PUC signals it will stand firm against solar industry on rates

Solar supporters rally in front of the Public Utilities Commission offices Wednesday, Jan 13, 2016.

The state’s utility commission, scheduled to issue a highly anticipated order on rooftop solar rates on Friday, filed a draft ruling late Wednesday that suggested it would be unlikely for the three-member body to let more than 17,000 existing solar customers keep their more favorable rates.

In a 124-page draft order, the commissioner presiding over the solar proceedings proposed the board not grandfather existing customers for 20 years, which had been the recommendation of multiple parties involved in the case, including NV Energy and the state’s consumer advocate. The draft order instead proposed extending the gradual implementation period for the increased solar bills from four years to 12 years, with four rate changes split into three-year increments.

Before its meetings, the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada, which regulates NV Energy, issues a draft ruling written by the presiding officer in the case. The draft does not reflect the opinion of the entire body, and other commissioners are allowed to suggest modifications to be considered during the meeting, raising the possibility that the language released Wednesday could still be changed.

As it is currently written, however, the draft order represents a blow to the rooftop solar industry, which was hoping the commission would at the very least reconsider its decision in December to increase bills when it tripled a fixed fee and cut the value of incentive credits for customers.

The draft order also denies appeals that challenge the basis for the bill increases.

Bring Back Solar Alliance, which is organizing a ballot measure that would revoke the commission’s authority and effectively restore the prior rates, criticized the decision Wednesday evening.

"If the Public Utilities Commission adopts the proposed decision, we urge the Legislature to call a special session immediately to solve the problem that the unelected Public Utilities Commission has created,” alliance spokesman Bob Greenlee said in a statement. "The Legislature has the power to immediately bring back solar for all Nevadans and to restore fairness to the over 17,000 solar customers that today’s proposal would leave out in the cold.”

Several lawmakers have said they support grandfathering and are closely watching the decision.

The commission had argued that the new rates were necessary to ensure that solar customers, who do not purchase as much energy from the grid and avoid paying some of the fixed costs wrapped into electricity rates, were not shifting costs to other ratepayers. The Bureau of Consumer Protection, headed by the consumer advocate, who represents all ratepayers in these matters, argued for a more moderate approach, saying cost shifts are often involved in utility regulation.

Solar advocates argued that the cost shifts were false and that the commission had not considered the benefits of solar for all ratepayers, such as its environmental impact, the reduction of strain on the utility grid, and a decreased need for NV Energy to invest in costly infrastructure projects.

Since the decision in December, solar advocates have waged a vocal campaign against the commission, urging it to reconsider its decision. The draft order takes aim at their organizing.

“(The Alliance for Solar Choice), SolarCity, and Sunrun, as well as others, have engaged in an all-out campaign to influence the public perception of the commission’s ratemaking process by claiming repeatedly that the commission is subject to regulatory capture by NV Energy and that the commission’s decisions in this proceeding are illegal, all while the proceedings before the commission were ongoing,” Commissioner David Noble, the presiding officer, wrote in the draft.

He wrote the commission cannot base decisions “on misperceptions that are largely the product of an active effort to mislead ratepayers through the dissemination of inaccurate information.”

Noble argued that by the solar industry’s calculations, customers would still save about 33 percent on their utility bills under the new rates. The solar industry has said that such arguments are misleading because while customers might save on their utility bills by not purchasing as much electricity from the grid, they would still be required to pay other costs for solar. They have argued that the cost of both bills — the utility bill and the solar bill — could therefore be greater for their customers than before they installed rooftop solar, a calculus that would discourage the technology.

Bryan Miller, president of the Alliance for Solar Choice, issued the following statement: "Noble’s contortionist twisting of the law belongs in a Vegas Cirque du Soleil show, not the halls of government. (Gov.) Brian Sandoval's legacy will be letting his hand-picked commissioners eliminate a booming industry while he complicity stays silent."