Published Monday, Jan. 25, 2016 | 8:18 a.m.
Updated Monday, Jan. 25, 2016 | 10:27 a.m.
The rooftop solar industry, grappling with an increase in customer bills that has prompted several companies to halt sales in Nevada, is turning its attention to the political process.
A group organizing under the No Solar Tax PAC plans to file a ballot measure this morning that, if successful, would restore a prior rate design for rooftop solar customers.
The group, which will hold a rally in Las Vegas this morning, is backed by SolarCity, the Great Basin Solar Coalition and a number of Nevada-based solar panel installers.
At issue is a decision by state utility regulators in December to increase a fixed fee for solar customers over the next four years. The Public Utilities Commission, which regulates NV Energy, also slashed the value of credits solar customers earn by generating excess electricity under a policy known as net metering.
The Bureau of Consumer Protection, which represents all ratepayers in commission matters, and rooftop solar advocates are asking the regulators to revisit their decision.
But a ballot measure, if successful, could circumvent that process altogether.
No Solar Tax PAC’s referendum would amend the statutes, approved by the Legislature last year, that served as the basis for the commission’s decision. As a referendum, voters would need to reject the measure in order to disapprove and repeal the sections of law in question.
According to the proposed referendum, the group would be seeking to void the language that served as the framework for the commission’s decision to create a fixed fee for solar customers that differed from the fixed fee for other ratepayers. It would also ask voters to repeal language that allowed the commission to change the value of the net metering credits.
The measure would retain language that would leave the net metering policy uncapped. In the past, the program had been capped at a percentage of NV Energy’s peak generating capacity, which limited the number of ratepayers who could use install rooftop solar panels.
This was a key issue during the last legislative session.
NV Energy, which argues that net metering is a subsidy, opposed raising any cap and said for every percent the cap increased, it would cost ratepayers at least $8 million. The solar industry, which predicted it could soon hit the cap, wanted to see the cap raised.
Legislation, the result of compromise from NV Energy and the solar industry, temporarily raised the cap. In doing so, the Legislature charged the utilities commission with developing a permanent rate structure for uncapped net metering by the end of 2015. It also gave the commission leeway to impose new charges and modify the value of net metering credits.
No Solar Tax PAC wants to revoke this authority with its referendum.
In effect, the rooftop solar industry sees the referendum as a way to undo the legislative framework for the commission’s recent decision to increase bills for its customers.
The referendum still has several hurdles to cross before it can make it onto the ballot.
After the language is filed with the secretary of state this morning, it can be challenged. Once the referendum is certified, which is expected to occur in the spring, backers must collect the signatures of more than 55,000 registered voters by June.
Former Republican Gov. Bob List, who leads a group that supports rooftop solar and casinos in respective matters before the commission, will serve as the PAC’s spokesperson.
"This referendum is about jobs, consumer choice and Nevada's future. This alliance represents the people of Nevada, who overwhelmingly support bringing our rooftop solar back to the state,” List said in a news release. "The Public Utilities Commission's rules have been taxing on the rooftop solar industry and have already cost the state nearly 1,000 jobs in less than a month, with more job losses likely on the way."
There are about 17,000 net metering customers in Nevada.
NV Energy said it’s currently reviewing the referendum.
The debate over rates for Nevada rooftop solar customers has received national media attention. A number of companies, including SolarCity and Sunrun, another national rooftop solar firm, announced hundreds of layoffs this month as they halted their sales operations.
In the meantime, the commission will continue reviewing appeals of the new rates.
In justifying its decision, the utilities commission has said the move to increase bills for solar customers was necessary to eliminate a cost shift to other ratepayers. They argue that solar users do not pay their fair share for the grid and avoid paying some of the utility’s fixed costs.
Industry advocates argue the assumed cost shift does not give enough weight to the benefits of solar to all ratepayers, such as its overall impact on the environment or its effect on energy generation, arguing that it could reduce NV Energy’s need to invest in costly infrastructure.
Several other organizations, including Sunrun, the Alliance for Solar Choice and Conservatives for Energy Freedom, called on Gov. Brian Sandoval to remove the three members of the commission. Sandoval did not immediately respond to a request for comment but has said repeatedly that he would not intervene with the commission’s process and to do so would be inappropriate because it acts as a quasi-judicial body. According to state law, the governor can only remove a “commissioner for inefficiency, neglect of duty or malfeasance in office."