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Solar panels at Apple's solar field in Yerington, Nev. on Friday, April 11, 2014. Photo by David Calvert for WIRED.

Nevada voters may have overwhelmingly approved a ballot question that would double the state’s renewable standards if approved again in 2020, but several top lawmakers are pushing for bills that could make that initiative effectively irrelevant.

At least two Democratic lawmakers say they plan to push for measures raising Nevada’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, or RPS, above the 50 percent by 2030 goal laid out in Question 6, which Nevada voters approved by 59 to 41 percent in the 2018 election.

A RPS requires electric utilities to ensure a specified percentage of electricity they sell comes from renewable sources, usually tracked through a credit system. A RPS isn’t a perfect reflection of a utility’s renewable energy use — credits can be banked and used from year-to-year, or created through use at a power plant or through energy efficiency programs that don’t result in more renewable use.

Nevada’s current RPS is 20 percent and will increase to 25 percent by 2025; NV Energy said in April that it had a 24 percent clean energy portfolio in 2017.

The effort to raise Nevada’s RPS hearkens back to 2017, when Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed a carefully negotiated measure that would have raised the state’s minimum renewable standards to 40 percent by 2030 in part over concerns to potential changes in Nevada’s energy landscape through the Energy Choice Initiative, or Question 3, which would require a transition to a competitive retail electric market by 2023.

But with that ballot measure defeated and with Democrat Steve Sisolak — who said he backed the RPS ballot measure on the campaign trail — headed to the governor’s mansion, renewable advocates say they’re confident the state can dramatically increase its RPS targets with or without Question 6’s approval in 2020.

“If we had a robust RPS in statute that met or exceeded the ballot initiative language, and now we don’t have energy deregulation in constitution, it’s not nearly as vital as it was in the 2018 election,” Democratic Assemblyman Chris Brooks, sponsor of the 2017 RPS bill, said in an interview. “Whether or not it’s still necessary, I can’t necessarily say that it is or isn’t.”

NV Energy, which was neutral but critical of the proposed RPS increase in 2017, says its now prepared to support raising the standard to 50 percent given that it continues to include aspects such as energy efficiency credits and credit multipliers for certain types of renewable fuel.

“NV Energy will support an increase in Nevada’s Renewable Portfolio Standard to 50% by 2030 as is consistent with our commitment to double renewables by 2023 while keeping rates low for customers,” utility spokeswoman Andrea Smith said in an email.

By far the most ambitious proposal comes from incoming state Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson, who said Wednesday that he plans to introduce a bill in the 2019 session raising the state’s RPS to 100 percent — an ambitious target only shared by California and Hawaii.

Renewable advocates welcomed the news. Sierra Club of Nevada spokeswoman Elspeth DiMarzio said in an email that “now is the time to go big on statewide clean energy goals.”

Atkinson said he believed his caucus was united behind the idea of raising the RPS and that he believed he could get buy-in from NV Energy, but stressed that he was open to negotiations and suggestions that could improve the bill. Still, Atkinson said he believed that a 100 percent RPS was doable in Nevada by as early as 2040.

“I’ve made no secret that we should be leading the nation,” he said. “As long as we can come up with a reasonable date, I think it should be a mandate.”

Asked if the utility would support a raise in the RPS after staying neutral on the 2017 bill, an NV Energy spokeswoman referred to a statement made by utility President Doug Cannon in an October press release that its “longer-term goal” was to serve customers with 100 percent renewable energy. The utility’s Integrated Resource Plan, announced in June, also calls for six new photovoltaic solar farms throughout the state doubling renewable energy production by 2023.

At least 29 states including Nevada have put a RPS in place, with another eight having a nonbinding renewable energy “goal,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Nine states have a higher RPS target than Nevada, including Hawaii (100 percent by 2045), California (100 percent by 2045) and Vermont (75 percent by 2032). New Jersey, New York and Oregon have set 50 percent RPS targets by 2030, while Maryland has a 40 percent target by 2030, Colorado has a 30 percent target by 2020 and Connecticut has a 27 percent target by 2020.

Brooks, who said he plans to introduce legislation that raises the RPS to 50 percent or higher next legislative session, said his goal was to reduce all types of carbon-heavy energy sources but was unsure that a 100 percent RPS mandate could be accomplished in the next legislative session. He said that the conversation around what was possible with a RPS had changed dramatically over the last two years given the plummeting costs of large-scale solar and other forms of renewable energy.

“The goalpost has moved, and not just because of the makeup of the legislature or who’s in the governor’s office,” he said. “The pricing of solar and solar plus storage has moved dramatically — it changes the economics for those involved, what’s possible and what’s cost effective, and we should let that drive the conversation.”

In addition to a higher RPS, Brooks said he also wanted to pursue policies that would require companies that have left NV Energy’s service territory be subject to the same renewable energy mandates as the utility, as well as requiring rural cooperatives and municipal electric districts meet the same renewable standards. Similar provisions were included in Brooks’ vetoed 2017 bill.

“When you have large consumers who are no longer retail customers of NV Energy,  and you have large public power and co-ops that are also a growing part of the power mix in the state of Nevada, any RPS needs to address all of those power providers and power users,” he said.

Atkinson said it was still too early to discuss other renewable energy policies that might work in conjunction with a higher RPS, but in a sign of the issue’s importance, he said the topic would be removed from the busy Commerce, Labor and Energy legislative committee and fused with the existing committee on transportation — typically one of the least busy during the 120-day legislative session — to become the Committee on Growth & Infrastructure.

But success of any higher RPS depends on the willingness of Sisolak, the state’s first Democratic governor in nearly two decades, to sign on to a proposal likely to be opposed by some major businesses in the state (the Nevada Resort Association opposed the 2017 RPS bill).

In a March video outlining his environmental policy, Sisolak said he supported the ballot initiative raising the renewable standard to 50 percent by 2030. In a statement, Sisolak spokeswoman Christina Amestoy said the governor-elect was still a “strong supporter” of the ballot question and sounded a positive, but not unequivocal, note of support for a higher RPS.

“Steve is committed to working to make Nevada a leader in clean, renewable energy use and production,” she said in an email. “As governor, Steve will work with legislators and stakeholders to advance this goal in a smart and effective way.”

With eyes turned toward Carson City in 2019, the future of the actual ballot question raising the RPS is still in question. In a statement released Wednesday, Nevadans for a Clean Energy Future campaign manager Katie Robbins said the initiative was prepared to advocate for the ballot question in 2020 but also called on lawmakers to take action sooner.

“We’re prepared to fight and win again in two years, but we shouldn’t have to,” she said in an emailed statement. “The people of Nevada have made a clear statement about the future they want, and they should not have to wait for it to become a reality. Legislative leaders and our governor-elect have all recognized the need to guarantee a cleaner, healthier future.”

Nevadans for a Clean Energy Future received more than $10.4 million in campaign contributions from NextGen Climate Action, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit founded by liberal billionaire Tom Steyer. No organization seriously opposed the ballot question this election cycle, outside of a California-based group and a handful of Republican politicians.

Campaign spokesman Kyle Roerink said the initiative’s 2020 strategy would likely depend on the outcome of the 2019 Legislature, but at the very least would be there as an option if progress stalled at the Legislature.

“As we’ve said all along, Question 6 is a backstop and accountability measure,” he said. “It’s not going anywhere. It’s going to be on the ballot in 2020 no matter what happens.”

Disclosure: Steve Sisolak and NV Energy have donated to The Nevada Independent. You can see a full list of donors here.

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