Las Vegas Sun

September 16, 2019

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Making solar power more accessible to low-income Nevadans

Solar Panel

J. Emilio Flores / The New York Times

Those in low-income communities still face barriers accessing solar power, in spite of it being more affordable and prevalent than ever.

With an average of more than 290 sunny days per year, Las Vegas is often touted as a perfect place to generate solar power.

Add in that the stated policy for Nevada is for half of the energy generated here to come from clean, renewable resources, such as solar, by 2030.

Yet, those factors aren’t translating into bringing more solar power into the homes of all Nevadans.

Those in low-income communities still face barriers accessing solar power, in spite of it being more affordable and prevalent than ever.

The average cost of rooftop solar installation runs $10,000-$15,000, a price most Nevadans aren’t able to front. And low-income residents are also more likely to be renters, meaning they don’t control the roof space needed for solar installation.

The state, recognizing the disparity, has been exploring incentive programs to make solar power more accessible to low-income communities.

The Lower Income Solar Energy Program — a joint initiative between NV Energy and the Nevada Governor’s Office of Energy — offers incentives for the installation of solar panels on businesses that serve low-income communities like apartments, shelters and food banks. Since its inception in 2013, the program has benefited 1,000 lower-income Nevada households, said Jennifer Taylor, deputy director for intergovernmental relations in the Governor’s Office of Energy.

The partnership began as a pilot program through Assembly Bill 428 and was made permanent in 2017 with Senate Bill 145. The incentives have helped 14 projects, including senior apartments and a food bank.

“It’s been a good and beneficial program that helps ensure that we are increasing solar throughout the state,” Taylor said.

This past legislative session, Gov. Steve Sisolak signed AB465 aimed at expanding direct solar access to low-income customers.

The bill creates a pilot program requiring public utility companies like NV Energy to develop three to 10 solar access programs, with about a quarter of these programs directed solely at low-income customers and half toward customers who aren’t able to install rooftop solar panels.

The bill requires plans to have a “reasonable mixture” of both utility scale solar resources and community-based solar resources like solar gardens or shared renewable energy plants. Utility companies must submit a plan of action to the Public Utilities Commission, which establishes regulations on these programs.

The bill does have its critics.

Jeffery Cramer, executive director of the Coalition for Community Solar Access, said the bill’s language allows utilities to adopt existing solar projects that have already been slated, without incentives for the companies to introduce new developments.

“We work in states across the country to create and implement programs in order to do that in a way that’s meaningful,” he said. “This program won’t achieve that.”

Cramer added that the program prevents non-utility providers from participating, which continues the monopoly NV Energy has on solar energy by limiting its competition. He would like to see more “community solar” facilities, which have multiple community subscribers receiving credit on their electric bills for their share of the power.

The bill, while a step in the right direction for lowering energy bills, still keeps Nevada an “extremely restrictive state” when it comes to solar access, Cramer said.

But Guy Snow, president of Solar NV, a local chapter of the American Solar Energy Society nonprofit solar advocacy group, said that it’s better to have just one utility involved rather than multiple ones, as it means less confusion among customers.

“NV Energy is doing great with programs available,” he said. “I’m glad they are handling it now.”

Snow said in some states with multiple utilities involved, like Texas, “you need a degree to figure out which one you choose.”

Snow said that when it comes to better solar access, he’d like to see more focus be put on the property, rather than the resident or customer because of the transient nature of Nevadans. That’s why he’s in favor of more investment in programs like the Governor’s Office of Energy’s Property Assessed Clean Energy program, which is a financing mechanism enabling low-cost, long-term funding for clean energy projects.

“I think (AB465) was a large step for us,” Snow said. “I’ve always thought we were on the forefront for clean energy and we have some of the best resources for solar energy.”