Monday, May 30, 2016 | 2 a.m.
With $25,000 in solar panels and battery systems, Richard Birt went off the NV Energy grid in 2006. It’s a storyline all solar adopters hope for, with the rooftop installation paying for itself “many times over.” Birt says the only electrical expense comes from about 100 hours a year — or 1 percent — he uses a generator when the sunlight isn’t strong enough to power the two-story home in Cold Creek he shares with his wife, Tonia, and their twin children, Emily and Spencer.
“No coal or gas necessary. It’s all natural, here from the sun,” said the 49-year-old Las Vegas fire captain, who has joined the fight to keep renewable energy paying off in Nevada.
For Birt, it isn’t just about cost savings. After 16 years in a profession devoted to public safety, he sees rooftop solar as one of the “greatest current technologies” available to the community, and a vital source of job creation. That’s why recent blows to its development pushed him into activism.
All NV Energy customers used to pay a fixed monthly service fee of $12.75, and under a policy known as net metering, the energy giant reimbursed solar-equipped customers about 11 cents per kilowatt-hour of excess electricity generated. Eager to take advantage of the desert sun’s potential and the according discounts, a skyrocketing number of Las Vegans installed solar panels on their roofs. Last December alone, 1,311 applications were filed to start the installation process, but a decision by the Nevada Public Utilities Commission that went into effect Jan. 1 forced solar customers to start paying a $17.90 monthly service fee. Over the next four years it will rise to $38.51. And while solar customers will still pay 11 cents per kilowatt-hour of power bought from NV Energy, the value of their excess credits, which the PUC placed at 9 cents per kilowatt-hour this year, will fall to just 2.6 cents by 2020.
The PUC’s decision prompted companies such as SolarCity and SunRun to cease Nevada installations. Applications for rooftop solar have plummeted anyway, to 90 in January — down 93 percent from December — and to 20 by April, according to Chandler Sherman, spokeswoman for the Bring Back Solar Alliance. Birt has volunteered for the group, largely funded by SolarCity and comprising homeowners and nonprofit organizations dedicated to restoring previous rates for Nevada solar users. Proponents of the changes, however, contend that they correct a cost-shift that has traditional-energy customers subsidizing about 20,000 who've invested in solar.
In a petition addressed to Gov. Brian Sandoval and signed by more than 500 Las Vegas firefighters, Birt urges lawmakers to repeal the PUC’s decision and bring back the old net-metering policy, asserting: “The voters will ultimately have the final decision on the state’s long-term solar future.” The petition lays out the explosive growth of the solar industry here, as well as a nationwide figure indicating it has created more jobs than its oil and gas counterparts combined. “Aside from the clear jobs benefit of solar, there are also public health consequences. Nevada will now need to build more dirty power plants to meet its energy needs," the petition continues. "It doesn’t have to stay this way. Nevada’s elected officials can put a stop to the pink slips and restore Nevada’s clean energy future.”
The public health aspect is a big one for Birt, who argues that incentivizing “going solar” prevents waste and outages, as homeowners can transfer excess energy to neighbors without power. During summer, when temperatures reach 115 degrees or more, he says that’s “one of the greatest threats to our safety.”
“Especially in senior communities, you can’t stay in your home when that happens. It’s a very dangerous situation,” Birt said, explaining that while his petition is more of a symbolic gesture, he hopes it sends a strong, unified message about what firefighters think about bringing back solar.
Tyler Elliott, 33, is one of the 508 who signed Birt’s petition, even though he hasn’t gone solar — yet. He said his captain’s pitch made signing an easy decision. “It seems like a no-brainer,” Elliott said. “If there was a way that I could own a system, pay a rate that’s under my current rate and reduce my carbon footprint, why wouldn’t I?” Elliott also emphasized the safety of his family in the event of an emergency or outage. Firefighters are the ones who respond to such calls, and he thinks “one day we’ll look back at this and ask how people could possibly have been anti-solar.”
Last month, representatives of NV Energy, solar companies and the state Bureau of Consumer Protection publicly agreed that rooftop-solar customers who put up panels before the new rates took effect should keep the prior rates through 2035. And on May 18, a subcommittee of Sandoval’s New Energy Industry Task Force recommended that the state “grandfather” the rates for customers who applied to go solar by Dec. 31, 2015. The recommendation will be reviewed by the full energy task force and could become a bill in the 2017 legislative session.
That’s not enough for Bring Back Solar, which is circulating its own petition for a ballot measure to undo the PUC’s decision, restoring pre-2016 rooftop-solar rates for all customers. In March, a Carson City judge disqualified the measure, a setback for those hoping for a statewide vote on Nov. 8. The group still is working to collect the necessary 55,000 signatures by June 31, hoping in the meantime to win an appeal of the disqualification filed with the Nevada Supreme Court.
Whatever happens, Birt won’t be affected. Being off the grid means being immune to rate shifts and surrounding politics. But he sees the potential for solar to keep getting more efficient and affordable, and for its advocates to work with NV Energy to “move into the future.” He points to the spread of external defibrillator technology, driven by emergency workers like himself who encouraged wider use as the product improved. Defibrillators went from being exclusive to emergency personnel in the early 1990s to application in many schools, public buildings, businesses and even some households by the early 2000s. “It became affordable, and everyone could have one,” Birt said.
The solar technology he installed on his house 10 years ago has definitely improved, making it easy for “just about anyone” to operate. Even if its widespread use means temporary profit reduction for Nevada’s largest energy company, Birt thinks the investment will pay off. “All we’re saying is, this is good for the community, and having that would make Las Vegas a better place to live.”