Whittling Away at Energy Waste in Nevada

State legislators commit to a sustainable course with an ambitious new energy efficiency law.
Rainbow Mountain Wilderness, Nevada

Bob Wick/BLM

It’s a lesser-known inconvenient truth: Despite an overall shift to cleaner energy sources, the United States wastes about two-thirds of the energy it produces. That ratio doesn’t sit well with lawmakers in Nevada, who are working to commit the Silver State to a series of long-term energy efficiency goals. In April, Senate Bill 150 passed the Nevada Senate by a unanimous 21–0 margin; in May it passed the Assembly 34–5, and Governor Sandoval signed the bill into law in June. The new legislation aims to cement Nevada’s investment in an advanced energy economy, and shows a determination on the state level to help address climate change with electricity savings, in contrast with the Trump administration’s war on energy efficiency.

For years, Nevada was a leader in energy efficiency programs. But after the financial crisis of 2008, the state’s utility regulators wanted to cut costs, and they cut not just fat but bone, too, reducing energy efficiency program budgets and ending some popular and very cost-effective programs, such as those that lowered the price of LED lightbulbs. While states like Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona spent about $20 per resident on efficiency measures in 2014, Nevada was spending less than $10. That meant forgoing sorely needed replacements for leaky windows, poor insulation, and antiquated lighting and letting go of the state’s once-leading energy-conservation standards.

Senate Bill 150, sponsored by Democratic Senator Pat Spearman, aims to get Nevada back on track by requiring the state’s public utilities to meet ambitious energy efficiency goals each year. While legislators had initially proposed that utilities increase their efficiency to save an amount equal to 1.5 percent of annual sales, NV Energy balked at adhering to rigid targets. So instead of setting numerical goals, a regulatory body, with NRDC’s input, will set new achievable energy efficiency benchmarks from one year to the next. “What we’re aiming at here is to increase the utilities’ investment in energy efficiency,” says NRDC senior scientist Dylan Sullivan, who was involved in drafting the bill. Eventually, the new legislation is projected to double NV Energy’s savings from efficiency programs, making it a good long-term bet for the utility as well as its customers.

Analysts expect that the new law will boost the state’s economy by driving employment in the energy and building sectors. “Energy efficiency is very cheap, but it’s very labor-intensive,” Sullivan says. “By shifting money from electricity generation over to energy efficiency, we create jobs.” To meet energy savings targets, utilities will expand energy efficiency programs that make it easier and cheaper for owners and tenants in residential, commercial, and government buildings to save energy. More contractors will be tightening up large commercial buildings and installing more efficient lighting systems. More retailers will be carrying more efficient appliances and electronics, at lower prices.

The new standards could also reduce overhead for local businesses, which legislators hope would spur broader economic growth. “For small businesses, the second-largest expense, after personnel, is operating costs,” said Quentin Abramo, the founder of Las Vegas–based sustainable design company Faciliteq, in a recent Nevada Senate energy subcommittee meeting.

Nevada Crescent Dunes solar project

BLM Nevada

Another facet of the legislation is designed to supply relief to some of Nevada’s poorest residents. It requires big utilities to set aside 5 percent of their budgets for programs that reduce energy costs for low-income households. “People who have low incomes pay a disproportionate share on basic necessities,” Sullivan says, partially due to the aging, inefficient appliances and outdated heating and cooling systems they must often rely on. Shrinking their energy bills, he points out, would give low-income households more room in their budgets for other necessities.

Senate Bill 150 succeeded in part due to strong bipartisan support as well as the approval of the utilities, says Sullivan. And a related piece of legislation, Assembly Bill 223—which will make energy efficiency programs more accessible to Nevada homeowners—has already been signed. However, Governor Sandoval vetoed a bill pushing for stronger investment in renewable energy, AB 206, which would have committed Nevada to producing 40 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. “Energy efficiency and renewable energy are great complements,” Sullivan says. “The optimal energy policy is a combination.” He points out that when power companies add solar, it stabilizes electricity prices, because solar does not require ongoing fossil-fuel inputs, and the price of fossil fuels is volatile. But Assembly Bill 206’s prospects had been less certain than Senate Bill 150’s, because large resort employers like Wynn Resorts and Las Vegas Sands, along with the Nevada Resort Association, came out in opposition to it in April.

Over time, policies that shore up Nevada’s commitment to greener power could help bring more than $3 billion into the state’s economy, according to a recent NRDC analysis. “Saving energy is the cleanest and cheapest way we can meet our energy needs,” Sullivan says. If that proves true, a state long known for its glitz and excess could set a new standard in thrift and efficiency.

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