In 2018, 10 companies began efforts to leave Nevada’s utility monopoly, NV Energy — more than in the previous five years combined.
Some are located in northern Nevada, like the Grand Sierra Resort in Reno.
Some own multiple casinos, like Boyd Gaming Corp. in Las Vegas.
Others are still under construction, such as the Raiders’ Las Vegas stadium and the MSG Sphere Las Vegas music and entertainment venue.
What they share is the need for high volumes of energy, and they’re all looking to buy it elsewhere.
NV Energy representatives say the exits could push higher electricity prices onto remaining customers.
But southern Nevada economist John Restrepo told the Las Vegas Review-Journal there’s a simple reason so many companies are leaving NV Energy: Money.
“They go where they can save,” said Restrepo, the principal of Las Vegas-based RCG Economics. “These companies look at how the industry is evolving, look at the different options they have, and they make a decision (to leave).”
Leaving NV Energy comes with a hefty price tag meant to negate unexpected costs for remaining customers.
MGM Resorts International, which left NV Energy in 2016, paid $86.9 million in exit fees, and Caesars Entertainment Corp. was assigned $47.5 million in exit fees in 2018.
Restrepo said the financial savings must be significant to warrant paying such high exit fees.
Erik Hansen, chief sustainability officer for Wynn Resorts Ltd., which left NV Energy in 2016, said the casino company wanted to control energy delivery options such as the generation source and contract price.
“Wynn is paying less for its electricity consumption compared to if we had stayed a bundled retail customer of NV Energy,” he said. “As an unbundled customer, Wynn has the ability to invest more heavily in alternative energy in order to reduce our environmental impact, ensure a reliable power supply, and reduce peak demand on local power grids.”
Wynn turned to Baltimore-based energy company Constellation after leaving NV Energy, but at least six of the 10 companies that began the process in 2018 have expressed interest in buying energy off the open market through Texas-based power marketing company Tenaska Power Services Co.
South Point Hotel Casino & Spa chose Constellation, a subsidiary of Exelon, and Station Casinos selected Morgan Stanley Capital Group as its provider.
Fulcrum Sierra BioFuels east of Reno and MSG Las Vegas have begun discussions with several potential providers, according to Public Utilities Commission filings.
NV Energy and Tenaska might be competing for local companies’ business, but the two have something that ties them together: Nebraska.
NV Energy was acquired by a subsidiary of Omaha-based conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway in 2013. Tenaska Power Services Co. is a power marketing affiliate of Omaha-based energy company Tenaska.
Representatives from Tenaska declined multiple interview requests, but the company’s website says the Arlington, Texas-based affiliate began in 1996 and specializes in “physical power marketing and electric asset management for utilities and non-utility generators” and is “one of the largest marketers of physical power in the United States.”
The company also operates a 24-hour electricity trading floor and is “active in short-term and real-time power markets,” according to its website.
Forbes ranked parent company Tenaska as the 26th largest privately held U.S. company in 2018.
Rose McKinney-James, a member of MGM Resorts International’s board and a former Nevada public utilities commissioner, said Tenaska Power Services’ knowledge of the grid and relationships with power providers might be why it attracts so many companies.
Caesars and MGM Resorts use Tenaska Power Services as a provider. Reno’s Atlantis Casino Resort Spa, Georgia-Pacific Gypsum, Boyd Gaming Corp., the Grand Sierra Resort and SLS Las Vegas have expressed interest in partnering with the provider.
“They seem to do it all,” McKinney-James said. “They came highly recommended.”
The utilities commission on Wednesday unanimously approved the LV Stadium Events Co.’s request to pre-emptively leave NV Energy without an impact fee. The stadium identified Tenaska Power Services as its alternative provider.
The company argued that because the stadium was still under construction and had never connected with the utility, it shouldn’t be charged millions of dollars to disconnect and pursue cheaper power costs.
But alternative providers’ prices might prove less stable.
Because these open markets often work through short-term contracts with generation companies, energy prices tend to follow the more volatile natural gas price swings.
For now, the strategy seems to be saving the companies money. Natural gas prices have been low in recent years, although Guy Snow, president of Solar NV, a local chapter of the American Solar Energy Society nonprofit solar advocacy group, said ratepayers can expect natural gas prices to increase in the near future.
“Natural gas and others are going to go up, and the cost of energy will rise,” Snow said. “As you sit down and go through the financial part, it doesn’t make sense to exit from the local utility. . NV Energy contracts are more long-term and stable (compared to the open market).”
McKinney-James said a fluctuating natural gas market could make electricity prices jump, but it’s worth the risk for many companies.
“There could be things that occur (in the natural gas market) that result in higher prices, that’s the reality,” she said. “It’s better to have the ability to self-determinate the nature and pricing of resources.”
A 2016 letter to the PUC from MGM Executive Vice President John McManus said renewable resources were a major factor in the company’s decision to leave NV Energy.
McKinney-James believes other companies have similar incentives.
“I think a number of these businesses have indicated the desire to procure and secure renewable resources or cleaner resources because they have internal goals,” she said. “They’re being held accountable by shareholders.”
That could be another reason so many companies are attracted to Tenaska Power Services, which also aims to be a play a role in the wind generation industry, according to its website.
NV Energy has worked to include more renewables in its portfolio in recent years. In May, it announced plans for six new solar projects and has shared a long-term goal of providing energy that is 100 percent based on renewables.
“We are committed to operating our business in a way that continues to decrease our prices,” company representative Jennifer Schuricht said. “We are developing new pricing and renewable energy options to better meet customer needs while offering free customized products and services to help them achieve additional energy cost savings.”
Also, the average commercial-sector electricity price in Nevada was 26 percent below the national average the first 10 months of 2018, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data.
Still, the number of companies looking for ways out is on the rise.
In 2001, the state Legislature gave Nevada companies the option of leaving NV Energy as a means to ease an electricity shortage, lower prices and bring new generation facilities to the state.
After leaving, companies often still pay transmission and distribution fees to NV Energy. The law does not offer residential customers an exit option.
In a Jan. 10 Public Utilities Commission filing, Shawn Elicegui, NV Energy senior vice president of regulation and business planning, said the state’s energy industry has changed dramatically since then, and he believes the commission should set a high standard when granting companies permission to leave.
But customers no longer face critical supply shortages and a “dysfunctional” energy market, he said, and the assumption that “eligible customers would use their financial resource to bring new, lower-priced energy resources to Nevada’s market also has not proven true.”
Elicegui argued that granting applications to leave NV Energy could put upward pressure on electricity prices.
NV Energy’s revenue requirements “will be spread over fewer billing determinants, resulting in electric prices that are higher than they need to be and, more importantly, were expected to be,” he said in the filing.
NV Energy made up 81 percent of the state’s energy consumption compared with other providers in 2017, down from 85 percent five years prior.
But Snow, at Solar NV, doubts residential consumers will see any immediate impact from companies leaving NV Energy.
“If (companies) have to pay an exit fee and are still paying to use transmission lines, it shouldn’t affect much,” he said. “I’m going to speak on the residential side — we’re in a good place. We’re not in a high market. We’re not in a grid that goes down all the time. We’re in a safe, stable grid in Las Vegas.”
McKinney-James, at MGM Resorts, expects departures to continue in 2019 but believes NV Energy will power through.