Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016 | 2 a.m.
During the 30 years I have fought efforts to bring the nation’s highly radioactive waste to Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, nuclear power supporters would ask, “So how do you think the lights will stay on without nuclear power?” My answer was, “In Nevada we have enough sunlight and solar power potential to keep our lights on and share some with you!”
So when the price of solar panels for residential installations dropped significantly, we tapped $8,500 from our retirement savings — after taking into account an NV Energy rebate and federal tax credit — and become a solar household. We were solar-powered all of last year, and our annual savings showed our system would pay for itself within 14 years. Moreover, it was right for the environment.
But with what’s happened in recent weeks, we feel financially ambushed. We’ve penciled out the recent increase for residential solar customers that NV Energy proposed and the Nevada Public Utility Commission approved and allowed to begin this month. Bottom line: Our system will never pay for itself. In fact, because rooftop solar is a different NV Energy rate class, an ordinary, modest-sized home in Southern Nevada will have larger power bills with rooftop solar than without, even though we will not tax the power grid and will generate renewable power for other NV Energy customers. This outrageous outcome overturns years of policy advances in Nevada to expand the use of renewable resources.
The hearings to increase costs for solar-panel users (technically known as net energy metered residential, or NEM, customers) triggered petitions, thousands of postcards, and pleadings from the Nevada Bureau of Consumer Protection and other organizations to respect solar’s potential. But the three-member, governor-appointed PUC not only gave NV Energy every bit of the increase the for-profit monopoly utility requested, it even sweetened the deal for the company it regulates. It applied the new rate to cover existing NEM customers who had made their investments in solar based on the rates and rules at the time they signed up. No other state in the country that has revised solar rates has applied them retroactively. That bait-and-switch means this decision not only makes new residential solar inadvisable, but also punishes the customers who believed the sunny promotion that NV Energy, the state and federal government gave residential solar development.
During the 2015 Nevada legislative session, our representatives were contacted by constituents and had meetings and hearings with businesses involved in the fast-growing residential-solar industry. It was obvious that the people of Nevada were becoming eager to enter the age of solar, opting to either buy or lease rooftop systems. Groups that supported “distributed generation” (the phrase describing how electricity from rooftop solar panels can enter the grid for use by others) sought legislation to help average homeowners buy solar systems and ensure that existing regulations would allow the industry to grow and expand.
Net metering began with a statewide program that essentially would allow up to 3 percent of residential customers in the state to have solar rooftop installations. With the growing popularity of solar and rapidly expanding businesses doing installations, solar advocates wanted the Legislature to raise or remove the 3 percent cap so there would be unlimited opportunity for people to take advantage of Nevada’s greatest resource: sunshine. Legislators reviewed comments, proposals and suggestions from the public, NV Energy and many other sources and came up with Senate Bill 374, which passed and was signed into law.
SB 374 directed the PUC to examine proposals for rate adjustments submitted by NV Energy regarding residential customers who decided to install rooftop solar after Jan. 1, 2016. NV Energy said some costs were being shifted from solar users to nonsolar customers, but an energy consulting firm hired by the state found no basis for that claim. Studies in other states showed that the value of solar was significant for both people with rooftop systems and the utility. It became clear that if cost-shifts happened, it was most likely because the business model of NV Energy did not accommodate the generation of power from sources they do not own or control.
The intent of the Legislature was to achieve fair pricing for all utility customers while encouraging business and the recovering economy of Nevada. Since it began, net metering was, by definition, a system that would provide a homeowner with rooftop solar the ability to produce energy, use it and if it was not needed by their home at the time produced, receive a credit to use when needed. The term “net metering” means that units of electricity produced, credited or used would all be equal. With the new pricing for NEM customers, the value or price of the energy they produce will be vastly reduced. In addition, the flat service charge for NEM customers will rise to three times that charged to nonsolar residential customers, a kind of penalty for producing much of our own electricity. The people with solar on their homes feel cheated; solar businesses are closing or leaving. This was not the Legislature’s intent.
Last summer at Sen. Harry Reid’s National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas, President Barack Obama and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told the world that Nevada was where all could see the value and benefit of renewable energy, especially solar. The question, “What can I do to promote clean, renewable energy?” had a clear answer: rooftop solar. Google is beginning a new service to show the potential for solar production when someone submits their address. They have not yet extended the service to Nevada. Forget it, Google. The actions just taken by NV Energy with the blessing of the PUC will make that service an unnecessary waste here.
Judy Treichel is executive director of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force and a renewable-energy advocate.