A billionaire invests in Nevada renewable energy

Temporary workers gather signatures in downtown Reno for an initiative petition sponsored by Tom Steyer.

Temporary workers gather signatures in downtown Reno for an initiative petition sponsored by Tom Steyer.


The streets of downtown Reno on March 24 were filled with people, and to two men seeking signatures on a petition, they were the right kind of people. The March for Our Lives had taken place that morning in downtown, and, afterward, participants scattered to coffee shops, stores and movies. It was outside the downtown movie theaters that the two men set up, gesturing with clipboards containing the petitions.

The petition is headed, “Renewable energy promotion initiative” and if it gets the required number of signatures and is enacted by voters, it would require increased reliance by state utilities on renewable sources “such as solar, geothermal and wind” to 50 percent. It would happen on a sliding scale—at least 26 percent in 2022-2033, 34 percent in 2024-2026, 42 percent in 2027-2029, and 50 percent in 2030 and thereafter.

The Nevada initiative petition is sponsored by Tom Steyer, a former hedge fund manager worth more than $1.6 billion who has pledged to spend half his fortune on good works. The petition was filed with the Nevada Secretary of State on Feb. 6.

There was a time when renewables were considered so impractical that someone—Ralph Nader is often credited—said that solar energy would be impractical “until the oil companies get a franchise on the sun.” That time is long past, in part because oil and other energy companies did buy up small energy research firms. Today, renewables are not only practical but have become economically competitive.

Still, the pace of switching over to renewables has not satisfied its supporters—some of whom have a financial stake in that switch. Right now, Nevada requires that 25 percent of electricity sales be derived from renewables by 2025. In 2016, the state reached 21.6 from biomass, geothermal, hydroelectric, solar and wind.

Steyer is trying to hurry that process along in at least three states—Michigan, where his initiative seeks 30 percent of renewables by 2030 and Arizona and Nevada, where 50 percent by 2030 is the goal.

But his Nevada and Arizona initiatives both have a feature that has made critics out of even some supporters of renewables. Both his initiative petitions for the states seek to write the thresholds into the state constitutions instead of state statutes.

Jon Wellinghoff, former federal and Nevada energy official and now CEO of Grid Policy Inc., said he supports the objectives of the measure but believes statutory legislation would be a better way of achieving it.

In Arizona, Democratic state legislators Robert Meza and César Ch&#;aacute;vez of Phoenix wrote in an essay in the Arizona Republic, “Arizonans should be careful. If voters approve this initiative, it will be locked into the Arizona Constitution and virtually impossible for policymakers to make corrections or account for changes in technology or the marketplace.”

In Nevada, if the Steyer petition were approved by voters and turned out to contain flaws, state legislators would be unable to make corrections in it for at least three years. The Arizona petition reportedly excludes nuclear as a renewable, but the Nevada petition seems to leave the definition of what is a renewable energy source up to the legislature.

The Nevada Constitution is more than 49,000 words long and contains many provisions that are not generally thought of as the stuff of constitutions. When including 27 amendments, the U.S. Constitution contains 7,591 words.

Legislative games

There could also be other problems ahead for Steyer’s initiative, if his experience in Arizona is any indication.

The Arizona Legislature is known for its provocative stances, as when in 1996, after Arizona and California voters approved the nation’s first medical marijuana initiatives, Arizona lawmakers promptly repealed it. Then, of course, there are its anti-immigrant measures.

After Steyer’s petition was filed, Wellinghoff said, the Arizona Legislature “smoked” it.

“What they did was say, OK, you can set the energy standards anywhere you want, but we’re going to say the penalty is just $5,000,” he said.

In fact, that is the top penalty. Fines could fall as low as $100—chump change to utilities. It would essentially make it painless for utilities to ignore the law. Or, to put it another way, breaking the law would become just another cost of doing business.

Could something similar happen in Nevada?

In the closing days of two consecutive Nevada Legislatures with Democratic majorities—2011 and 2013—NVEnergy lobbyists suddenly produced measures that they dared not produce earlier, when scrutiny would have been heavy. Legislators jumped to break house rules to accommodate them. One of the measures—an amendment to Senate Bill 123 in 2013—would have circumvented the regulatory process. “Never before has a bill been introduced that has such guarantees to [utility] shareholders,” said former Nevada Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa.

Later, under a Republican majority, the 2015 Nevada Legislature enacted Senate Bill 374, which the Public Utilities Commission later used to shut down the state net metering program, which caused Nevada solar firms to close down and even leave the state.

In other words, history shows the Nevada Legislature is susceptible to doing the bidding of power utilities.

Steyer’s initiative comes at a time when Western utilities are changing. While they may not be moving as quickly as their critics want, they are embracing renewables. Nevada now has 16 solar plants, including two opened in December by NVEnergy.

A coal plant in Nevada with a reputation as a particularly dirty facility that caused health problems—Reid Gardner, in southern Nevada—has been shut down. Coal-fired Valmy in northern Nevada remains open and is the subject of a tug-of-war between its two owners—Idaho Power, which wants the plant shut down as soon as possible, and NVEnergy, which wants to keep it open through 2025.

As Utility Dive reported last year, “Western states are slowly weaning off their reliance on coal-fired generation as economic and political pressure to shut down the carbon-intensive plans builds.”

On the other hand, NVEnergy seemed to assign less urgency to closing Valmy after Harry Reid left office and the coal-hating senator was no longer looking over the utility’s shoulder.