Nevada solar customers sue SolarCity over marketing

SolarCity workers practice installing solar panels at the company’s new facility in Las Vegas.

A Northern Nevada couple is suing SolarCity, alleging that the national rooftop solar installer omitted and failed to disclose information about future rates before it installed panels on their home near Reno. Among the claims in the lawsuit, which was filed in late January, were negligence, fraud, breach of contract and deceptive trade practices.

The lawsuit claims the couple entered a contract with SolarCity in August. That was two months after the Legislature tasked the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada with setting new rates that had the potential to make installing a rooftop solar system more expensive.

The suit filed Jan. 29 argues that SolarCity misled or did not inform the couple of how the commission’s impending decision could change the calculus for adopting rooftop solar.

SolarCity had a duty to inform future customers that their bills could change after the Legislature gave the commission authority to determine rates June 5, the lawsuit claims.

The suit seeks class-action status for customers who entered into contracts after June 5.

Without the information, many customers were led to believe their rates would remain low, the lawsuit suggested. But when the commission ruled in late December, it approved bill increases for solar customers. It raised a fee and slashed the value of credits that customers could earn by generating excess electricity under a program known as net metering.

The lawsuit claims SolarCity and other defendants, who can be named later, “engaged in a campaign of deceptive conduct and concealment aimed at maximizing the number of plaintiffs who would purchase (rooftop solar) systems in order to maximize defendants’ profits, even as defendants knew their conduct would cause any of these plaintiffs to lose money should the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada change net-metering rates.”

Jonathan Bass, SolarCity’s vice president of communications, said in a statement that the company guarantees the rates that customers pay for solar electricity from the panels, but that the utility and the commission were responsible for lowering the value of net-metering credits.

“We guarantee the rates that our customers pay for solar electricity, and we stand by those guarantees, but unfortunately NV Energy is not held to the same standard,” Bass said in a statement. "We are fighting to protect our customers, and all of Nevada’s 17,000 solar customers, from the Public Utilities Commission’s new discriminatory fees and charges.”

The complaint was first reported Monday by political commentator Jon Ralston.

It is the second class-action lawsuit filed since the commission came out with its decision. In January, Clark County solar customers filed a lawsuit against NV Energy, arguing the utility gave the commission incomplete information and pressured the three-member panel to approve the new rates.

The new solar rates are being challenged on several fronts, including at the commission, which is expected to rule on an appeal this week. In those proceedings, NV Energy and at least one commissioner have raised similar concerns to those outlined in the most recent lawsuit. They have argued that solar companies did not warn potential customers of the possibility that the commission was poised to increase customer bills.

Solar advocates have criticized the commission’s decision for effectively killing the industry in Nevada. SolarCity and Sunrun, another national solar provider, have pulled their sales and installations teams from the state, a move that resulted in at least 650 layoffs.