Thursday, April 14, 2016 | 2 a.m.
As the debate over rooftop solar pits ordinary homeowners and even world-famous billionaires against each other, it’s all too easy to get sidetracked by the theatrics and lose sight of the important stakes — not just in Nevada, but across the nation.
Depending on your perspective, this important, complex and technical debate boils down to either entrenched utility monopolies trying to block clean-energy competitors or well-heeled environmentalists expecting their neighbors to subsidize their green lifestyles.
Of course, it’s a lot more nuanced than that. But make no mistake, cost is indeed the central issue here: Who pays how much for what? And it’s the issue Nevada’s New Energy Industry Task Force (of which I am a member) will seek to resolve. So far, it has been discussed and thought about all wrong. The question we must answer is whether the long-term benefits of rooftop solar outweigh the short-term costs. If so — and I believe they do — how do we plot a course to making smart investments today toward a brighter tomorrow?
This isn’t about a cost shift; it’s about a paradigm shift. Solar is more than simply an alternative energy source; it’s a disruptive and potentially transformative technology providing significant societal benefits such as decreased dependence on foreign energy sources and an environmentally sustainable power supply that preserves the planet for future generations.
But there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Nurturing an embryonic solar industry to maturity comes with shared costs in precisely the same way the traditional utility grid was built and is maintained with shared costs to achieve shared benefits. For all the attention paid to solar, we are still talking about a technology that powers just a mere 0.5 percent (700,000) of America’s 125 million households.
Clearly, residential solar should represent more than one-half of 1 percent in our nation’s diversified energy portfolio. Doing this requires getting past all the name-calling and accusations so we can work cooperatively to identify the areas of short-term conflict, then work through them to clear the path to a future where we can reap the shared benefits of solar.
For the first time, people have a choice over how they power their homes. It allows the average person to be a contributor rather than just a consumer — a national trend underlying many of the disruptive technologies today. Freedom to choose is central to this country’s character and cannot be understated as a key driver pushing innovation across industries — from the mobile telecommunications revolution to Internet commerce. Ultimately, these disruptive technologies created new opportunities, new jobs and new savings even for the legacy industries they initially upended.
Gov. Brian Sandoval recognized this when he called together the diverse, bipartisan panel representing utilities, energy industry leaders, environmental advocates and others to find a solution. It takes real leadership to find a kernel of opportunity in the recent decision by the state’s Public Utilities Commission. But the creation of the governor’s task force does just that. A retrospective recognition that the PUC did what it was asked to do: examine the question of whether non-solar customers subsidize their solar neighbors.
While it might seem like the PUC ultimately voted against the will of Nevadans, it was simply doing its job as the economic rate regulator, as required by law.
In the end, it is the Legislature, not the PUC, that will have to determine who bears the short-term cost and benefit of establishing an appropriate public-policy framework to allow solar to grow. A solution that balances the very real need to protect our traditional power grid while still nurturing technologies that are cleaner, are more sustainable and account for choice. It’s not an either-or proposition, as depicted in and suggested by all the current infighting; it’s how can they co-exist?
At the very least, we can start this process by grandfathering in net-metering customers who purchased and installed rooftop solar before the net-metering cap was reached. Even the state’s largest utility agrees with that. To not do so would be unprecedented and destroy the consumer trust that was essential in getting solar started in the first place. Ultimately, the opportunity rests with finding a way to preserve retail net metering until the solar industry develops sufficient maturity to compete, without penalizing the utility for cooperating with something that could erode its future revenue stream. This means expanding the net-metering cap and allowing utilities rate recovery for these costs for a period. The challenge for our task force will be in finding the inflection point at which solar — or any energy supplier, for that matter — can prosper without the need for perpetual price or rate intervention. It’s a really tough issue, but, nonetheless, solvable if we put our heads together.
Nevada has had its moment in the sun and worked very hard to get there, but it really deserves a permanent place.
Jeremy Susac is vice president of government affairs for SunStreet Energy Group, a subsidiary of Lennar, one of the nation’s leading homebuilders. He is the former director of the Governor’s Energy Office in Florida and chairman of Gov. Brian Sandoval’s Technical Advisory Committee for Distributed G