Nevada has a Republican governor, three out of four Republican representatives, and a Republican senator. But even under this state majority, the state went for President Obama in 2008 and 2012 — and a recent decision by the commission that oversees Nevada’s utilities might keep it in the blue this year, which could have out-sized importance on election night.
First, some background: In December, the Republican-appointed Nevada Public Utilities Commission (PUC) decided in favor of the state’s biggest electricity provider and created a new rate class for rooftop solar customers. This was despite the commission’s own analysis, which said that rooftop solar is a net benefit for everyone.
The decision sparked outcry across the state, and on Wednesday, more than a thousand protesters are expected to attend the PUC’s first public meeting since the decision. Several solar companies have said they will downsize or leave entirely.
Meanwhile, public support for solar in Nevada — as it is in most of the country — is strikingly bipartisan. Across party lines, roughly nine in 10 Americans support solar power, and according to a poll commissioned last spring by The Alliance for Solar Choice (TASC), 69 percent of Republican likely voters and 80 percent of Democratic likely voters would be “unlikely” to reelect a politician who failed to raise the solar net metering cap.
But the PUC didn’t just fail to raise the net metering cap — it did away with the previous structure altogether. Up to this point, solar customers in Nevada were paid retail rate for electricity they back on the grid. If a customer paid $4 a kilowatt hour for electricity, they would get that $4 back for every kWh they gave back. Now, the net metering rate will be set at wholesale prices — which are significantly lower. Making matters worse, this new policy applies not only to new solar customers, but also to people who had already invested in solar for their home or business.
The move is expected to significantly impact Nevada’s solar jobs.
“There’s probably about 5–6 thousand solar jobs in the state, and most of those jobs are going to get laid off,” Lyndon Rive, CEO of SolarCity, told ThinkProgress. “We just laid off 550 people in Nevada. At the stroke of a pen, three people can decide the fates of millions. We’re going to fight it — we think it was unethical.”
Solar industry insiders aren’t the only ones who thought it was unethical. All three Democratic presidential candidates came out against the move — the change for current customers was particularly galling. “Certainly people who acted in good faith should be given the benefit of that moving forward,” former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Las Vegas Sun.
Sen. Bernie Sanders was even more outspoken, calling the decision, “just about the dumbest thing I have ever heard. We should be making it easier, not harder for people to go solar.” Even former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who is languishing at the bottom of the polls, weighed in.
Meanwhile, the entire Republican field has been mum on the issue.
That strategy is not likely to sit well with Nevada voters. Another poll, this one of New Hampshire voters, found that failing to protect net metered customers in Nevada would diminish Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval’s vice presidential appeal. In a memo about the results, the pollsters wrote:
Governor Sandoval appoints NV Energy’s regulators and decides on legislation that impacts the utility. At the same time, his closest political advisors are top lobbyists at NV Energy. Upon learning this, the number of likely Republican primary voters in New Hampshire that were unwilling to vote for him jumped approximately 30 points, from 26 percent to 53 percent. After learning that Governor Sandoval has failed to take a leadership role thus far to protect solar jobs against attacks from NV Energy, the number increased to 56 percent. Traditional Republicans were among the most affected, with a jump of 38 points from the initial question.
Adding even more weight to Sandoval’s misstep, Nevada is one of the only seven states Politico Magazine rated as a toss-up in the 2016 elections.
But the debate in Nevada speaks to a larger issue with the Republican party’s grip on the issues the electorate cares about. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which plays a huge role in funding Republican candidates, has made opposing net metering and clean energy policies a foundation of its policies.
The candidates will have a chance to pay attention to the issue pretty soon: Since 2008, Nevada has been one of the earlier primary states. It will hold Republican caucuses on February 23.
An earlier version of this post said Nevada would caucus on February 20. The Democratic caucus is the 20th. The Republicans will caucus on the 23rd.