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NV Energy, Inc. (NYSE:NVE)

Q4 2009 Earnings Call Transcript

February 8, 2009 10:00 am ET

Executives

Britta Carlson - Manager, Investor and Shareholder Relations

Michael Yackira -- President and CEO

Kevin Bethel -- Interim CFO, Chief Accounting Officer & Controller

Analysts

Dan Eggers -- Credit Suisse

Lasan Johong -- RBC Capital Markets

Greg Gordon -- Morgan Stanley

Paul Patterson -- Glenrock Associates

Brian Russo -- Ladenburg Thalmann

Maurice May -- Power Insights

Jay Dobson -- Wunderlich Securities

Michael Lapides -- Goldman Sachs

Robert Howard -- Prospector Partners

Nitin Dahiya -- Nomura Securities

Phyllis Gray -- Dwight Asset Management

Operator

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for standing by. Welcome to the NV Energy full year 2009 earnings conference call. At this time, all participants are in a listen-only mode. Later, we will conduct a question and answer session and instructions will be given at that time. (Operator Instructions). As a reminder, this conference is being recorded.

And I would now like to turn the conference over to our host, Ms. Britta Carlson. Please go ahead.

Britta Carlson

Thank you and good morning. Today, we are going to review NV Energy’s results for the fourth quarter and full-year 2009. In addition to the press release that was issued over the news wire earlier today, we expect to file our 2009 Form 10-K with the SEC later this month.

I would like to remind you that comments we make during this call may include forward-looking statements within the meaning of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995, regarding the future performance of NV Energy, Inc. and its subsidiaries, Nevada Power Company and Sierra Pacific Power Company, both doing business as NV Energy.

These statements are current expectations and as such are subject to a variety of risks and uncertainties that could cause actual results to differ materially from current expectations. These risks and uncertainties include the factors discussed in the Company's Form 10-Q for the periods ended March 31, 2009, June 30, 2009, and September 30, 2009, and the Form 10-K for the year ended December 31, 2008. I would also like to mention reconciliations of certain non-GAAP financial information presented during today's call can be found in our earnings press release, which was posted on our company web site at www.nvenergy.com.

With me this morning are Michael Yackira, President and Chief Executive Officer, and Kevin Bethel, interim Chief Financial Officer. Michael will begin with a brief introduction of Kevin, who will follow with his review of our 2009 financial results and discuss key financial drivers and trends. Michael will then provide an update on the corporate strategy, including recent industry developments.

I will now turn the call over to Michael Yackira.

Michael Yackira

Thank you, Britta; and good morning, everyone. Thanks for joining us. I am sure many of you were on the call last Thursday and I wanted to make just a few comments in that regard for those of you might not have been able to join us.

We have initiated a search for a successor to Bill Rogers, who resigned last week, and expect to accomplish this in the very near future. In the meantime, we are very pleased that Kevin Bethel, our Chief Accounting Officer and Controller, will serve as the interim CFO. As the former CFO of our company, I am very confident in Kevin’s ability to lead this area and I will continue to work closely with him. Kevin joined NV Energy in December 2007. Prior to that, he was Assistant Controller at American Electric Power. He also has held key accounting positions at the Williams Company, Central & Southwest, and Public Service Company of Oklahoma.

I will now turn the call over to Kevin.

Kevin Bethel

Thank you, Michael. Good morning and thank you for joining us today. I look forward to meeting many of you in the months ahead.

In our earnings press release, we included our company’s income statements, certain financial highlights from our balance sheet, and selected operating data. Rather than repeat our financials, I will begin with a review of our earnings, gross margin, and revenue drivers on a year-to-year basis. Following this review, I will briefly discuss forward-looking load forecasts and our capital expenditure plans.

As released this morning, NV Energy reported net income of $183 million or $0.78 per share in 2009, as compared with earnings of $209 million or $0.89 per share in 2008. As described in earlier calls, the earnings decrease in 2009 versus 2008 was primarily due to an increase in other operating and maintenance expenses, depreciation and interest charges, some of which are costs related to the Higgins generating station and acquired peaking units which were not included in rates prior to July 1, 2009. The impact of not recovering these assets and expenses in rates was approximately $0.20 per share in 2009.

In addition, higher pension expenses reduced earnings by approximately $0.08 per share for the year. A fourth-quarter charge related to severance payments of $0.04 per share and lower AFUDC we see as a result of decreased construction activity also contributed to the reduced earnings, partially offset by higher revenues.

In the fourth quarter of 2009, we reported net income of $4.2 million or $0.02 per share, compared with a loss of $2.1 million or $0.01 per share in 2008. The improvement in the fourth quarter of 2009 earnings was primarily a result of higher general rates in southern Nevada, partially offset by the severance payments mentioned earlier, and lower customer usage.

With respect to our revenue, we are pleased that consolidated gross margin increased approximately $148 million or 11%. Improvements in our gross margin was a result of higher revenues collected from general rates in both southern and northern Nevada, effective July 1, 2009 and July 1, 2008 respectively. Offsetting this $0.51 per share increase in revenue was lower use per customer of $0.10 per share. It is unlikely that gross margin will increase outside of general rate cases, without an increase in customers or an upward trend in customer usage patterns.

Our retail electric volume sales in southern Nevada were down 2% for the full year 2009 compared with 2008. Northern Nevada retail electric volume sales declined 4.6% in 2009 compared to 2008. Residential customer growth is essentially flat on a year on year basis, offset by modest growth in commercial and industrial customers. More importantly, unlike most utilities, our industrial customers are mainly hotels, gaming, and mining. We have not, and looking ahead, do not anticipate any loss in industrial customers. Weather was not materially different year-over-year. Therefore, the volume sales decline was a result of changes in customer usage patterns not directly attributable to weather.

On the costs side, as Michael will discuss later, we project operations and maintenance expenses will be flat in 2010 compared with 2009. We also do not anticipate a material change in our consolidated interest expense, depreciation, or the effective tax rates. Continued expense discipline will be imperative to achieve desired results in the low growth environment we expect over the next few years.

Although it remains difficult to project the exact timing of improvements in our economy, we continue to be optimistic in the long term prospects for Nevada. However, as described in the integrated resource plan filing for our southern Nevada utility, filed on February 1, we expect to see the recovery in our state measured in years rather than months. This dynamic is the basis of the load forecast included in our most recent resource plan filing. The key indicators to see long-term growth in load will be improved employment and the return of the construction business.

Now, I would like to turn your attention to our investment and capital formation plans. We are affirming our 2010 estimated cash construction requirements of $600 million. Additionally, consolidated cash construction requirements are estimated to be $375 million and $425 million in 2011 and 2012 respectively. These figures are lower than what we disclosed in our third-quarter call of $490 million in 2011 and $450 million in 2012. These estimates are based upon currently-approved resource plan investments and base capital and do not include projects requested in our resource plan filed last week.

In summary, based on current forecasts and approvals, our 2010 through 2012 capital expenditure budget in aggregate is $1.4 billion, slightly less than the $1.5 billion invested in 2008 alone.

As discussed in prior earnings calls, we have one major construction project underway, the Harry Allen combined cycle plan. The estimated capital expenditures associated with Harry Allen will be $220 million in 2010 and an additional $24 million in 2011, when the plant is expected to be completed.

Presented in the financial highlights contained within our earnings press release, the balance sheet improved from the third quarter of 2009 and we continue to have a strong liquidity position. In the fourth quarter of 2009, we completed the tender of $73 million in general and refunding mortgage bonds at our northern utility and redeemed $52 million in revenue bonds at our southern utility. As a result, at year end, we had over $915 million in combined liquidity. This includes NPC’s supplemental credit facility, which expired in January 2010. Due to the combination of the reduction in capital expenditures, and our continued expense discipline, we expect to have an external financing requirement of roughly $100 million over the three-year period of 2010 through 2012. This is down from what we shared with you in our third quarter call.

I will now turn the call back over to Michael.

Michael Yackira

Thank you, Kevin. Considering the economic conditions facing Nevada and our nation, I am satisfied with the company's 2009 results. We have taken appropriate actions to enable our company to control costs and reduce our capital investments. And, we are pleased that we increased our dividend for the second time, since it was reinstituted in 2007.

When we began 2009, we expected that the economy would continue to be a major issue, both nationally and locally, and that has been the case. As a result, we took actions to control our expenses, including a reduction in workforce. The decrease amounted to about 5% of our total headcount, and these actions, while painful, were necessary in order to keep our ongoing operations and maintenance expenses relatively flat for 2010.

The rate case for the southern utility that we had filed in late 2008 came up for review during the first half of 2009. The decision was made in June, and I commend the Public Utilities Commission for its measured approach to the rate implementation, which eased the impact on our customers, while providing returns to our shareholders for the assets in which we had invested. In 2009, the Nevada State Legislature reviewed several energy-related bills. But the one that was passed, which we supported along with the Public Utilities Commission, the consumer advocate and others, increased the portfolio standard to 25% by 2025 and left intact the ability to count low cost energy efficiency programs for that goal. The Nevada Legislature also, for the first time, provided for a mechanism to recover reduced revenues associated with those energy efficiency programs. The rules for revenue recovery mechanism are still being reviewed, and we expect these will go into effect later this year.

The Legislature also passed a bill that allows NV Energy to count, for the first time, imports of renewable energy from outside the state toward the portfolio standard. An important step in our future energy programs was announced in October 2009, when NV Energy was one of 100 companies to receive a grant from the Department of Energy for our Advanced Service Delivery projects. ASD, which is our nomenclature for smart metered smart grid infrastructure, will provide benefits for virtually the whole state, making our applications stand apart from the more than 400 applications received by the DoE.

Pending Commission approval, ASD will produce important operational savings, and will become the cornerstone of our energy efficiency efforts by providing more information and choice to our customers. We are eager to upgrade Nevada's electric system with smart meters, because they will enable customers to take a more active role in managing their energy use. The meters will also make it easier to integrate small-scale solar and wind installations in our electric system, and help us manage the system more efficiently.

So in summary, the year was challenging, but we met those challenges, continued to execute our three-part energy strategy for Nevada, and prepared the company for 2010 and beyond.

As the year came to a close, we announced the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding to jointly build the One Nevada transmission line project that we expect will lower costs for our customers and provide additional benefits beyond what our origin of transmission proposal had contemplated. The MoU is with Great Basin Transmission, LLC, an affiliate of LS Power, which will lead to a definitive agreement to jointly construct and own a 500 kilovolt transmission line in eastern Nevada.

Great Basin has already obtained the major federal, state, and local approvals needed to construct the project. Together with Great Basin, we are seeking low-interest financing available under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009. The joint ownership agreement requires regulatory approvals by the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Kevin mentioned that on February 1, we asked for approval from the PUCN for the filing of our integrated resource plan for the southern utility. The transmission line will connect our northern and southern electric systems for the first time, thereby providing access to renewable energy projects in northern and eastern Nevada, as well as greater system reliability and generation optimization that will benefit all of our customers. Construction could begin as soon as this year, pending the completion of the definitive agreement and the regulatory approvals.

Our three-part energy strategy for Nevada is helping us better serve our customers and improving Nevada's environment. The first step of the strategy is executed through investment and energy efficiency and conservation programs in order to help our customers reduce their energy bills. We continued to have positive results from these programs, investing approximately $60 million in 2009. Our investments in energy efficiency over the past several years reduced energy usage statewide by over 400 million kilowatt hours in 2009. Savings achieved through our energy efficiency investments are also applied toward Nevada’s portfolio standard.

The second part of our strategy is exemplified by NV Energy’s continued commitment to renewable energy projects. In December, the PUCN approved power purchase agreements for three new projects, two solar voltaic projects totaling 45 megawatts and a small landfill gas project.

In the February 1 resource planning filing, we are seeking approval of purchase power agreements with developers of three large renewable energy projects. These include the Spring Valley wind farm, a 150 MW wind project, as well as a 100 megawatt Crescent Dunes solar energy project, and a 30 megawatt geothermal project. The Crescent Dunes project is important, because it will include storage that will allow us to continue to distribute energy after the sun goes down. The proposals we have submitted in the resource plan will include NV Energy’s leadership and continue to improve NV Energy’s leadership in renewables and energy efficiencies initiatives. Importantly, this is the first resource plan we have filed in ten years that does not seek approval of a fossil fuel plant.

The third part of our energy strategy calls for the addition of clean, efficient generating plants and related transmission. Kevin mentioned the Harry Allen combined cycle plant, which we are continuing to construct in southern Nevada. This is the final plant in a series of additions we have made since 2006. By the summer of 2011, the Harry Allen plant will increase our generating capacity in southern Nevada by nearly 500 megawatts. This new facility will add to one of the cleanest burning, most efficient natural gas fleets in the nation. Since the beginning of 2006, we have increased company-owned generation by approximately 3300 megawatts, making Nevada more energy independent. Last year, generation owned by NV Energy in southern Nevada produced nearly 75% of our customer’s electricity needs.

Our investments benefit Nevada's environment, since they are both highly efficient and low-water use plants, using air cooling rather than water cooling, thereby consuming a fraction of the water required by conventional power plants. These investments are also beneficial for our customers, because they reduce Nevada's dependence on volatile energy markets, and their high efficiency consume less fuel than other fossil fuel plants. During the past several months, as a result of these investments, coupled with lower natural gas prices, our fuel-related costs have continued to decrease and those savings are passed through to customers in our quarterly rate adjustments. In northern Nevada, we have had four consecutive electric rate decreases over the past 12 months. We have filed for similar rate reductions in southern Nevada, which helps mitigate the 2009 general rate case decision.

Nevada's economy has significantly changed over the past two years, and we have been adapting to those changes. We continue to find ways to defer and lower our capital investments. Our employees have been working hard to lower operating costs wherever possible, without compromising compliance, safety, or reliability. Also, we made the difficult, but necessary, decision to reduce our workforce. Our efforts in 2009 will lower our need for external capital and allow us to keep our O&M as flat as possible. While we cannot predict when our economy will recover, we are making sure our state has the right energy infrastructure to help Nevada thrive now and in the future.

Before Kevin and I take questions, I want to mention that you will soon be getting information about an Investor Relations event we will hold in New York on March 24. That evening, the Outstanding Directors Exchange will honor our Chairman, Phil Satre, as one of the outstanding directors of 2010.

Now, Kevin and I are ready to take your questions.

Question-and-Answer Session

Operator

Thank you. (Operator Instructions) And our first question comes from the line of Dan Eggers with Credit Suisse. Please go ahead.

Dan Eggers -- Credit Suisse

Good morning. Michael, I was wondering if you could just walk through a little more of the timetable for the transmission line with LS Power, when we should expect more details and when you plan to start incorporating that into your CapEx plans and financing needs?

Michael Yackira

Dan, as we have made a habit, we don't include in our 10-K disclosures or our discussions about capital any projects that have not been or major projects that have not been approved within the IRP process. If they require approval from the PUC, we wait for that approval until we include it in our capital plans. So when you read the IRP filing, you will get a sense as to what the expected capital is associated with that, plus our advanced service delivery project. We expect that we will receive approval from the Commission within the timeframe that they have, which is 180 days, once the filing has been made, so approximately six months, and we do expect that approval will lead to the commencement of construction by the end of this year with an in-service date of no later than the end of 2012.

Dan Eggers -- Credit Suisse

Okay. And then I guess, Michael, you know, you made reference to the idea that your recovery is going to be measured in years and not months, I believe was the comment. Can you share some thoughts or additional color on what kind of recovery you are seeing or not seeing, you know, how the casinos are doing and how the new projects are coming along and you know, kind of how you see or what you have measured as say getting back on a whole trend from a load growth perspective.

Michael Yackira

I think one of the things we have to wait for, Dan, is the sale of the inventory of houses and the turnover of the foreclosed houses before we start to see residential growth come back. MGM’s CityCenter opened very successfully in December; they are doing fairly well from what I hear. The room occupancy, as we have mentioned in the past, really hasn't declined all that much. We are seeing occupancy still in the high 80s in general. So as long as that continues, and we don't see or foresee any shuttering of rooms, the fact that the gaming industry is having some issues economically, meaning that they are not having as much gaming revenue, or they are not having as much as retail revenue or hotel revenue is really not affecting us much if the growth side of that is not the same as it was in the past. We see a flattening of growth, we have seen a flattening of growth, but we don't foresee anything that is going to turn that around over the next couple of years. We are hopeful and optimistic, but it really will require the residential housing market to come back before we start to see that growth return.

Dan Eggers -- Credit Suisse

And Michael, I guess, we are going to tie these conversations together, how are you guys thinking about the dividend policy, you know, on a long-run basis for NVE, you know, if you are in a slower growth environment, where you might have more cash that might be available to return to shareholders?

Michael Yackira

Well, as we have said in the past, Dan, we look at our dividend policy once a year, usually after our third quarter, that is what our past practice has been over the past couple of years, and we don't see that changing. We certainly do want to keep our dividend payout ratio at about the 50% range, which is where we are our right now, give or take, and we really don't anticipate much change to that. It also depends on what we see in terms of the ability to invest in renewable energy projects. We have several of them that we have discussed in the past, we have some that are coming up for review by our Public Utilities Commission, which gives us options to co-invest. So if those come about, then we will have more capital to invest, but right now, the way we see it, our dividend policy is in line with what we see as the return of growth in the next couple of years, but if there were some longer-term impact of that, I think we have to re-address what our dividend policy is.

Dan Eggers -- Credit Suisse

Okay, thank you very much.

Michael Yackira

Thank you, Dan.

Operator

Our next question comes from the line of Lasan Johong with RBC Capital Markets. Please go ahead.

Lasan Johong -- RBC Capital Markets

Thank you. Good morning. Following up on the previous question, I am just kind of curious, Michael, does Nevada's economy follow or lead generally to the rest of the country?

Michael Yackira

Well, Lasan, in the past, Nevada’s economy has been a leader in economic recovery. I am certainly hoping that that is the case; I am not sure that many are predicting that this year. I think if we see -- and this is my own surmise, if we see a stronger economic rebound nationwide, then it is certainly possible we could see an earlier recovery in Nevada than we are now predicting. But by and large, I think it will take that economic rebound to get Nevada’s economy stirred again. So history is not necessarily a predicate for the future, we are certainly hoping that that is the case, but that is not what the current demographers are forecasting.

Lasan Johong -- RBC Capital Markets

Yes, I am not sure I understand why that is, but I will take your word for that. In the Great Basin north south transmission line, why is that you chose to take a minority position as opposed to a 50-50 or a better ratio of ownership?

Michael Yackira

I am not sure what would you mean by a better ratio of ownership; what we were looking at was the ability to have a transmission line that interties northern and southern Nevada, which this project does. It also provides for more benefits, presuming that Phase II of the project is constructed. Phase II of the project would intertie the northern part of the currently-contemplated Phase I transmission line, basically at Yealey [ph], north to Idaho and then south from the Harry Allen substation into the Eldorado substation, which would provide access into California. That was not contemplated in our original proposal. That had been contemplated in the LS proposal. And we think that looking at the project as a whole, Phase I and Phase II, coupled with what the costs and benefits would be for our customers investing in this way, that it was a better deal at the end of the day than us doing on-line by ourselves. How the splits turned out in terms of ownership was really part of the negotiation, but in the long run, I think this benefits both investors and customers.

Lasan Johong -- RBC Capital Markets

If you would just be classified at least beforehand that are stretching to Idaho and California, would those be classified as independent transmission projects?

Michael Yackira

When you say -- are you talking about merchant transmission projects?

Lasan Johong -- RBC Capital Markets

Yes.

Michael Yackira

Well, that would certainly be the case for the portion that LS would own, but for the portion that we own, we would have that access through this joint venture transaction. So we will provide additional import and export capability throughout the line.

Lasan Johong -- RBC Capital Markets

So then you should benefit from a higher (inaudible) rate for incentives on merchant transmission lines for the portion that is into Idaho and California, correct?

Michael Yackira

Well, our ownership position in the line really resides within the on-line portion. So the benefit that we get for our customers is from the excess into Idaho and through into California. So there might be some benefit from a rate perspective, but that is so far down the road, it is hard to contemplate at this point.

Lasan Johong -- RBC Capital Markets

I understand.

Michael Yackira

The key to it is that we saw the opportunity to get on-line built as quickly as we possibly could. We have been saying for a long time that this is beneficial in terms of assuring that we are utilizing the assets that we have invested in over the past four years generation assets as optimally as we possibly can by having joint dispatch, but also having access to renewable energy projects in northern and eastern Nevada that without this line would not be developed or would be developed for someone else's benefit, not Nevada's.

Lasan Johong -- RBC Capital Markets

I see. The One Nevada line, that is in your current budget of $1.4 billion?

Michael Yackira

It is not.

Lasan Johong -- RBC Capital Markets

It is not, okay.

Michael Yackira

We do not have an approved plan from the PUC and it is awaiting IRP approval, it is not included.

Lasan Johong -- RBC Capital Markets

Okay, that is what I thought. Last question, are you guys done with severances and layoffs and are there any more charges left that roll into the first quarter, potentially?

Michael Yackira

Certainly additional contemplated reductions that would affect us going forward certainly not as material as what we were talking about in the past, and we are in the process of discussing these with our bargaining units in order to accomplish them. But they have not been recognized as yet, but they won't be as material as what we have already recognized in the fourth quarter.

Lasan Johong -- RBC Capital Markets

And it is fair to say that you would rather not have more layoffs, if at all possible.

Michael Yackira

Well certainly, we would prefer not to have layoffs ever, but we will continue to look at what the size of our workforce is relative to where our capital investments are and where they are going and a quicker recovery could change our perspective on that. A longer slowdown could change our perspective on that. Right now, we believe that we have right-sized the company and we are certainly hopeful that this was one time, rather than over several bites of the apple, so to speak.

Lasan Johong -- RBC Capital Markets

Good, great. Thank you very much.

Operator

Our next question comes from the line of Greg Gordon with Morgan Stanley. Please go ahead.

Greg Gordon -- Morgan Stanley

Thank you. Good morning, Michael.

Michael Yackira

Good morning, Greg.

Greg Gordon -- Morgan Stanley

Looking at your IRP and you know, taking to heart what you have said about the $1.4 billion excluding stuff that hasn't been approved, did the new transmission projects not in that budget nor in any of the conservation areas spending, is that correct?

Michael Yackira

That is correct.

Greg Gordon -- Morgan Stanley

So were those to be approved, that looks like it is almost $400 million of incremental rate base growth that you have over the next three to four years, should this higher fee be approved by the commission, is that right?

Michael Yackira

If you are including the investments in energy efficiency programs, that is close to correct.

Greg Gordon -- Morgan Stanley

And looking at your financing plan, right now, you are obviously not in need of any meaningful external financing. Would you have to have the equity markets to finance that growth or do think that you have got the internal cash flow necessary to fund these projects, should they be approved?

Michael Yackira

I think our position on that, Greg, is really no different from what we have said in the past, and that is, we have disclosed what we believe to be our financing needs and we will continue to review how best to form that capital as the year goes on. We're not saying that we are not going to the equity markets, but we certainly could do this all with that, but we will continue to look at what opportunities we have an address them accordingly. It is not a lot of external financing that we need right now, so that gives us some flexibility.

Greg Gordon -- Morgan Stanley

Great. Okay, thank you.

Operator

The next question comes from the line of Paul Patterson with Glenrock Associates. Please go ahead.

Paul Patterson -- Glenrock Associates

Good morning, guys.

Michael Yackira

Good morning, Paul.

Paul Patterson -- Glenrock Associates

I am sorry if I missed this, the weather impact for 2009 versus normal, what was that?

Kevin Bethel

We really didn't see any kind of weather impact year over year. If you remember, 2007 was a high year, what we disclosed in previous calls was 2008 was more normal than the rest of those years in 2009 was relative to that, relatively the same.

Paul Patterson -- Glenrock Associates

Okay. So basically it was kind of a normal year.

Kevin Bethel

Yes.

Paul Patterson -- Glenrock Associates

Okay. You mentioned that sort of the occupancy level seems kind of similar. And just looking at the operating statistics, it looks to me like there was a big decrease in the sales at the commercial level in the gaming area, for the year, at Nevada Power. Could you give us a little bit more of a feeling as to what is driving that again. I guess it is not room occupancy level, what is it that is doing that?

Kevin Bethel

This is Kevin. We have actually seen volumes decrease kind of across the board of more so in the residential than we have in the industrial and commercial. That being it is not weather related or occupancy because our industrial customers here in southern Nevada are more of the base load customers. We hope that it is not significantly weather driven, but on the commercial, it could be a potential for smaller impact.

Paul Patterson -- Glenrock Associates

Okay. Let me ask you this, I mean, when you look at the economy, I know you guys are basically saying that it is a difficult thing to predict, and I can appreciate that. I guess, at what point in time do you feel that you might get back to a more normalized higher growth scenario that Nevada has been experiencing?

Michael Yackira

I think that really depends on what happens in the gaming industry and the expectation of additional capital investment in the gaming industry, because to reach the kind of level that we have seen in the past, I think we have to see a resurgence of investment in hotels and gaming establishments. There has been mothballing of certain projects, there has been some differing of certain projects, (inaudible) is an example of that, the one that the Board was talking about, there really is no timetable now for restart of that major project. So to predict a return of 5% to 6% growth, I think it certainly isn't in the horizon over the next several years, if -- within the next decade I think a reasonable growth pattern for us would be in the 2% to 3% range, maybe a little bit more than that, assuming that we will continue to get in migration of retirees and others as jobs are created. But the return of the golden days, I think, are not on the horizon.

Paul Patterson -- Glenrock Associates

Okay, thank you so much. Have a great one.

Operator

The next question comes from the line of Brian Russo with Ladenburg Thalmann. Please go ahead.

Brian Russo -- Ladenburg Thalmann

Good morning. The $400 million of incremental CapEx mentioned earlier as it relates to the IRP, would that be offset by stimulus funds or grants from the government?

Michael Yackira

Yes, it would. The $400 million, it is probably a little high. I have to get to you what our energy efficiency programs are and I have to get over that period of time. But if you are looking at the on-line project, it would be something in the order of $140 million, the ASD project would be about $160 million and then we have incremental energy efficiency programs, I am not remembering exactly what those are off the top of my head. Somebody is pointing out $174 million, so it is more like $450 million in aggregate capital. If you look at on-line, ASD, as we call our smart grid smart meter, and energy efficiency programs. So $450 million looks like a good number.

Brian Russo -- Ladenburg Thalmann

And remind me, do you earn a return on the energy efficiency programs or is it just kind of a dollar-for-dollar revenue and expense match?

Michael Yackira

It is treated as a rate base investment, Brian.

Brian Russo -- Ladenburg Thalmann

Okay, great. And then just --

Michael Yackira

We have been receiving enhanced returns on those investments as well.

Brian Russo -- Ladenburg Thalmann

Okay, good. Could you give us a sense of the earned ROEs at both utilities in 2009?

Michael Yackira

I think we will have to wait for the 10-K to have that information, Brian.

And that will be issued before the end of the month.

Brian Russo -- Ladenburg Thalmann

Okay, and then just lastly, could you just comment on your earlier comments on gross margin that without customer growth that gross margin would remain flat. Is that relative to revenues or is that kind of an absolute number?

Michael Yackira

Well, not suggesting that revenues are not going to grow much, it is suggesting that because -- obviously because we have rate cases coming up, but the suggestion is that but for incremental employment here, population growth et cetera, we don't see material changes to our gross margin but for the rate case, and the rate cases that we will file over the next several years.

Brian Russo -- Ladenburg Thalmann

Okay, thank you.

Operator

Our next question comes from the line of Maurice May with Power Insights. Please go ahead.

Maurice May -- Power Insights

Yes, good morning, folks.

Michael Yackira

Good morning, Maury.

Maurice May -- Power Insights

Those general rate cases you are planning, can you review those at both Nevada Power and Sierra Pacific and second of all, can you discuss how these rate cases might reduce the attrition of the authorized ROE starting in 2012 and beyond?

Michael Yackira

Well, in the last legislative session, Maury, we worked with the Public Utilities Commission and its consumer advocate to change the timing of the rate cases, so that they will now be filed midyear with rate implementation at the beginning of the following your. If you remember that when we filed the rate case for the southern utility in December of 2008, we requested a conformant of the rate implementation to September of 2009, and the Commission, as I mentioned in the opening remarks, decided to use something similar in deferring the full implementation of the case. They put the rate increase in July 1 and then the remainder of the rate case went in, in January when the expectation was and in fact, was true that rates would be coming down as a result of natural gas prices coming down and the effects of our efficient generation investment that we had made or to put it in other ways, the investments that we have made in efficient generation.

So we realize that the timing of the rate cases was not particularly good for our customers, and that with rates going into effect at the very beginning of the summer, it was difficult for them if there were increases. It was difficult for them to adjust rapidly through, for example, conservation programs. So we worked with the Commission and the consumer advocate and indeed last legislative session, the bill was passed to change the timing of the rate cases. So they are now filed in June and implemented rates in January. The first effect of that will be this June, when we file the case for the northern Nevada utility and then we will file the case for the Southern Nevada utility in June of 2011, with rates to be effective January 2012. So if you are looking at it in terms of the -- I think you said attrition, I don’t know the word you used, we will have moved up by six months the timing of the rate case but for or from where it would have been but for this change in law.

Maurice May -- Power Insights

Okay. I guess what I'm looking for is trying to figure out how -- what will your attrition be off the ultimately determined ROEs? You have talked in the past about 100 basis points of holding company expense, so if you earn -- if you get authorized a 20, a 10, 5, you know, we are really starting, practically speaking with a 9.5. But what kind of attrition with the reduced capital expenditures going forward and hopefully reduced regulatory lag going forward? What do you think the attrition off of authorized ROEs could be in 2012 and beyond?

Michael Yackira

I don't think I can address that with any clarity, Maury, but I can tell that you that there are certain assets that we have on our balance sheet that we receive a return off, rather than a return on. An example of that is goodwill. We have in our rate making the return of, at least at the start, over $300 million of goodwill associated with the merger of Sierra Pacific Resources and Nevada Power in 1999. So while we are not returning, we are not getting a return in terms of ROE for that asset, we are getting cash returns for that asset and there are others like that. I can't disagree with you that with a slowdown in capital, which is the biggest drag on our ROE, earned versus allowed, we should certainly see some upward movement in the spread between our allowed ROE and our earned ROE. But we're not going to be specific as to what our forecasts are in that respect.

Maurice May -- Power Insights

Okay. Michael, thank you.

Michael Yackira

Thanks, Maury.

Operator

The next question comes from the line of Jay Dobson with Wunderlich Securities. Please go ahead.

Jay Dobson -- Wunderlich Securities

Good morning, Michael.

Michael Yackira

Good morning, Jay.

Jay Dobson -- Wunderlich Securities

Going back to economy, I think on the last couple of calls, you have talked about trends in no use and low-use customers and I was wondering if you could give us, sort of your latest view on those as you are seeing the data come in.

Michael Yackira

I will ask Kevin to do that.

Kevin Bethel

Yes, Jay, this is Kevin. What we said, I think, last quarter call was that we thought those low use customers were starting to levelize out. As we get smarter in measuring that, we have actually seen a slight increase in the amount of low-use customers in the fourth quarter.

Jay Dobson -- Wunderlich Securities

Okay, great. And early this year, I mean, is there any trend that is change in that that you see or any other sort of granularity you can offer?

Michael Yackira

I think at this point, Jay, it is too early to tell, since the first quarter is one month old and we are certainly seeing more activity in terms of houses that are going through refinancings and have been -- missing the word --

Kevin Bethel

Bankruptcy.

Michael Yackira

Foreclosure, yes. The word that I guess I want to get out of my memory. As those are turning over and as financing is becoming more available, we are certainly hoping to see that change. But it is too early to tell in this quarter as to whether we have seen a true change or not.

Jay Dobson -- Wunderlich Securities

Hey, that is great. Next question, on to pensions, I was recalling in the third quarter that you indicated the fund had done reasonably well and so there might be a change in your pension cost forecast for 2010, I was wondering if you could give us some insight on that.

Kevin Bethel

Yes. This is Kevin. We have, as we have disclosed this year a sense over prior year because of our continued funding of the pension plan, because of the assumptions in the actuarial measurements and because of the performance of the assets that will decrease -- O&M expenses related to pensions will decrease in 2010. That is one of the reasons that we are able to maintain flat O&M expenses throughout the year.

Michael Yackira

And as a reminder, Jay, over the past three years, through the end of 2009, we have funded about $250 million into our pension plan.

Jay Dobson -- Wunderlich Securities

Yes, I know, that is great. Kevin, any idea how much that will decline when I look at 2010 versus 2009?

Kevin Bethel

We see about a $20 million decrease in expense year-over-year.

Jay Dobson -- Wunderlich Securities

Got you. For the full year.

Kevin Bethel

For the full year.

Jay Dobson -- Wunderlich Securities

Great. And then going back to the voluntary early retirement, Michael, you said it was about 5%. So thinking about a total employee of about 3100, I get to about 150 folks. Is that about a right number to think about?

Michael Yackira

Yes, that is both voluntary and involuntary. That is correct. An as I said before, there is additional involuntary plans that we have that we are working with our bargaining unit on right now.

Jay Dobson -- Wunderlich Securities

Okay, great. And then last question, Kevin, I was hoping, I could I go back. I think you said in your prepared comments that the drag in 2009 from the first half of unrecovered Higgins and Clark expenses negatively impacted earnings by about $0.20?

Kevin Bethel

That is correct. We have previously disclosed in both of those quarters about $0.10 per quarter, so a $0.20 impact throughout the year because those rates then became effective July 1 -- we were recovering those expenses beginning July 1.

Jay Dobson -- Wunderlich Securities

Perfect. So I did have that right. And then you also said lower use per customer dragged you by about $0.10 and that would really jibe with sort of the gross margin concept you were talking about as being flattish for 2010?

Kevin Bethel

That is correct.

Jay Dobson -- Wunderlich Securities

So when I think about that $0.20 then, without an improvement in residential sales, one shouldn't immediately assume that $0.20 drag goes away in 2010. Am I thinking about that properly?

Michael Yackira

I think -- actually, it's Michael. I think the $0.20 drag relative to those expenses goes away, because they are now included in rates.

Kevin Bethel

That's correct.

Jay Dobson -- Wunderlich Securities

Right. But wouldn't you need to actually recover the full amount of the rate increase in order to get that? So thinking of the full $221 million rate increase, which was premised on a level of sales, which was falling somewhat short of -- we wouldn't recover all of those costs. Am I thinking about that properly?

Michael Yackira

You are thinking about that properly. I'm not sure that it's particularly material, but the fact is that when we look at historic test-year rate making, we have in this situation one that we really haven't experienced in the past, namely that where we have had rates set on historic kilowatt hour sales and those kilowatt hour sales have been growing, and that helped mitigate some of the regulatory lag from either operating expenses or capital expenditures.

Jay Dobson -- Wunderlich Securities

Sure.

Michael Yackira

This time we have, we certainly have less in operating and maintenance expenses and capital expenditure increases, but we probably have less in kilowatt hour sales. So it is going in the wrong direction for us.

Jay Dobson -- Wunderlich Securities

Got you. Perfect. Thank you very much. I really appreciate it.

Michael Yackira

Thanks, Jay.

Operator

Our next question comes from line of Michael Lapides of Goldman Sachs. Please go ahead.

Michael Lapides -- Goldman Sachs

Hey, guys. Just a handful of things for 2010. Want to make sure I heard these correctly. First, O&M flat year-over-year with 2009, that includes pension but also includes the severance costs. Second, tax rate for 2010; and then third, what are items that will positively or negatively impact the cash flow statement in 2010 but maybe won't show up as much on the income statement? So I think about maybe deferred energy recovery or collateral recovery, those types of items.

Michael Yackira

That is a host of things. Kevin, you want to start?

Kevin Bethel

Sure. Let me -- first question that we didn't cover was the effective tax rate and we don't see a significant movement in that in 2010. As far as any cash flow items, we've brought up in past quarters our deferred energy balances, and we are in an over-collected balance. We've effectively started January 1 passing some of that cash back to the customers, as Michael kind of indicated with the decreased rate effective offsetting some of the increases. Those were effective January 1 and then I -- so that covers your tax and your cash flow and O&M flat. You measure that.

Michael Yackira

The one thing I want to make sure that, that was clear is that when we're looking at O&M flat year-over-year, we're taking into consideration that there won't be much in terms of severance costs in 2010 relative to 2009. So when we're looking at flat, we're looking at that relative to not having a major recurring severance cost in 2010.

Michael Lapides -- Goldman Sachs

Okay. And when you talk about deferred energy and being in an overcollected, how much and what do you expect to return back to customers and when?

Kevin Bethel

At year end, we saw that balance a little over $210 million, I believe, as an overcollected balance. And through the rate mechanism, the BTER and a deferred energy accounting adjustment, we actually started seeing that pass back to the customers at the beginning of this year, January 1. We probably will see that more so in the first six months. And that's usually front end loaded, as you pay that back as soon as it gets back as soon as it gets into your quarterly adjustment.

Michael Lapides -- Goldman Sachs

Okay. So just making sure I follow the accounting, you've got a net deferred energy liability on the balance sheet obviously greater than the asset side, you're unwinding that. When do you expect to have it totally unwound? I'm just trying to think about cash flow versus earnings over the next year or so.

Michael Yackira

Sure. It's really -- it would be guessing as to what or how the Public Utilities Commission wants to implement that. As Kevin said, it's starting to be implemented through the changes, the base tariff energy rate, we expect that to continue through the year but for modeling purposes, I would assume that certainly if not by the end of this year, by the first half of 2011 that full $210 million will be credited back to our customers. And again, that's assuming that there's no change with respect to natural gas prices. If we start to see changes one way or the other that will affect how that is passed back and the speed with which it is passed back. So if we saw increases in natural gas prices, it would slow down the speed with which the customers would get the credit.

Michael Lapides -- Goldman Sachs

Meaning if I look at net gas forward at $5.50 to $6 MMBtu or so, it would have to be an increase from that level or an increase in the year-over-year spot?

Michael Yackira

Well, it's a little more complicated than that because of our hedging programs. But suffice to the say that if prices go up from where they are today, in any meaningful way, it might slow down the credit that the customers are getting. But if you are simply looking at cash flow, Michael, I think it's reasonable to suggest that between the beginning of 2010 and the middle of 2011, all else being equal to that $210 million will be given back to our customers.

Michael Lapides -- Goldman Sachs

Got it. But that also likely means you've got a pretty sizable cash inflow through roughly the fourth quarter.

Michael Yackira

That's likely.

Michael Lapides -- Goldman Sachs

Okay. Thank you, guys.

Michael Yackira

Thank you.

Operator

Thank you. And our next question comes from Robert Howard with Prospector Partners. Please go ahead.

Robert Howard -- Prospector Partners

Good morning. I wanted to check in on that that $400 million approximate number on the CapEx for potential other projects and all. What would the timing of that be? If you got approval, are they more front-end loaded or would it be spread evenly out over however many years? How would that kind of happen?

Michael Yackira

It would be more backend loaded, except for the energy efficiency programs, which were fairly ratable over the three-year period of time. Our ASD project, which start trials toward the end of this year but most of the capital for that would be in 2011 and 2012, same thing is true with on-line. Start in 2010, most of the capital associated with the rest of it in 2011 and 2012 and if you were going subdivide that more in 2012 than 2011 of those might be two years.

Robert Howard -- Prospector Partners

Okay, great. And then with the capital construction guidance that you guys gave, for the existing projects or known projects, were the reductions -- was that more of a project cancellation or are things kind of getting pushed out past 2012 into 2013 and more of a delay?

Kevin Bethel

Yes, this is Kevin. With obviously the economy and the slow growth, a big piece of that was a reduction on the base capital project that we've seen. There are a couple of projects that we've pushed out, renewables being a big piece of those as well and then some that have just been canceled all together.

Robert Howard -- Prospector Partners

Okay. And then lastly, Kevin, when you mentioned on the question about the low-use customers, you guys had kind of changed your methodology and I guess estimating that number, I was wondering if could you sort of talk about what changed?

Kevin Bethel

We really haven't changed the methodology? And we've talked about this in the past that our customer to us is anybody that has a meter charge. So if you're getting the meter charge and the meter is spinning, that's a customer. And then we have just gotten what I said was we've gotten a little smarter how we measure that and we've just collected more data and are making better analytics around the day that we have. But we haven't really changed the methodology at all.

Robert Howard -- Prospector Partners

Okay, great. That's it from me. Thanks, guys.

Michael Yackira

Thanks, Rob.

Operator

And our next question comes from the line of Nitin Dahiya with Nomura Securities. Please go ahead.

Nitin Dahiya -- Nomura Securities

Good morning. I have a question around potential debt issuance. I believe you have commented in your prepared remarks, but as the plans stand now, how much of a gap -- funding gap, do you see over the next three years?

Kevin Bethel

As we said in the call -- this is Kevin.

Nitin Dahiya -- Nomura Securities

Yes.

Kevin Bethel

Over those next three years, we see about $100 million requirement and in Michael comments, we don't know if and when we would go out to the capital markets to fund that and if so, what the blend would be.

Nitin Dahiya -- Nomura Securities

Fair enough. And in terms of the -- and I don't know if you can comment on any potential refinancing of your holdco bonds, because they're callable and/or become callable and step down as well later this year.

Kevin Bethel

This is Kevin. I really don't have any comment on that. We continue to look at all of our debt across the company and what our options may be.

Nitin Dahiya -- Nomura Securities

Thank you very much.

Kevin Bethel

Thank you, Nitin.

Operator

Our next question comes from the line of Phyllis Gray with Dwight Asset Management. Please go ahead.

Phyllis Gray -- Dwight Asset Management

Good morning.

Michael Yackira

Good morning, Phyllis.

Phyllis Gray -- Dwight Asset Management

Could you remind me what the regulatory review schedule is for your IRP?

Michael Yackira

Sure, Phyllis. This is Michael. By statute, the Commission has 180 days to review the triennial IRP. And I say that because we make many amendments to that IRP during the three-year window between filings. I think we were on the 14th or 15th Amendment of the Southern Nevada IRP, as an example. And as a reminder and I don't think either Kevin or I made this clear, the filing that we made in February, on February 1, was the triennial filing that was to be made for the southern utility in July of 2009. We had originally filed that, we withdrew that because of the load forecasts which were stale at that point and we had seen a farther slowdown or further slowdown in our loads back in July of 2009.

So, we asked the Commission if we could withdraw it and not -- and stay in compliance with the statute. They said yes. They said can you refile it or please refile it by December 1. We went back to them before that filing and because of the discussions we were having with the Department of Energy, we asked them for further deferment of February 1. So this filing substitutes for the filing that was to be made on July 1 and then December 1. They have 180 days to make a decision by statute. So, we're expecting about a six-month window between the filing and this final decision of the Commission. We have a triennial filing that must be made for the northern utility in July of 2010. And we'll have to make that filing as well. So they will overlap.

Phyllis Gray -- Dwight Asset Management

Okay. So in the IRP that you file this summer for the northern utility, could there be further proposed CapEx projects?

Michael Yackira

We don't see anything of a material nature other than -- and will be -- another confusion here is that we'll be making an amendment to the northern utility's filing of their last -- for their last triennial filing to incorporate the proposed joint venture with LS Power. So sometime between and I think we have a date, it might be within the next month or so. I am forgetting exactly when it is. We're going to be filing an amendment to the existing northern utilities IRP filing to incorporate their portion of both ASD as well as on-line. So we don't see anything other than what we currently have announced, the on-line project or advanced service delivery project, nothing material to be part of our IRP but for the potential of some between now and July, some incremental renewable energy investments that we might be bringing forward, especially as a result of the potential for on-line to come online so to speak by the end of 2012.

Phyllis Gray -- Dwight Asset Management

And then the amendment that you will be making for the northern utility, what would be the combined cost of those two projects?

Michael Yackira

I think the best way to look at it, Phyllis, is rather than by company, simply look at the investments of on-line and that the company as a whole, both southern and northern Nevada, would be investing 25% of those capital projects. The same is true with Advanced Service Delivery. The net would be about $160 million. The project is a $300 million project. We're expecting approximately $140 million of funding from the Department of Energy, so that would be the combined investment of the northern and southern utilities. How it split really will be dependent upon what the decision of the Commission is with respect to what the allocations of those dollars are. But if you are looking at a model for the total company, that's a reasonable way to look at it.

Phyllis Gray -- Dwight Asset Management

And then getting back to the question of low use customers, what percentage of your residential accounts do you estimate to be vacant homes at this point?

Kevin Bethel

Well. We include vacant homes in those low-use customers and I believe we're trending in what we define as low-use customers around 7%. And the norm would be somewhere in the 4% to 5% range, meaning that as a norm in years before of the economic issues that the nation has faced, there are a lot of people who have second homes in Nevada. So those people amount to about 4% to 5% of our total customers. That's grown to about 7% as a result of the economy.

Phyllis Gray -- Dwight Asset Management

And do you also track inactive accounts where the meter is not spinning at all?

Kevin Bethel

We do. I don't have that information in front of me. But I would say that these incorporate those. You can imagine that especially in southern Nevada, the meter has to spin or the house is going to be worthless, if it happens in the summertime. So the meter spins but it spins at 85 degrees thermostat rather than 78 degrees thermostat.

Phyllis Gray -- Dwight Asset Management

Thanks very much.

Kevin Bethel

Thank you.

Operator

We have a follow-up question from the line of Greg Gordon with Morgan Stanley. Please go ahead.

Greg Gordon -- Morgan Stanley

Thank you. Thanks, guys. I know that you're loathe to commit to any specific financing plan and I understand why but when I look at the current dividend and take into account your observation that based on your current capital plan your total external financing needs are only $100 million, it looks to me like you will generate retained earnings over next several years of three to four times that amount. So is it fair to say that that minimizes or eliminates your need for equity unless your capital expenditure needs go demonstrably higher?

Michael Yackira

I wouldn't necessarily assume that because again, Greg what we've given you and everybody on the call is our current estimate of financing needs before the IRP.

Greg Gordon -- Morgan Stanley

Right.

Michael Yackira

So when you include the IRP, our financing needs change, so it certainly might suggest that an equity offering is something that would happen and quite frankly I would be surprised if it wouldn't happen over the next three years. The question is when. And I think that is consistent with what we've said in the past.

Greg Gordon - Morgan Stanley

So if you get the, if/when, you get approval for these projects, we should sort of think about the up-sizing of your balance sheet accordingly, correct?

Kevin Bethel

Correct.

Greg Gordon -- Morgan Stanley

Okay. Thank you.

Michael Yackira

Thanks, Greg.

Operator

And we have one more follow-up question from the line of Michael Lapides with Goldman Sachs. Please go ahead.

Michael Lapides -- Goldman Sachs

Actually two questions. One, AFUDC next year roughly what kind of range do you expect? Meaning 2010.

Michael Yackira

I don’t know. I don't think we ever give that number but we certainly can say it's going to decline year-over-year because our construction is slowing down. The only major construction project we have right now is Harry Allen and that will continue through sometime in 2011 when that becomes commercial. But it's certainly going to be lower than it was year-over-year. We were still in the growth phase and clearly that will be lower but we're not going to disclose what we estimate that number to be at this point.

Michael Lapides -- Goldman Sachs

Got it. Okay. I was thinking through if Harry Allen is $500 million to $600 million project and not fully, not in rates and will be mostly constructed by year end would think you would be kind of accumulating AFUDC on the weighted average balance during this year which would be a pretty decent number. Is it because the rest of CapEx declined so much that would drive AFUDC down?

Kevin Bethel

This is Kevin. That's a correct assumption to make.

Michael Lapides -- Goldman Sachs

Okay. Thanks, guys.

Michael Yackira

Thanks, Michael.

Operator

And we have no further questions. Please continue, sir.

Michael Yackira

Karen, thank you. Thanks, everybody, for your attention. We look forward to giving you information about the Investor Relations event that we're going to have in New York on March 24 and Kevin and I and Britta look forward to seeing you there. Thanks very much.

Operator

Ladies and gentlemen, that does conclude our conference for today. We will be having a replay available starting 9:30 A. M. Pacific Time today, running through March 8, 2010 at midnight. You may access the AT&T Executive Playback Service at any time by dialing 1-800-475-6701 and entering access code 143110. International participants may dial 1-320-365-3844 and entering access code 143110. That does conclude our conference for today. Thank you for your participation and for using AT&T Executive Teleconference. You may now disconnect.

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