Friday, Dec. 4, 2015 | 2 a.m.
The hearing room in Las Vegas seemed way too small given the importance of the decisions being made. It was a November meeting of the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada, linked by video screen to offices in Carson City, where most of the participants were. For three marathon days, in meetings lasting until after dark, commissioners heard cross-examination about NV Energy’s proposed “approval of a cost-of-service study and net-metering tariffs” for residential rooftop solar customers. If approved, what would that mean? Whopping power bills for people like me.
It was very clear that if you are a lowly ratepayer, not represented by an attorney, you are unheard and overwhelmed. The many residents who prepared and gave comments at public meetings are not considered in the decision. Really? Oh, yes, here it is in the PUCN rules: “While comments are valuable, comments are not evidence and therefore cannot be considered by the commission when making a decision in a particular proceeding.” (NAC 703.491)
The official record is a 500-page proposal from NV Energy seeking the higher charges, a reply from the PUCN staff and testimony, exhibits and notices, all in the record — a huge pile of paper or endless computer screen reading that is impossible for a customer to wade through. This hearing, the cross-examination of witnesses based on prior testimony, was the final step before a commission decision that could set new rates.
First were the witnesses from NV Energy. It came as a shock to me that the utility expects no new rooftop solar after sometime in 2017. When an environmental attorney asked why, NV Energy’s director of renewable energy said the company assumed that by then, the cap — the Legislature’s limit on the number of rooftop solar systems allowed — would have been reached. NV Energy was to offer an incentive for customers who wanted to install systems on their roof. It appears the company believes people will not install solar without an incentive.
Questions from an attorney for a pro-solar group revealed that the cost study done by NV Energy, justifying the much higher rate, was rejected by the PUCN. So there seems to be no acceptable basis for increasing the rates for rooftop solar customers. There is still a decision to come on how much residential solar customers should have to pay. NV Energy attorneys often were very aggressive and at one point claimed that people with rooftop solar got value by feeling warm and fuzzy about being green. So there is a new fee for feeling good?
As the hearing was wrapping up, pro-solar attorneys said several legal issues had been raised. They explained that forcing customers to pay for what the utility may want installed later, such as a net-metering system, could violate law; that they doubted NV Energy had made its case for a rate increase; and that the proposed increases may not be consistent with the direction of the Legislature. They questioned whether a new rate can be imposed on one group of existing customers and whether demand charges can be imposed on residential rooftop solar customers that could make their rates higher than before they installed their systems. Cases challenging the imposition of such demand charges have been litigated in Wisconsin and Montana, and the decisions in both cases were in favor of the net-metered solar customers and against the public utility commissions that allowed them. Thank goodness for those environmental attorneys! They were very bright and willing to jump in and challenge the utility and demand answers.
As I think about those long days of the hearing, I am trying to sort out the huge gap between how NV Energy does business and what customers want. Nevadans overwhelmingly like residential solar power, but the utility treats it as a burden. Shouldn’t taking advantage of our abundant sunshine be encouraged?
We installed our solar system on our very small house. We used retirement funds to buy it after determining that it would take about eight years for it to pay for itself. We thought that as our income becomes a much smaller, fixed amount, our power bills would never be a concern. And we liked the idea of helping Las Vegas, NV Energy and ourselves be part of addressing climate change. The questions for me now are: Why, when we took our own money to install solar panels and provide electricity for ourselves and our neighbors, are we a problem for the utility that serves us? Why is NV Energy proposing new rates that could end the growth of this clean-energy source by demanding more in charges than people would save by going solar?
The PUCN will decide this case before the end of December. Other rooftop solar owners and I agree that the most important and valuable thing the PUCN could do is change the outdated way NV Energy does business. Make it change from a company that gets the most money from owning and controlling its complete supply to one that follows the lead of a growing number of power companies that understand the value of customer-generated electricity. NV Energy should more innovatively fill the distribution and transmission functions that a new, more sustainable and resilient utility would do. The old American telephone systems had to adapt when cellphones arrived on the scene. I have heard they screamed bloody murder but made changes. Those who decided what customers wanted and provided for their needs were more successful than ever.
Nevada is now home to a factory that will soon be manufacturing a large assortment of batteries for cars, homes and businesses. Electric cars are here, and that industry will be growing. As new ideas are born, NV Energy must become part of the change. They are now faced with losing large customers who want out. That should be a clear signal that a new era is here and they are missing the boat. The PUCN should keep the rates as they are until NV Energy adopts a new way of working and submits a pricing proposal that reflects new thinking.
Judy Treichel is executive director of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force and a residential solar advocate.