Solar energy advocates dial up pressure on Nevada regulators


Vivint Solar employees install solar panels on a home. The company operates in 10 states.

Solar companies might be pulling away from Nevada, but they are not going quietly.

After state regulators voted to raise electric bills for solar customers in December, two rooftop solar companies announced they would halt sales and installations in Nevada, a decision that the companies said led to the termination of at least 600 employees between the two firms.

With the Nevada Public Utilities Commission scheduled to meet this morning and likely to deny several last-minute requests to halt the revised solar rates, industry advocates are moving to the next step, doubling down on a campaign to pressure the commissioners into reconsidering the new rates altogether. The controversial solar rates, implemented on Jan. 1, gradually increased a fixed fee for all solar customers and decreased the value of credits customers earn for generating excess energy.

At the meeting, the solar companies predict hundreds of customers, employees and activists will offer public comments urging the Public Utilities Commission to ease the revised solar rates.

Actor Mark Ruffalo and Tea Party activist Debbie Dooley are among those expected to make comments.

Lawmakers, including Republican Assemblyman Derek Armstrong and state Senate Democratic Leader Aaron Ford, have written to the commission in recent days with concerns over the rates.

Investors in renewable technology wrote a joint letter to the commission on Monday saying the decision had already produced a “chilling effect within the investor community.” With signatures from managing partners at several Bay Area capital-venture firms, it offered a dire prediction.

The letter argued any “failure to (reconsider the decision) would quickly curtail solar deployment in Nevada by unnecessarily disrupting customer and investor expectations and send the message that Nevada is not willing to partner with the investor community to meet its clean energy and climate goals, and may even discourage broader private investment in the state.”

Throughout the process of adjusting rates for solar customers, stakeholders have urged the quasi-judicial body to move in certain directions. But today’s activism comes after the clock began counting down to a Feb. 17 deadline for the commission to modify the rates.

Before Jan. 1, NV Energy charged all ratepayers, including solar customers, 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 Jan. 1, 2020. Under a policy known as net metering, NV Energy had reimbursed solar customers about 11 cents for per kilowatt-hour of excess energy they generated. The value of those credits fell to about 9 cents Jan. 1 and will hit 2.6 cents in 2020.

NV Energy said in a statement that the new rates would result in no additional profit.

Underlying debate over the rates is a national argument about how solar customers should be integrated with utilities. The commission had argued the bill increases were necessary because the majority of NV Energy ratepayers had been subsidizing solar ratepayers, who avoid paying some of the utility’s fixed costs for service because they purchase less electricity from the grid.

Advocates of the solar industry and the Bureau of Consumer Protection, the state agency that represents ratepayers in these matters, have challenged the claim. Among their issues with the new rates is that the claimed subsidy had been improperly calculated and contextualized.

The Bureau of Consumer Protection, which is arguing for a more moderate approach — one that grandfathers in existing solar customers — noted the Legislature, in assigning the commission to develop revised rates, sought to eliminate only “unreasonable” cost shifts, not all cost shifts.

“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 consumer advocate, who leads the bureau, wrote in a recent filing.

At the commission's meeting today, NV Energy’s regulator will vote on whether to halt the new rates. A proposed order, written by the commissioner presiding over the matter, recommends that the commission deny halting them. With a stay unlikely, the question turns to what’s next.

On Friday, several parties, including solar industry groups and the Bureau of Consumer Protection, filed petitions requesting that the commissioners revisit their December order.

One goal of the comment session is to put a human face behind the commission’s decision, said a spokesperson for SolarCity, which announced last week that it laid off more than 550 employees. SunRun also announced it was terminating hundreds of employees. The companies said the order made solar no longer economically advantageous for Nevadans.

Solar advocates believe attaching a public face to the decision’s ramifications — bringing out customers and employees — could influence the commissioners as they reconsider the order.

But at least one commissioner, the officer presiding over these proceedings, has started to push back. In the proposed order on Monday, Commissioner David Noble argued that customers would “not suffer irreparable harm without a stay,” noting that their bills would still be lower than those of other customers. The solar industry argues that the claim does not take into account the investment solar customers must pay off as part of purchasing or leasing solar panels.

Noble cited mischaracterizations of the order in media reports, “almost exclusively ... from quotes and sourced information from SolarCity and Sunrun representatives.” “These rooftop solar companies,” he said, “appear to be confusing their own customers with this misinformation.”

He added that the “commission takes the issue of jobs very seriously” but questioned whether the job losses were a result of imprudent business decisions from the industry. He wrote: “The layoff of so many people leads the commission to question how many people the rooftop solar industry hired in Nevada over the last eight months given the uncertainty of future (net-metering) rates, especially in light of warnings from the Nevada Legislature not to grow too fast.”

The solar industry has attempted to link Gov. Brian Sandoval with the commission’s decision. On Tuesday, The Alliance for Solar Choice released another statement critical of Sandoval.

Sandoval, who appointed all three commissioners, has said that he would not interfere with the decision because to intervene with the decision of a quasi-judicial panel would be inappropriate. He said he supported solar and has encouraged the industry to seek reconsideration.

“There’s still a lot of process,” Sandoval said in an interview with the Sun last week.