In what could be part of the prelims to bigger, harder-hitting fights, Nevada Consumer Advocate Eric Witkoski in March has publicly lashed out at Sierra Pacific Resources' two utilities, alleging possible shoddy maintenance practices in the north and an excessive general rate increase request in the south. Meanwhile, the Nevada Public Utilities Commission (PUC) that regulates the utilities has been mostly quiet.

Reno news media Monday carried reports of Witkoski complaining that Sierra Pacific Power Co. has spent about 50% more for maintenance recently, compared to five years ago, following four incidents in the past two weeks on the utility's natural gas and electrical systems, one being a major explosion in an old 25-kV electric system switch that occurred adjacent to the Reno Gazette-Journal's building, knocking out its power and the power to the surrounding downtown business district.

Two natural gas incidents also occurred related to contractors inadvertently breaking gas distribution pipelines, one of which threatened the closure of Interstate 80, the primary east-west highway through the Reno area. Utility officials told local news media the number of major incidents in a short span of time was strictly a coincidence, although they acknowledged that the gas system might have up to 120 mostly routine pipeline leaks annually.

Witkoski also has been critical of Sierra's Las Vegas-based utility, Nevada Power Co., for seeking a $156 million general rate increase, a request currently being reviewed by the PUC. The state consumer advocate, who is an intervenor in the case, has recommended that the rate hike be limited to $43 million.

Part of the state Attorney General's Bureau of Consumer Protection, Witkoski filed testimony in the Nevada Power rate case last Wednesday, seeking a 2% rate increase instead of the utility's 8% boost that is being sought. Hearings begin on the rate request March 26.

In regard to the outages in the north, Sierra Pacific Power replaced the switch, which is an old piece of equipment for which the utility is in the midst of doing a complete replacement. Designed to route electricity to various parts of the utility infrastructure, the switches are a type of oil-insulated device to keep the power electrons from leaking.

Sierra Pacific maintains that two of the natural gas incidents were contractor-related, and the third gas incident related to a gas leak from a distribution main going undetected and causing pockets of gas to accumulate. It was poor soil conditions that prevented the leaking gas from dissipating harmlessly in the soil, said a utility spokesperson in Reno.

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