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September 20, 2019

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PUC hearings on Nevada solar could restore net metering rates


J. Emilio Flores / The New York Times

A SolarCity employee installs solar panels on a house June 27, 2014, in Camarillo, Calif. SolarCity, the nation’s largest provider of rooftop systems, is among a cluster of companies built with the aid of government subsidies and utility incentives now facing deep uncertainties and accelerating losses despite unflagging consumer interest and surging growth in renewable energy.

Nearly a year after state regulators decided to increase bills for rooftop solar customers, lawyers for NV Energy and the solar industry remain locked in a technical, often dull, argument about the quality of that new rate structure. In several daylong hearings this week, both sides came back to utility regulators with detailed analyses, dozens of witnesses and hundreds of pages of testimony.

Neither side has drawn attention to the hearings. No "Bring Back Solar" signs, no rallies in front of the utilities commission and no zealous pro-solar media releases. This new front in Nevada’s ongoing solar controversy is a slow, methodical regulatory process.

Each side is presenting arguments to the Public Utilities Commission as it nears the end of a triennial process to determine electricity rates for NV Energy’s Northern Nevada customers, including rates for 28 solar customers. Yes. You read that right. Despite all of the resources being poured into the deliberations, the outcome of the hearing will directly impact only 28 Nevadans.

But it matters because the decision could signal rooftop solar companies looking to re-enter the market. In this case, regulators could adjust last year’s contentious ruling, which increased fees and slashed the value of credit customers earned for generating excess electricity under a program known as net metering. The PUC could now reconsider the value of excess energy, which solar installers SolarCity and Sunrun cited as reasons for halting sales in the state.

In prepared testimony, SolarCity asked the commission to set the value for excess energy above what customers pay for electricity, while NV Energy asked for a rate below that benchmark.

Though technical and seemingly narrow — the ruling on this would only apply to Northern Nevada customers — it could set a course for the debate over rooftop solar in the state.

Two members of the three-member regulatory body are new to the board, and were not involved in crafting the controversial solar decision last year. With a clean slate, energy experts are looking to see where they fall on the solar issue. It could also set a model, some believe, when the PUC reconsiders rates for Southern Nevada next year. The decision, expected to be made in December, also is being closely watched prior to the 2017 legislative session, where the rooftop solar issue is likely to emerge.

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