Special election edition: Rolling the dice in Las Vegas as RPS ballot initiatives are in a Steyer situation. “There is great electricity in the air,” President Trump said on the campaign trail last night. But while all eyes are on the balance of power in today’s mid-term election, it is also without question one of the most consequential in terms of the obscure issue of electricity regulation as any in memory. Like a gambler on winning-streak high, voters in Nevada will decide, all in, yea or nay, whether to amend the state’s constitution to end monopoly regulation of electric utilities, namely Warren Buffet’s NV Energy, and allow the state’s consumers to shop among competing electricity providers.
The most recent Rasmussen poll (September) doesn’t bode well for Nevada’s Question 3, as the customer choice initiative is known. Las Vegas Sands Corp. gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson, who happens to be a big financial supporter of the GOP agenda and candidates, has been outspent 2-1 in an unprecedented $100 million advertising war over today’s vote. It is the second of two required votes. The initiative must be passed twice by voters in order to effectively alter the state’s constitution.
In the 2016 election, voters overwhelmingly approved the energy choice initiative. More than 70 percent of voters agreed that monopoly protection for NV Energy should end, and consumers should be able to choose among competing suppliers of electricity.
NV Energy remained neutral two years ago, leading to the landslide approval of the initiative. This year, NV Energy, a unit of Berkshire Hathaway, went all in, wagering some $70 million that a fear-mongering campaign over the prospects of electricity competition in the state will sway voters to reject the ballot question as risk to continued renewable energy investment and stable rates. Supporters have countered with the fact that more than a dozen states have adopted competitive retail energy markets for electricity, driving down consumer costs and enabling cleaner energy-generation technologies.
If Question 3 fails to muster enough votes today, it likely won’t be the end of the debate in Nevada. Especially since many political leaders expressed support for competition, but rejected the constitution-altering ballot measure as the vehicle for effectuating such a change. Pass or fail, the debate over electricity restructuring in Nevada will move to the state Legislature after today’s vote.
The Arizona Corporation Commission election will determine the line up as the commission appears poised to revisit the idea of retail electric choice. Incumbent Justin Olson and fellow Republican Rodney Glassman face off against Democrats Sandra Kennedy and Kiana Sears. Olson and fellow commissioners Robert Burns and Boyd Dunn have suggested the state revisit the idea of restructuring to promote electricity competition. Tomorrow’s commission agenda has been amended to include a “possible vote on a policy regarding retail electric competition.”
While the mainstream media’s attention will be on pivotal Senate races in Nevada and Arizona, the trade and financial press will be watching to see what happens with two Tom Steyer-funded ballot initiatives to establish stricter renewable energy mandates in those sun-rich states. There is a marked contrast in how utilities in the two states have responded to the ballot measures that billionaire Democratic activist Steyer has spent millions to promote. In Nevada, NV Energy has not weighed into the fray against Question 6, which would require at least 50 percent of the state’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030. Arizona’s Proposition 127 also would create a 50 percent renewables mandate by 2030, but the state’s utilities – Pinnacle West in particular – have spent millions of dollars to thwart its passage. Another important ballot initiative is in Washington State, where voters will decide whether to impose a tax on carbon emissions. Ballot Initiative 1631 would impose a $15 dollars per ton fee on carbon emissions, an amount that would rise $2 per ton annually until the state meets specified emissions-reduction goals.
Meanwhile, the election of Public Service Commission members in Georgia promises to be a de facto referendum on the state’s commitment to impose nearly $30 billion in costs on the state’s electricity consumers to build two new nuclear power reactors at the Plant Vogtle nuclear power station. With generous campaign finance support from Southern Co., Georgia’s PSC has always been friendly to the utility giant’s agenda. But this year candidates have stood out in their opposition to the immense costs that Southern’s nuclear development program is imposing on consumers, while calling for the state to do more to promote renewable energy development.
In two PSC races, challengers have been running against the incumbents’ support for the expensive nuclear development program. Republican incumbent Chuck Eaton and Democratic challenger Lindy Miller have been engaged in a rhetorical battle over the extent to which Georgia’s electricity costs are increasing. That race also features Libertarian candidate Ryan Graham. Republican incumbent Tricia Pridemore, an ardent proponent of the Vogtle nuclear expansion and nuclear power in general, faces Democrat Dawn Randolph and Libertarian John Turpish.
A win by the nuclear cost-skeptical challengers could mark a turning point in the state’s Southern-dominated regulatory climate.