-hired PUC Executive Director, Stephanie Mullen, comes from a summer camp background and also functions as the PUC’s Chief Financial Officer. If she made an effort, it was not successful in reducing these travel costs.
Noble serves as the 2015-16 President of NARUC’s Western Conference of Public Service Commissioners. He has planned the 127th Meeting at Incline Village’s Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort between May 21-25, 2016. The base hotel room rate for these dates is $203/night, while the Grand Sierra Resort and Peppermill Resort in central Reno, near the Reno airport, would charge $79 and $77 per night, respectively. Even with a volume discount, public employees don’t need to be traveling high on the hog on the public’s dime staying at the Hyatt. Utility ratepayers must cover all of these travel, lodging, restaurant and other in-person meeting expenses, including a 65-mile round trip by limousine, taxi or rental car between Incline Village and the Reno Tahoe International Airport.
NARUC offers no Skype, video conferencing or other types of remote conference attendance, unlike most other trade groups, as a way of saving on travel and entertainment expenses.
Where will the PUC go next?
Speculation has run the gamut about how the PUC will proceed on December 22nd. Some of the potential outcomes include:
Accepting NV Energy’s proposal to continue subsidies to the 6,000 Nevadans who installed their solar panels before the statewide 3% cap was reached in August, bill credits at retail electricity rates for their excess generation and charge them nothing for maintaining or accessing the electricity grid at night and on cloudy days. Subsequent solar installations would pay electricity grid access charges and receive a lower, wholesale credit for their excess electricity.
Credit all solar panel owners (current and prospective) at wholesale rates for their excess generation and charge them electricity grid access charges.
Remove all subsidies of solar panel owners by non-solar ratepayers; let technology and market forces govern solar’s future.
Do nothing now and defer consideration and inclusion of solar panel cost subsidies until the next general rate cases beginning in mid-2016 for Sierra Pacific Power (northern Nevada) and mid-2017 for Nevada Power.
Until the overdue, proposed net metering policy proposal is revealed to Commissioners and the public, impacted, economically-strapped Nevadans are left asking the question: Where’s the delinquent PUC ‘beef’/work product?