At a small event in Reno, Nevada on Saturday, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders wondered aloud why the 25 former solar workers in front of him had lost their jobs.
“This should be a leading industry here,” the Vermont senator said. “You should be leading America — you should be leading the world in encouraging people to move toward solar panels.”
But Nevada is not leading anything when it comes to solar power, despite its abundant and mostly unobstructed sunlight. Though the state’s solar industry was once thriving, a December decision by the Nevada Public Utility Commission (PUC) changed everything. With the stroke of a pen, the three-person, Republican-appointed commission hiked up fees for rooftop solar customers and slashed rebates, making it significantly more expensive for people to buy, install, and maintain panels on their homes and businesses.
The state’s solar industry plummeted almost immediately. In the first week of January, SolarCity announced it would leave Nevada and fire 550 workers. Shortly thereafter, Vivint Solar also said it would leave the state, followed by residential solar company Sunrun. All cited the PUC’s decision for why they were packing up and taking their jobs with them.
Now, both Sanders and his opponent Hillary Clinton are campaigning on the issue as they compete for votes in Nevada’s upcoming Democratic presidential caucus. And as both candidates increasingly realize that every vote counts in this primary, the hundreds of laid-off solar workers in Nevada could be considered their own voting bloc.
Sanders’ strategy: Empower workers to act
Here’s how Sanders seems to be approaching the issue: Remind voters that a fossil-fuel funded billionaire caused the problem, and empower them to take action themselves.
How did a billionaire cause the problem? In a nutshell, the new solar fees were requested by NV Energy, the state’s energy utility, which is owned by billionaire Warren Buffett. NV Energy argued that solar customers needed to be on equal footing with other sources like fossil fuels, and should not be getting comparatively low fees and high incentives from the state. In addition, the state’s increase in rooftop solar customers was harmful to NV’s business, as solar customers only had to buy electricity from the utility at night.
In addition, Buffett’s NV Energy has “substantial” monetary ties to Nevada Gov. Sandoval, who appointed the PUC members, according to Ecowatch. “First, Sandoval’s two election campaigns have both received the maximum allowed donation under state law from NV Energy,” Ecowatch writes. “Next, two of NV Energy’s primary lobbyists, Pete Ernaut and Gregory W. Ferraro, are two of the Republican governor’s closest advisers.”
In other words, the Nevada solar situation is right up Sanders’ political alley. He is anti-billionaire; anti-money in politics; pro-climate action; and anti-fossil fuel. And in Nevada, a billionaire-owned, fossil fuel-powered energy monopoly is contributing heavily to a Republican governor’s campaign, with the goal of reducing solar power in the state.
Sanders has used the combination of those messages to his advantage in Nevada. On Saturday, in front of the laid-off workers, Sanders talked about “the future of the planet,” while advocating that the workers take the situation into their own hands. The workers, he said, should take on Buffett — in the form of a petition.
“You might want to be thinking about writing a letter with a few hundred thousand signatures on it to Mr. Buffett and say, ‘You know what? What you’re doing here in Nevada is exactly wrong,’” he said.
Clinton’s strategy: Advocate federal policy
But Sanders isn’t the only one who’s noticed the worthiness of Nevada’s solar struggles as a campaign issue. Clinton, though she has not met with solar workers in the state, released a statement last week condemning the PUC’s decision.
Interesting (and smart): Hillary injects herself into bubbling NV controversy over rooftop solar: pic.twitter.com/PrDXUFxYnY
— Jon Ralston (@RalstonReports) February 11, 2016
Her proposed solution to the problem, however, is different from Sanders’. Instead of appealing to voters individually, she is broadly advocating for the passage of federal law.
Specifically, she cited an amendment to The Energy Policy Modernization Act (EPMA), which would limit the ability of state agencies and utilities — like the PUC and NV Energy — to retroactively change rates and fees for existing customers. The amendment was proposed by Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) in response to Nevada’s struggles.
“Utilities should not be allowed to penalize consumers with retroactive rule changes that cause financial hardship and slow the transition to a clean energy economy,” Clinton said. “[The amendment] would safeguard the benefits that consumers, many in Nevada, believed they would receive by investing in clean energy in their homes and businesses.”
While Clinton’s solution may be more tangible, Sanders’ may have an advantage in that he actually met with the laid-off workers. According to the Reno-Gazette Journal, the group that organized the meeting with Sanders reached out to Clinton’s campaign as well, but received no response. And at the meeting, at least one of the workers was starting to sound a bit like Sanders.
“We’re the little guys, and large corporate interests are being put in front of average Nevadans producing their own solar power,” said Eli Smith, one of the attendees. “We don’t think that’s right.”