Nevada regulators deny requests to pause rooftop solar rate hike

Actor Mark Ruffalo, center, rallies solar supporters in front of Public Utilities Commission offices Wednesday, Jan 13, 2016. Debbie Dooley, founder of Conservatives for Energy Freedom, stands by at left.

Framed by a string of public comments from solar customers, employees and activists, the Nevada Public Utilities Commission denied petitions Wednesday to halt increases to rooftop solar bills, ensuring that the rates remain in effect as the commission considers appeals.

Before the vote, commissioners heard hours of public comment from activists, some of whom lined up to speak an hour before the morning meeting. Lines to speak in Las Vegas snaked outside of the office building that houses the commission here and into the parking lot.

They held sings like “Don’t Be Shady, NV Energy” and “Keep Calm And Go Solar.”

Solar Supporters Rally at PUC

Tera Mills, center, and other solar supporters rally in front of Public Utilities Commission offices Wednesday, Jan 13, 2016. Mills said her parents have installed solar panels on their rooftop. Launch slideshow »

In December, the commission approved rates for solar customers that increased a fixed fee for solar users and reduced the value of credits customers can earn for generating excess electricity. It also lowered the base electricity rate that solar customers pay, commissioners clarified today. The rates applied to all customers, even early adopters of rooftop solar.

Solar companies argued that such changes could cripple its business model and two companies — SolarCity and Sunrun — announced hundreds of layoffs last week, as they pulled their sales and installations teams from the state, following the rate decision.

At today’s meeting, the three-member commission considered several filings asking that they halt the rates until they had heard all requests to reconsider or clarify the order. Several parties are in the process of challenging the rates that were implemented on Jan. 1.

Commissioners decided against delaying the rates because the parties had not satisfied their burden to prove such a motion met several criteria, including that there was an irreparable harm to solar customers, good cause for a stay or that a stay was in the public’s interest.

“The motions to stay fail to establish any factors that would support staying the commission’s final order or the tariffs filed therein,” the commission wrote in the order denying the stays.

Before Jan. 1, solar customers paid a fixed fee of $12.75. Under the revised rates, solar customers will pay a service charge of $17.90, a fee that will gradually rise to $38.51 by 2020. NV Energy had also reimbursed solar customers about 11 cents for per kilowatt-hour of excess energy they generated, under a policy known as net metering. The value of those credits fell to about 9 cents in January and will bottom out at 2.6 cents by 2020.

The rates are part of a larger philosophical debate, one taking place not only in Nevada but in states around the country, about how to integrate rooftop solar customers, who do not purchase as much energy from the grid and avoid paying some of the fixed costs wrapped into electricity rates. NV Energy and the commission have argued that the new rates are necessary to ensure that solar customers are not shifting costs to other ratepayers.

The Bureau of Consumer Protection, which represents all ratepayers in these matters, is arguing for a more moderate approach, saying cost shifts are often involved in utility regulation.

Activists argue those cost shifts are false and that the commission is not considering the benefits of solar for all ratepayers when one factors in the environment, a reduction of strain on the grid, and the decreased need for NV Energy to invest in costly infrastructure projects.

Solar advocates believe that, with reduced incentives, solar will not be economically advantageous for customers. In about five hours of public comments, solar customers and employees, some who had recently lost their jobs in the layoffs, excoriated the new rates.

Some felt betrayed because the revised rates do not grandfather customers, changing rates on some of the earliest adopters. Many solar activists called this a “bait-and-switch.”

“You just stole $48,000 from me with this decision,” said James Dale Collier, a Henderson resident who paid that amount to purchase solar panels outright more than four years ago.

Collier said he is now paying more than before and believes the decision, which lowers the value of credits for excess energy generated, no longer guarantees a return on investment.

SolarCity customer Jonas Woolverton said the decision could have ramifications on the value of homes. He said buyers might no longer see his solar panels as a benefit.

“If I do sell my house, now it’s all up in the air,” he said.

Others expressed anger, confusion and frustration with the commission.

Teddy Stanowski, a Sunrun employee who was laid off and has panels, said the decision was an anti-competitive measure that went against capitalism, ingenuity and the people. He also pushed back against the commission's claim that the rates would not cause irreparable harm.

He noted that his job loss is evidence of the decision’s effect.

“I am the evidence,” Stanowski said. “We are the evidence.”

NV Energy said in a statement it will not make a profit off the rates.

Like Stanowski, some have argued solar could be a threat to utilities like NV Energy. In a recent filing, the Bureau of Consumer Protection wrote “the (bureau) is sure the commission realizes that the debate over rooftop solar — not only in Nevada, but in other states — is not solely just about unreasonable cost shifts, but it is a product of the utilities recognizing there is a potential competitive threat to their business model from rooftop solar.”

The meeting Wednesday drew several activists from out of state, including actor Mark Ruffalo and Tea Party organizer Debbie Dooley. In his public comments, Ruffalo called the commissioners “anti-Robin Hood” for largely adopting NV Energy’s proposed rate structure.

“The actions you are taking today are taking from the mouths of the people and giving it to a single monopoly utility,” he said. "You are taking from the people and giving to the rich.”

Politicians also weighed in. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic nomination released a statement Wednesday in support of the solar activists at the commission meeting.

“It does not make sense that the second sunniest state in the nation is now walking away from solar energy,” Joan Kato, Sanders’ state director said in a statement.

In a letter responding to a constituent last week, Nevada Rep. Joe Heck said, “There should be a grandfather clause that protects the rates of existing residential solar users.”

NV Energy estimates it has about 17,000 net-metering customers.

On several occasions, commenters criticized Warren Buffett, whose Berkshire Hathaway owns NV Energy. They also tacked blame on Gov. Brian Sandoval, who has said he is supportive of the solar industry but that he would not intervene in the commission’s ruling. He has said he would not interfere it is a quasi-judicial panel and to do so would be inappropriate.

When the official proceedings started around 4 p.m., Chairman Paul Thomson called some rhetoric hyperbolic and noted that the commission has been studying the issue for years.

“This commission has been working tirelessly, not to penalize people or to favor one technology over the other, but to create a path forward for rooftop solar in this state that treats all ratepayers fairly,” Thomson said. “That’s what we are trying to do.”

Commissioner David Noble, who wrote the order and is the presiding officer in the case, clarified several issues, noting that base energy rates for solar customers are now actually lower than they are for other ratepayers. He added that the ruling only applies to small commercial and residential rooftop customers, rather than larger customers like schools. He said NV Energy could not turn a profit from the new rates and if they did, it would trigger a regulatory mechanism that would reimburse those profits to NV Energy ratepayers.

In the coming weeks, the commission will consider requests to reconsider the rates.