Lawmakers pass major energy bill on last day of session |

Lawmakers pass major energy bill on last day of session


CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) – The state Assembly gave final legislative approval early Tuesday to a bill to let large energy users buy power on the open market, help poor and fixed-income people pay their energy bills and boost the green-energy industry in Nevada.

AB661, approved minutes before in the Senate as the 2001 session drew to a close, has undergone several transformations since its introduction. Major provisions were stripped out and then restored as different deals were brokered.

In its final form, AB661 lets casinos, mines and big government agencies buy power from alternative providers. Under the provision, some of the big customers must resell at their cost 10 percent of the power they buy on the open market to Nevada utilities, which could use it to guarantee power to their smallest residential customers.

Even though AB661 seems to run counter to earlier legislation that delays deregulation, supporters of the latest bill say it will free up energy in the state, possibly driving down rates for customers who remain with Las Vegas-based Nevada Power and Reno-based Sierra Pacific Power.

Despite repeated efforts by the state’s consumer advocate, Shell Energy Corp. and many Democrats, groups of residents and small-business owners won’t be allowed to buy power on the open market.

Another major change in AB661 was the resurrection of an $11 million energy-assistance fund. The fund originally was part of another bill that was killed in the Senate on May 28.

Under the provision, the average residential utility customer will be charged about 43 cents a month to fund the program for low-income customers. Large users, such as casinos and mines, have a $100,000 annual cap.

Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, was one of the main negotiators of the bill. She said she focused on consumer and environmental protections.

”The renewable sections in AB661, when linked to AB372, really give us a progressive package,” she said, adding that with AB372 lawmakers have increased the amount of green-energy that utilities must buy from 1 percent to 15 percent of their power portfolio – one of the best standards in the nation.

”The environmentalist community should be happy,” Leslie said.

Among other things, AB661:

– Appropriates $250,000 to a newly created green-energy task force made up of industry leaders.

– Establishes state bonding programs to promote renewable energy.

– Puts the state Energy Department under the office of the governor to enhance the department’s status.

– Mandates the coordination of the state Public Utilities Commission, Energy Department and Consumer Advocate’s Office.

– Calls for an independent audit of Nevada utilities.

– Expands the PUC board from three to five commissioners, including a commissioner to represent the general public.

– Requires public consumer sessions on rate cases and two general consumer sessions each year.

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