Nevada PUC ignors rooftop solar protesters

Nevada PUC ignores thousands of rooftop solar advocates

The Nevada Public Utilities Commission voted Wednesday not to delay implementation of new fees and lower net metering rates for rooftop solar customers.

The unanimous decision came in the face of more than 1,000 people protesting outside “we want freedom” and hundreds more inside who made thoughtful and impassioned arguments against the new charges for all solar customers – including about 18,000 home and business owners who have already made the investment.

The commission voted in December to raise connection fees for solar customers while gutting the state’s net metering program, which used to credit rooftop solar customers the retail rate for excess power they fed back onto the grid. The new rate class credits them at the wholesale rate, which is a fraction of what was offered when today’s 18,000 rooftops solar customers made the investment.

The decision came as a shock to solar advocates after the Nevada PUC issued a report earlier in the year acknowledging that rooftop solar customers contribute to the grid more than they cost.

Still, PUC chairman Paul Thomsen told the Nevada Review Journal that the new rate is “designed to create a path forward for the solar industry while treating all ratepayers equally.” He said he was offended by public comment suggesting the commission didn’t know what it was doing.

PUC commissioner David Noble recommended that the commission vote to keep the new rate in effect while the decision is reconsidered because he said the new rate is not doing any irreparable harm. He noted that the increased cost for solar customers in the first year is expected to average just a little more than $20.

Meanwhile, SolarCity laid off 550 solar workers in the state. It, Sunrun and other solar businesses announced they would drastically reduce their presence in the state if not move out entirely. The Alliance for Solar Choice said there are about 5,000 or 6,000 people employed in the rooftop solar industry in Nevada and that nearly all of those jobs are at risk.

“I don’t think you quite realize what this means to you – to your legacy,” actor Mark Ruffalo told the PUC on Wednesday. A solar advocate from New York, Ruffalo came in support of Nevada solar customers. “This is happening all over the United States. Solar. You are basically regressing.”

Ruffalo chastised the PUC for forsaking the public in favor of the monopoly utility.

“You’re stealing from the public and giving to the rich,” he said. “You’re like the anti-Robin Hood.”

In fact, utility company greed has been a hot topic in Nevada over the last year. The PUC also voted to allow three major casino groups to leave NV Energy on Wednesday, though not without paying hefty exit fees to the utility. The casino companies cited poor stewardship, greed and a lack of attention to public interest from the PUC as reasons for their exit.

NV Energy, which owns both major utility providers in Nevada, saw its operating profits increase by 27.7 percent between 2013 and 2014. Instead of reducing rates, the company asked for a new rate class for solar customers in order to protect its new profit margin. NV Energy is a subsidiary of Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway.

MGM Resorts Spokesman Clark Dumont told the Nevada Review Journal that the state’s largest utility customer wanted to exit NV Energy because of consistent decisions from the public utilities commission “against the objectives of sustainability in our energy supply and costs.”   

Despite demonstrable objection from the public, outrage and surprise at a retroactive rate change that came with tongue-lashings from President Obama, all of the Democratic presidential candidates and many politicians on both sides of the aisle, the PUC stood its ground this week. The new rate class will stand while the decision is reviewed.

“It’s time to represent the public,” one rooftop solar customer told the PUC on Wednesday. “I think the 17,550 of us who have solar – it’s really good grounds for a class action lawsuit for $1 billion.”