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State regulators just made going solar a lot more expensive — but activists haven’t turned out the lights just yet 
 

Only a fraction of the several hundred state residents who showed up January 13 at the Public Utilities Commission hoping to speak actually made it into the commission’s offices in Northern and Southern Nevada, between which proceedings were simulcast. Outside, angry protesters lined walkways, shouting slogans and hoisting signs: “Sandoval stole my sunshine,” “Fossil fuels are SO last century,” “Save solar jobs!”

Inside, dozens of people representing the state’s 17,000 net-metering customers took turns venting their anger at the PUC: “You gave carte blanche to NV Energy” in developing a new, higher net-metering rate for rooftop solar customers, said the first woman to speak. Why not grandfather in customers who signed up under the previous rules, a man from Reno wondered. Actor and renewable-energy activist Mark Ruffalo dropped by the Las Vegas office to give his two cents: “You’re like the anti-Robin Hood!” he exclaimed, to loud applause.

Through it all, the sole Las Vegas-based commissioner, Alaina Burtenshaw, sat quietly, in contrast to her northern peers, David Noble and Paul Thomsen. During the case’s proceedings, Noble and Thomsen have berated and criticized attorneys for the state Bureau of Consumer Protection, as well as members of the solar industry, community and media for mischaracterizing or misunderstanding what’s going on. At the January 13 meeting, the commission ruled unanimously against putting the new rates on hold while formal requests to reconsider them are heard.

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As of this writing, the commission was still processing those requests. Perhaps preparing for the worst, Las Vegans John Bamforth and Stanley Schone filed a class-action lawsuit against NV Energy on January 15, alleging anticompetitive actions, maintenance of a monopoly, artificial price inflation and other misdeeds.

Noble and Thomsen have frequently pointed out that net metering customers represent but 2 percent of the state’s electricity customers, and the needs of the majority outweigh them. Maybe so, but that 2 percent is angry, loud and determined. And in a state known for its independent spirit, there’s a good chance the other 98 percent would like the freedom that solar panels offer, too.

The whole mess started last spring, when the Legislature was considering the cap on the percentage of utility customers who could participate in net metering. It essentially passed the buck to the Public Utilities Commission (through Senate Bill 374), instructing the PUC to study net metering and plot a course for the future.

At the time, it seemed like a good idea to most everyone involved. Six months later, stakeholders have lined up on two sides of a bitter dispute, unable to even agree on an interpretation of SB 374. The fight is over the PUC’s December order creating a new ratepayer class for net metering customers with higher monthly service fees and lower reimbursement rates for excess energy production (see graphic).

NV Energy argues that net-metering customers who lower their monthly electricity bills by generating part of their own power unfairly reduce their contribution to the cost of the infrastructure on which they still occasionally rely. “On average, the resulting shift in cost responsibility is about $661 … per NEM (net-energy metering) ratepayer (to other ratepayers) annually” in Southern Nevada, the utility asserts in the order. Solar proponents say this paradigm ignores the value that net metering adds to the system. “You’re producing energy at peak rates, and you’re not at home so you give them back (to the utility),” Solar City CEO Lyndon Rive said on Ralston Live. “For (the utility) to accept that it’s adding value means they can’t deploy other infrastructure that allows them to raise rates.”

An independent study commissioned by the PUC and published by consultancy Energy and Environmental Economics in 2014 indicated net metering has a net positive impact in Nevada. Yet in its order on the new rates, the PUC wrote that “the E3 Study is already outdated and irrelevant to the discussion of the costs and benefits of net energy metering in Nevada.” Rooftop solar proponents cry foul, saying the numbers in the marginal cost study were provided by NV Energy and not independently verified.

“That’s my job,” says Anne Marie Cuneo, the PUC’s director of regulatory operations. “We have testimony and witnesses and go through thousands of pages and cells and look at all that.”

But, as the public comments demonstrate, net-metering customers don’t believe the commission is acting in their best interest. With rebates and incentives for rooftop solar, the state enticed them to make investments whose returns, under the new rate structure, will evaporate.

“I bought my panels outright, because I wanted to do something good for myself and the environment,” says Joshua Guild of Las Vegas. “Now I’m getting screwed because NV Energy is scared.”

Guild and others say they don’t mind paying additional fees to help cover infrastructure costs, but coupled with the additional reduction in excess energy credits, the new rates seem punitive.

Taken together, the Nevada PUC’s actions put the state on the forefront of policy-making that reins in rooftop solar. According to the most recent Clean States of Solar report, six states are considering reducing net excess generation credits, several others are increasing fixed charges and several more are adjusting limits on system size and capacity. But none has gone as far in one action as Nevada. Solar City and Sunrun executives say it makes the state the least desirable for the rooftop solar installation and leasing business. The companies cumulatively laid off more than 600 employees after the PUC’s decision and halted rooftop solar sales in the state.

“We saw this coming,” Nevada Assembly candidate Vinny Spotleson said outside the PUC meeting. “But it’s worse than we thought. … The way I see it, we need an entirely new solar policy.” 

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