ELKO — A former governor and local internet provider formed a co-op that aims to deliver natural gas and broadband to Spring Creek in as little as 18 months and to Lamoille shortly after.
The proposal could spark competition to provide natural gas and broadband between the cooperative and Southwest Gas, an investor-owned utility.
“The race is on,” said Delmo Andreozzi, chairman of the Elko County Board of Commissioners.
Jim Gibbons, who served as Nevada governor from 2007-2011 and now owns a 40-acre ranch property in Lamoille, partnered with Tariq Ahmad of Satview Broadband Ltd., an Elko cable company, to create Pacific Rural Gas Cooperative.
“We’re beginning here with a co-op for a very important reason,” Gibbons said.
They propose that the cooperative — a member-owned, nonprofit organization that is not regulated by the Public Utility Commission of Nevada — construct, own and operate a natural gas distribution and high-speed broadband network to serve Spring Creek and Lamoille, a 57-square-mile-area where those services do not exist yet.
Their approach would use existing cable company rights-of-way to install natural gas pipelines and fiber optic line using a “single trench model.” The method is intended to save money while reducing environmental impact, according to a Pacific Rural Gas Cooperative executive summary. The system would be designed to supply the needs of 16,000 residents and accommodate population increases over the next 30 years. Wholesale natural gas would come from the Ruby and Paiute pipelines, said Ahmad, and Satview plans to offer high-speed broadband service.
Because the organization is nonprofit, it does not have margins to invest in the project but can apply for federal rural energy grants to pay for a feasibility study and capital projects.
“This money is there for a purpose,” Gibbons said. “It’s there for a reason, so why not take advantage of that money?”
Members of the Elko County Board of Commissioners voted June 20 to support Pacific Rural Gas Cooperative’s grant application to finance a feasibility study for $125,000 under the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s Economic Development Assistance Program.
The grant process requires that a government or economic development entity submit the application. The Northeastern Nevada Regional Development Authority worked with the co-op and county staff to prepare the paperwork.
Commissioners also voted to contribute $5,000 from the 2018-19 budget contingency fund — to show the county “has skin in the game,” said NNRDA Executive Director Sheldon Mudd — and the county will act as a pass-through agency for the grant if it is approved.
Based on the co-op’s proposed model, the feasibility study would estimate construction costs and economic impact of natural gas and broadband development in Spring Creek. Study results would be available to any company, including Southwest Gas.
Debra Gallo, a representative from Southwest Gas, said the company has been working toward providing natural gas service to Spring Creek for years, and Southwest Gas has a nonexclusive franchise agreement with Elko County, she said. The utility lobbied the Legislature in 2015 to get a bill passed that would allow the company to expand its infrastructure and has been conducting internal analyses regarding project feasibility.
“We have been working significantly hard to allow us to get this done because we agree … that it is key for the area,” she told commissioners. “We are going to make the filing.”
Gallo also explained that Southwest Gas has experience with joint trenches, and adding broadband lines could be a possibility for the Spring Creek area. However, Southwest Gas’ plan would take more than 18 months, she said, partly because of PUCN requirements and processes.
A cooperative circumvents PUCN regulation because it has its own governing board. Freedom from the agency’s oversight would be well-received by Spring Creek residents who may be growing weary of deliberations between Great Basin Water Company and the PUCN, said Commissioner Rex Steninger.
“There are 15,000 residents out there that we could help out,” said Steninger, explaining that the utility services would improve residents’ quality of life and expand business opportunities. “I think it’s worth the $5,000 commitment.”
If the grant is approved and feasibility study completed, Mudd would continue to assist the cooperative with grant applications for the installment of infrastructure.
“We really want to get this done,” Gibbons said. “We want to get this done sooner rather than later.”
“There are 15,000 residents out there that we could help out. I think it’s worth the $5,000 commitment.” Commissioner Rex Steninger