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Nevada's Public Utilities Commission is being criticized for a decision that rooftop solar companies say will kill that industry in the state.
They also say the PUC was largely influenced by the long relationship between Nevada and NV Energy, the state’s regulated energy monopoly.
Nevada energy regulators are meeting this week to decide whether to hold off on new rates for solar power customers.
The Public Utilities Commission scheduled a hearing Thursday for the rates, which took effect Jan. 1.
Under the new rate structure, current and future rooftop solar customers will get less credit from NV Energy for excess electricity produced by their solar panels, which is known as net metering.
They will also pay more per month in fees. The changes would raise the base service charge for southern Nevada solar customers from $12.75 to $17.90 per month, and from $15.25 to $21.09 for northern Nevada customers.
The service charge will rise and the reimbursement will drop every year until 2020.
We’ve heard a lot about the decision from officials, such as Governor Brian Sandoval. Sandoval even did something unheard of: he issued a statement before the PUC ruling, saying the decision could be challenged.
Ok, but what does this mean for those who have invested thousands in rooftop solar, or who lease panels from one of the state’s rooftop companies?
Las Vegas attorney Phil Aurbach has spent $36,000 to install solar in his home because he also had to install a patio to put the solar panels on.
He said the change will cut seriously into his budget. Before he invested in solar, he said, he paid about $60 a month for energy on his 1,900-square-foot home. After, it fell to $3 a month.
Now, he will be paying more as the fees go up.
"It's going to be more and ratcheting up more and more, which is kind of ridiculous from my perspective to spend all that money and then have Nevada Power say 'hey install solar, hey we'll give you credits, we'll help you out' and then turn around and screw you when they realize it may cut into their profits," Aurbach said.
Charlie Catania also invested in solar power. He leased a system, which means a rooftop solar power company installed the system and he pays them for the equipment.
He is now frustrated and not sure what he is going to do about escalating costs.
"You have to understand that I did my due diligence, after the statute was passed and felt that who would renege on something like this?" he said, "This came from the state and Nevada Power. And so I entered into a contractual agreement and low and behold it didn't stand up. I don't know what I'm going to do quiet frankly."
Catania said he feels abandoned by the Legislature and violated by the PUC.
State Sen. Patricia Farley, Republican, called in to talk about the issue. Farley was part of the effort to figure out net metering in last year's legislative session.
At issue was the cap on net metering, which was 3 three percent, but supporters of solar power wanted moved to 10 percent. After several months of back and forth, the Legislature decided to put the question of rooftop solar into the hands of the PUC.
According to Farley, all parties involved agreed the PUC should make the decision. However, she does want to talk to the commission about the controversial decision.
"I have made phone calls into Commissioner [David] Nobel to make sure the legislative intent was followed through," she said, "I was the one that added the amendment to make sure the grand fathering, that PUC had the ability to look current folks that were on the net metering programs and make sure we were regulating their rates correctly."
Attorney Tim Hay is a former Nevada Consumer Advocate. He helped write the 1997 law that put net metering into place in Nevada.
He said the decision by the PUC raises a number of legal questions and there could be some effective challenges against it.
One of the biggest problems he has with the decision is the retroactive nature of it.
"The retroactive aspect of this decision is particularly pernicious because it in effect has devalued the investment customers had made from the very beginning in solar," Hay said.
He also disputes NV Energy's reasoning that non-solar rate payers are subsidizing solar users. He said it is essentially a wash, especially in Southern Nevada, where peak power generation hits at the same time there is peak demand.
For Bryan Miller with the rooftop solar company Sunrun, the problem is jobs. Miller said the commissioners legacy would be the loss of thousands of jobs.
"The most important thing about this story is that there are real jobs here that have been lost already, thousands of jobs," Miller said.
Miller pointed to the decisions by SolarCity to cease operations and Vivint Solar stopping its efforts to set up shop as examples.
Hay agrees that the decision will cost jobs in the state. He believes the PUC did not take economics into consideration and he believes lawmakers would have wanted the commission to include it.
"I believe part of the issue is that we had a number of freshman legislators in both chambers who were not familiar with the state's history," Hay said.
State Sen. Farley took issue with that characterization and said many veteran lawmakers were involved in the process. She also stood by the decision to put net metering in to the hands of the PUC.
"Every year the Sunrun and the solar folks were coming back to the Legislature asking for increasing in net metering and it is a very complicated situation and our job as legislators is protect every rate payer not just the SolarCity," Farley said, "A lot of states have found that the net metering program is a subsidy and that on average the rate payers are paying for people to have solar on their rooftops and the cost of solar has come down but not significantly."
Miller responded strongly to that comment.
"Anyone listening today, you just heard the problem," he said, "Anyone listening if you want to do something about this incredibly anti-business climate that Nevada has created the first thing you can do is vote against politicians like Senator Farley. You just heard her completely parrot NV Energy's talking points and we're going to make sure everyone of her constituents hears interviews like this and understands she's the problem."
(Editor's Note: KNPR invited NV Energy to be part of our discussion but the company did not respond to requests to comment)
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)
Phil Aurbach, rooftop solar customer; Timothy Hay, attorney; Charlie Catania, rooftop solar customer; Bryan Miller, former senior counselt for the U.S. Department of Energy and vice president of Public Policy for Sunrun
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