Climate

Solar Customers In Nevada Are Getting A Rate Hike For Christmas

CREDIT: AP Photo/Joe Cavaretta

Even the iconic Welcome to Las Vegas sign is solar powered.

Last year, the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada issued a report finding that rooftop solar customers actually give back more to the grid than they cost.

But on Tuesday, the PUCN seemed to go against its own data, voting 3-0 to create a new rate class that will push up electricity bills for people who have solar.

“The PUCN just changed the rules of the game for all Nevadans that have invested in rooftop solar,” Jessica Scott, a regional director for Vote Solar, said.

Among the biggest changes to the rate structure will be in how much customers are paid for the electricity they put back on the grid, though net metering. Solar customers in Nevada will no longer be paid for their excess electricity at a retail rate. Instead, the net metering rate will be set at wholesale prices — even though the utility doesn’t have to pay for any of the solar panels’ hardware or maintenance, and transmission costs are negligible, since the electricity is being generated close to where it is used.

In addition, the new rate will apply to both new and existing customers — a bitter disappointment to the industry and to the thousands of homeowners who have already installed solar.

The exact details of the rate, which will apply only to residential and small commercial net metering customers, have not been finalized. The Berkshire Hathaway-owned NV Energy, the state’s largest utility, is required to file its new rate with the PUCN by the end of the year.

“The worst part is that this new rate will apply to all solar customers effective January 1, even existing customers,” Scott told ThinkProgress in an email.

“I would agree with Jessica that the refusal to grandfather existing net metering ratepayers really is the worst part,” Dylan Gasperik, a communications executive working with Vote Solar, told ThinkProgress. “This is Warren Buffett’s NV Energy taking money out of homeowners’ pockets three days before Christmas.”

The decision is also likely to put a damper on solar jobs in Nevada, which was the nation’s third-largest solar market last year. There are about 5,000 people working in solar in the state.

Lyndon Rive, the CEO of SolarCity, one of the largest residential solar companies, said that the vote would “force SolarCity to cease sales and installation operations in Nevada. And if SolarCity, which has the lowest cost structure in the industry, is forced to shut down operations, you could estimate that more than 5,000 solar jobs across the industry will be lost as a result of this decision.”

When the rate hike was proposed earlier this year, solar advocates and customers protested the move. President Obama even alluded to the proposal during a renewable energy summit over the summer. “We see the trend lines. We see where technology is taking us. We see where consumers want to go,” Obama said. “That, let’s be honest, has some fossil fuel interests pretty nervous, to the point where they are trying to fight renewable energy.”

In 2013, a similar rate hike in Arizona — a fixed fee — decimated what had been one of the hottest solar markets in the country.

Still, the solar industry in Nevada is not expected to go quietly.

To begin with, all three of the commissioners were appointed by Gov. Brian Sandoval (R), whom the industry alleges has ties to NV Energy. Earlier this month, residential solar company Sunrun filed a lawsuit compelling the governor to release communications between his office, the PUCN, and NV Energy.

But that’s not the industry’s only tactic. Sunrun executive Bryan Miller, who also serves as the president of The Alliance for Solar Choice (TASC), an industry advocacy group, told the Las Vegas Sun that organization might sue over the commission’s decision.

“In a similar situation in Wisconsin, the commission acted without evidence and attempted to eliminate the solar industry,” Miller said. “TASC sued and TASC won, and TASC expects to do the same here.”