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Solar panels seen at the Copper Mountain Solar 3 facility near Boulder City on Monday, April 22, 2019. (Jeff Scheid-Nevada Independent)

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The Public Utilities Commission of Nevada “has come out of its dark ages.” That’s the phrase Rebecca Wagner, a former commissioner, used to describe the panel’s decision this week to join other Western utility regulators in a joint framework aimed at addressing climate change. 

On Monday, the state’s top utility regulator signed an agreement with California, Oregon and Washington that pledges to consider climate change in its decision-making. According to the memo, the goal of the partnership is “to ensure that investor-owned utilities operate in a manner that protects human health and safety, the environment and ratepayers from risks related to carbon pollution.” Specifically, the memo says that utility regulators in the four states will share information about conservation and look for ways to enhance regional energy markets. 

The move is a big one for the utilities commission, a quasi-judicial agency that has often found itself in the middle of intense debates over the deployment of renewables. In December 2015, the commission cut the amount that NV Energy paid customer for excess power from rooftop solar arrays, a “net metering” decision that has since been undone but created a perception among many that Nevada was anti-solar. But in the last four years, a lot of that has changed. 

The commission and the Legislature created rules to restart the solar market. The utility has also made a concerted effort to acquire more solar energy, as the cost of large-scale arrays have trended downward. And perhaps even more importantly, it has been more vocal about telling its customers about it. At the same time, the politics around the issue have shifted. Gov. Steve Sisolak campaigned on climate change — and gave it a shoutout in his State of the State — and a bill to raise the renewable standards glided through the Legislature. 

In this context, the commission’s decision seems like the next natural step forward. 

“This is demonstrating that the [utilities commission] has come out of its dark ages and is now looking more broadly at the world with regard to climate and clean energy,” Wagner said in an interview. “I think for so long, you get bogged down on issues like net metering and it distracts you from the bigger picture of what you’re supposed to be doing at the commission.”

Wagner said she hoped the framework — and very public acknowledgment of climate change — would help the commission think in longer terms. The commission’s core job is to balance the public interest with the interest of utility shareholders, since the companies it regulates are for-profit but also serve a vital public purpose, the delivery of power. As regulators consider the public interest, Wagner hopes they consider climate change alongside short-term impacts on rates and business operations.

The symbolism aside, there are two other areas where this framework could influence energy policy in interesting ways.

First: As the West adjusts to a shifting wildfire regime, driven in part by climate change, utilities are being forced to grapple with liability. The framework could help Nevada learn best practices from other states as it develops regulations regarding wildfire.

The second: Grid regionalization.

Throughout much of the United States, the electric grid is dispersed, with energy resources often contained by state lines. Regulators have introduced a number of acronym-laden policies to help shift this paradigm in recent years, but by and large, utilities operate their own grids. In recent years, there has been a push to integrate the Western grid, in part to make renewables more efficient across state lines. Critics of grid regionalization, especially in California, have often pushed back on the idea as other states lag behind in their clean energy goals. As more states come together around climate change, it will be interesting to watch how it these dynamics change, if at all.

Here are some other stories I’m watching…

Lake Mead Rises: Federal water managers are expected to release a much-awaited study on the Colorado River today. The August report, known as the 24-month-study, serves as a key benchmark for Southwest water managers. And this year it could carry special significance.

Officials from the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that operates the river’s network of dams and reservoirs, use the report to project whether Lake Mead elevations warrant voluntary cuts from the states in the watershed’s Lower Basin — Arizona, California and Nevada. After a year of heavy precipitation, the study is expected to show Lake Mead starting 2020 at a higher elevation than was predicted last year, a forecast that would avoid an official shortage declaration.  

Still, the states might be asked to conserve water anyway. That’s because of the new guidelines agreed to in the Drought Contingency Plan, which the seven Colorado River states signed in May. Building off existing rules, the plan requires Arizona, Nevada and Mexico to forgo a fraction of its entitled supply — until wet years come again — when the reservoir is below 1,090 feet above sea level.

If the study projects Lake Mead starting the year at an elevation of 1,090, it would trigger those reductions. In practice, there would be zero impact on Las Vegas’ water supply. The Southern Nevada Water Authority has already significantly reduced its annual water use from the reservoir, as it incentives conservation and recycles most of its indoor water. In fact, the water authority could leave as much as 75,000 acre-feet in the reservoir this year, about nine times the amount that would be required under the 1,090-foot lake threshold. 

But the symbolism would be significant.

If the reservoir is projected to be below 1,090 feet, “it will be the first time ever for Rule of Law reductions in water use in the Lower Basin or anywhere in the Colorado River,” said Jennifer Pitt, an Audubon Society program director who has worked on Colorado River issues for years.

It would also be a recognition that the future of the river is likely one of less — not more — water, given historical overuse, new demands for water and projections from climate change.

“Ultimately, demands on the river system have to go down across the board if we are to stabilize the river system and water supplies over the long-term,” said Chris Kuzdas, a project manager for the Environmental Defense Fund’s water program. “The risk of future shortages are still there.”

What does “water stress” look like? Last week, a report came out showing global “water stress.” It was picked up by a number of outlets, including The New York Times. And a fellow environmental reporter in San Diego made a thoughtful critique on Twitter that is worth sharing. Studies like this come out frequently, and they lump a number of disparate places together, ranking them in terms of their “water stress,” or how close they are to using their supplies. The thing is that the reality is more complicated and nuanced. And the thread captures, quite well, the misleading way some studies are reported. It’s about Los Angeles, but it resonates across the West. 

That is not to say… that the Colorado River or the Truckee River don’t face a difficult future. There are likely to be droughts and more of them coming in back-to-back years. It will stress supplies, and it will make it harder to balance the interests of humans and wildlife. As another reporter pointed out on Twitter, the mountains that feed the Colorado River fall within one of the country's fastest warming areas. 

In danger of extinction: The Trump administration released a final rule on Monday to roll back regulations for implementing the Endangered Species Act of 1973, a bedrock environmental law. Many point to the law as one of the few pieces of federal environmental  legislation that can lead to actionable change. It is credited with saving the bald eagle and the grizzly bear. The legislation, passed with near unanimity in the 1970s, remains popular, but it is loathed by developers, who view it as overly restrictive and a proxy to stop projects. On Monday, conservation groups slammed the new rules.

At the same time, groups are continuing to fight for protections. On Wednesday, the Center for Biological Diversity asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Las Vegas bearpoppy under the Endangered Species Act, a yellow-flowered Mojave Desert plant that is threatened by grazing, mining and development. Although the plant was included in Clark County’s conservation plan for threatened species, the conservation groups argued that more action is needed to save the species, which has populations in a gypsum mining area and at the Apex Industrial Park.

9th Circuit on plutonium suit: The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied Nevada’s appeal in its ongoing litigation to prevent the Department of Energy’s secret shipment of plutonium last fall. The state filed an injunction in November to enjoin the shipment, after it came to light that the agency could ship a half-metric ton to the state. What the state didn’t know — until it was later revealed as part of the lawsuit — was that the agency had already shipped the material to Nevada. The appellate court said that the timing made an injunction an insufficient remedy, a blow to the state’s legal effort. 

In a statement Tuesday, Attorney General Aaron Ford said: “The Department of Energy’s deceitful behavior in handling these shipments demonstrates my office's need to continue aggressively litigating to hold the Department of Energy to its promises. The health and safety of all Nevadans is of paramount importance to my office, and our dedicated team will continue to pursue all options for ensuring that no further unlawful plutonium shipments reach this State.”

9th Circuit on grazing damages: On Friday, the court upheld a decision that Nevada rancher Wayne Hage’s estate owed the government $587,294 in damages for illegally grazing cattle on public land, E&E News reported. It’s the latest development in a case that began in 2007. 

Lake Tahoe, past and future: The annual Lake Tahoe Summit is on Tuesday, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom is scheduled to keynote. In the meantime, Tahoe Weekly has been doing a series on the history of Tahoe’s water wars and Capital Public Radio debuted “TahoeLand.”

Fueled by “classic” cars: We’ve all seen it. The “classic” license plate on a supposedly classic car that cannot be classified, by any reasonable definition, as classic. Last week, the Las Vegas Sun had an outstanding story about how practically any car more than 20-years old can skirt a smog test — and release harmful pollutants — by getting a “classic” license plate. A legislative bill in 2015 created an advisory committee to study the issue. The committee recommended closing the loophole. And guess what happened after that? We still have “classic” plates.

Clips from the news:

  • BLM offers Las Vegas Valley acreage for sale at auction (KVVU-TV)
  • Migrating California butterflies descend on Tahoe high country (RGJ)
  • Storm Area 51’s ‘Alienstock’ festival looks like it’s going to be a disaster (VICE)
  • $40,000 available for recycling projects in Nevada (Carson Now)
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