Climate

Nevada Solar Power Users Could Face New Fees This Summer

CREDIT: AP Photo/John Locher

Hundreds of activists gathered outside NV Energy headquarters in Las Vegas to protest a state cap affecting rooftop solar installations and urge the Legislature to lift it.

In a 21-0 vote, Nevada’s state senators agreed Sunday to let the public utilities commission create a new electricity rate for people who have installed their own solar panels.

Under current law, these solar customers can effectively zero-out their electricity bills by selling any excess energy their panels produce back to the utility company. But this incentive, called net metering, is “capped” — only the first 3 percent of customers are eligible for the program. The bill would ostensibly serve to lift the state’s net metering cap, but all new solar customers would be subject to a fee.

The Nevada PUC has until July 31 to determine what new solar customers will have to pay.

Rooftop solar has been a high-profile issue in Nevada in recent months, as the industry nears the 3 percent cap. Last month, hundreds of people turned out for a rally to support increasing the cap. Net metering is considered a key driver in the residential solar industry’s boom.

In the past year, Nevada saw the fastest solar job growth in the nation, said The Solar Foundation, a non-profit industry group. With nearly 6,000 solar employees, the state also has the highest per capita solar employment. While Nevada has several utility-scale solar projects, residential solar has also been been an important part of the industry. In 2014, nearly twice as many residential solar systems were installed over the year before — and nearly 2,000 Nevadans now have their own solar power, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

SB 374 was the second-most heaviest lobbied bill of the session, State Sen. Kelvin Atkinson (D) told the Las Vegas Review Journal on Sunday. As enacted, the bill transfers the decision on how to address the net metering cap to the public utility commission.

“Everybody won’t be happy,” Atkinson said. “Everybody won’t be thrilled, but it’s the right thing to do.”

Some utility companies argue that net metering means solar customers aren’t paying their fair share for the grid, because they can theoretically zero out their bill by selling power back to it. But solar advocates say that fees stymy the burgeoning industry and don’t count the benefits — such as transmission and generation savings — that rooftop solar offers everyone. Advocates also contend that using clean, renewable solar energy benefits everyone by reducing carbon emissions.

After the vote, solar advocates called foul on the Senate’s passing of the amended bill.

“The Nevada Coalition to Protect Ratepayers and the thousands of solar employees we represent have anticipated a public hearing concerning the future of rooftop solar. To this date we have not received one,” Bryan Miller, co-chairman of an industry group, The Alliance for Solar Choice, said in a statement.

A similar fee imposed in Arizona in 2013 had a significant cooling effect on the growth of rooftop solar in that state.

This year, residential installation company SolarCity moved 85 jobs out of Arizona, citing a slowdown caused by the fee.