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Tahoe electric competition down the road

Patrick McCartney

Tahoe Basin residents will have to wait six months to a year before they can take advantage of California’s competitive electricity market, which went into effect Wednesday.

That’s the word from National Energy Choice, the only electricity broker so far to enter into an agreement with Sierra Pacific Power Co. to provide electricity in Sierra Pacific’s service district.

Despite having an agreement in hand, National Energy Choice has no way to deliver wholesale energy purchased on California’s open market because of a federal ruling that gives Sierra Pacific exclusive use of its only external transmission line. Sierra Pacific has successfully argued the line’s capacity is too limited to allow access to competitors.

Unless the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission reverses the ruling, and until Sierra Pacific completes construction of a second transmission line, only energy producers within Sierra Pacific’s 50,000-square-mile service area can offer Sierra Pacific customers alternative power.

That effectively eliminates the 200 energy wholesalers who have qualified to provide alternative power service to California’s residential customers.

“Be patient,” is the advice offered by Rick Madrid, Sierra Pacific’s Lake Tahoe spokesman. “The market’s changing rapidly, and it’s just been up and running one day.”

Under the rules that limit the ability of outside companies to export energy to Sierra Pacific, only the Idaho Power Co. generates enough electricity within Sierra Pacific’s service area to supply Tahoe Basin consumers. Idaho Power is a full partner with Sierra Pacific in the 500-megawatt Valney Power Plant, a coal-fired generating station near Winnemucca.

The company, which supplies electricity to 360,000 customers in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon, last year began supplying the Truckee-Donner Public Utility District with wholesale electricity. The arrangement settled a lawsuit Truckee-Donner filed against Sierra Pacific, by which it sought access to energy providers outside Sierra Pacific’s service boundary.

Steve Watanabe of Idaho Power’s wholesale marketing division said the company is talking with other potential wholesale customers, but is not yet ready to offer retail service in the Tahoe Basin or elsewhere in the Sierra Pacific service area.

“We’re in discussion with other large-scale wholesalers in Northern Nevada, and we are taking a look at possible retail business,” Watanabe said. “As Sierra Pacific has to compete under California’s new market, we’re trying to sort out how we can deliver to end-use customers.”

Searching for a way to offer Tahoe customers an alternate source of electricity, National Energy Choice has talked to Idaho Power about buying electricity from within the Sierra Pacific region, said Steve Remen, National’s managing director.

“If we find a way, we’ll be looking to supply power in the South Tahoe area,” Remen said. “Until the issue of transmission line constraint is resolved, it’s unclear when we will be serving customers in Tahoe.”

Remen said the company’s optimistic estimate for offering electricity in the basin is six months, and the company hopes to be in business here within a year.

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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