The Nevada Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project near Tonopah. (Photo by BLM Nevada)
Let’s talk about that energy initiative.
No, not that one. The other one.
There are two energy-related questions on the ballot this November — Question 3 (known as the Energy Choice Initiative) and Question 6 (known as the Renewable Energy Standard Initiative). If you’ve heard of the former but not the latter, you wouldn’t be alone. Question 3 has dominated public and political conversation. Its well-funded proponents and opponents have collectively shelled out $30 million to make their case as to why Nevada should — or shouldn’t — create an open energy marketplace.
By contrast, Question 6 has only one registered political action committee — Nevadans for a Clean Energy Future, which submitted the ballot initiative. It has no formal opponents and has avoided headline-grabbing political theatrics, though its grassroots coalition continues to grow as election day nears.
Ballot measures by law cannot be directly related to one another, but there’s no doubt Question 3 and Question 6 could impact one another. Exactly how so remains up for debate, but one aspect of energy policy prominently crosses both measures: renewable energy.
It is the sole focus of Question 6, and a prominent talking point for Question 3.
What’s on the ballot
Question 3 — the Energy Choice Initiative — would require the Nevada Legislature to create “an open, competitive retail electric energy market” and that “economic and regulatory burdens be minimized in order to promote competition and choices in the electric energy market.” The deadline set for this to happen: 2023.
Question 6 — the Renewable Energy Promotion Initiative — would require electric utilities in Nevada to acquire at least 50 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030. It sets incremental steps to be met along the way. The industry term for this type of mandate is “renewable portfolio standard” (RPS). The current standard in Nevada is 25 percent renewable energy by 2025.
Both energy measures are amendments to the Nevada Constitution, which means they must be approved by voters twice before they can be enacted. Question 3 first appeared on the 2016 ballot and was overwhelmingly approved by voters, who were far more focused on arguing about the presidential election, the legalization of marijuana and background checks of potential gun owners. This is Question 6’s first time appearing on the ballot, so if it passes this November it will appear again in 2020.
The case for renewables
Question 6 is not the first attempt to increase Nevada’s renewable standard. During the 2017 legislative session, a group of state legislators successfully passed a bill to increase the RPS to 40 percent renewables by 2030.
Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed it.
In his official explanation, the governor directly referenced Question 3 and the uncertainty it brings: “Although the promise of (a higher RPS) is commendable, its adoption is premature in the face of evolving energy policy in Nevada.”
As of April 2018, NV Energy is currently at 23.8 percent renewable — above the current milestone requirement of 20 percent.
With its current RPS of 25 percent by 2025, Nevada isn’t considered a leader in renewable energy standards. A ranking compiled by KNVC put it 18th out of the 38 states with some form of a renewable energy standard. Leading the nation is Hawaii with a goal of 100 percent renewable by 2040 and Vermont with a goal of 75 percent by 2032.
“There’s no excuse for one of the sunniest states to only get about 20 percent from renewable sources,” says Kyle Roerink, the spokesperson for Nevadans for a Clean Energy Future. “Folks understand that we need to get back to being a national example.”
Beyond the environmental and health benefits, supporters of Question 6 believe there’s a financial argument to be made as well. They say Nevada sends $700 million annually on out-of-state fossil fuels, money that would be better spent investing in renewable energy and its related jobs.
According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, Nevada is the fourth largest solar state. The state’s solar industry employs 6,564 workers.
Confusion creeps in
Renewable energy has long been a talking point of Question 3. The ballot measure was originally filed — and is currently advocated for — by a group named Nevadans for Affordable Clean Energy Choices. The “Yes on 3” campaign website features a bright illustration of solar panels and wind turbines. In ads, “Yes on 3” criticizes NV Energy for dragging its feet on renewables and suggests ending its monopoly will help usher in green jobs.
But Question 3 doesn’t require any of that.
That has become the main message for proponents of Question 6.
“The one difference that we want to make clear is that Question 6 is the only ballot measure that guarantees we have a 50 percent renewable energy standard by 2030,” says Roerink.
If Question 6 passes, it would affect all electric utilities in the state. That means NV Energy. It also means any new utility hoping to jump into an open energy market established by the passing of Question 3. “This policy will be in place no matter the energy market structure in Nevada,” states the FAQ portion of the Question 6 website.
For that reason, Roerink says Nevadans for a Clean Energy Future has “no dog in the Question 3 fight.” The group has not endorsed either “Yes on 3” or “No on 3.”
That position was reinforced this week by Tom Steyer, the founder of NextGen America, the nonprofit bankrolling Question 6. As reported by The Nevada Independent, Steyer said the campaign will remain neutral even if both sides of Question 3 endorse Question 6 — which he said was a possibility.
Thus far “No on 3” has remained neutral on Question 6.
“Yes on 3” meanwhile has endorsed Question 6, saying renewable energy is “part of our vision for Nevada’s energy future.” The “Yes on 3” campaign is financially funded by two primary donors — Switch and Las Vegas Sands Corp. The former is launching a large solar project here in Nevada.
Some see the endorsement as disingenuous.
State Assemblyman Chris Brooks is a leader on energy legislation in Nevada. He heralded the eventually-vetoed 2017 bill to increase the renewable standard. Brooks believes the passing of Question 3 would hinder the growth of renewable energy. He says he believes it would hurt rooftop solar programs and put net metering in jeopardy. Both programs would have to be re-configured with the passing of Question 3.
The “No on 3” campaign also argues the passing of Question 3 would threaten existing or planned clean-energy projects. That includes an NV Energy plan announced and reported on in May to double the state’s current capacity for renewable energy, which the company has said outright it will not proceed with if Question 3 is passed. NV Energy is the primary financer of the “No on 3” campaign.
Brooks says the bottom line is Question 3 isn’t about renewables at all.
“Supporters of Question 3 can say what they will,” he says. “They were not supportive of the RPS when it was in the legislative session. I think they showed their true colors.”
LV Sands, along with Wynn Resorts and the Nevada Resort Association, opposed raising the renewable portfolio standard in 2017. (NV Energy officially remained neutral but proposed amendments to it while it was being worked in committee.)
Brooks adds, “Question 3 is really about large utility users and large companies wanting to do what they think will get them lower rates. … I think a lot of the motivation (for voters) during the first vote on Question 3 came from a desire for more renewables. They’re trying to capitalize on that sentiment. But I don’t feel Question 3 does anything to help renewables.”
Scot Rutledge, a spokesperson for “Yes on 3” and the former Executive Director of the Nevada Conservation League, flatly disagrees with that assessment.
He says “the little guy” is the primary focus of Question 3. He points out that, thanks to legislation passed in 2011, large corporations have the option to leave NV Energy. Some, including Switch, have already done so. Others, including LV Sands, would like to but have been turned off by hefty exit fees.
“If you’re talking about corporatization, that exists today,” says Rutledge. “It’s NV Energy, a billionaire monopoly. We’re saying, allow competition. … Let’s not forget it was NV Energy that killed rooftop solar. That affected small businesses.”
Rutledge says the plans NV Energy unveiled this year would only bring renewable to 40 percent. An open, competitive market would be better. He argues that the states with energy choice — he uses Texas as a prime example — are also leading the way on developing clean energy.
He says Question 3 opens the door for community solar co-ops that could bring renewable energy options to low-income households currently priced out of rooftop solar.
“NV Energy only like renewable if they control it,” says Rutledge. “The option of 100 percent renewable is possible in a competitive market.”
When it comes to Question 3 and renewables, everything comes down to opinions and data from other states, which may or may not be apples-to-apples. Nobody knows exactly what an open market in Nevada would look like. The Legislature would have two sessions — 2019 and 2021 — to work everything out.
From its perch, the Guinn Center, which released a voter guide for Question 3, found no correlation between restructuring electricity markets and increased renewables.
Question 3 passed with 72 approval back in 2016, but because of this year’s high-profile battle, nobody is predicting a landslide victory this time around. An RGJ-Suffolk poll released last month showed 46 percent opposed Question 3, 31 percent supported it, and 22 percent were undecided. (That poll did not ask about Question 6.)
Assemblyman Brooks has already filed a bill draft request for the upcoming 2019 legislative session to revise the renewable portfolio standard. Whether it meets the same fate as his 2017 efforts may depend on how scrambled legislators feel about an enacted Question 3, and who is elected the next governor.
“I’m optimistic I’ll be able to pass a bill that our next governor will sign,” says Brooks.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate and Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak has said he opposes Question 3 and supports Question 6. His Republican competitor, Attorney General Adam Laxalt hasn’t weighed in publicly on Question 6, but his campaign website does note he “will oppose efforts to impose or expand costly and burdensome mandates on energy providers.” He supports Question 3.
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