The Nevada Public Utilities Commission voted unanimously on Wednesday against a stay in new rates for customers of rooftop solar.
Tensions ran high at the regulatory hearing on rooftop solar in Carson City as hundreds of people, including an actor from the “Avengers” franchise, voiced opposition to a controversial ruling by the state agency from last year. The hearing was dominated by solar supporters critical of the December decision by the PUC to raise fees and reduce reimbursement rates while also making those changes apply to customers who signed up under the old rules.
Participants in the rooftop solar ranged from solar customers and employees who lost their solar jobs to actor Mark Ruffalo, who testified in front of the commission. The solar lobby also coordinated rallies not just in Carson City but Las Vegas as well.
“What we saw was … people coming out today in Las Vegas and Carson City to voice their strong opposition (to the PUC decision),” said Lauren Randall, a spokeswoman for solar company Sunrun. “The commission needs to undo its decision and undo the burden it has caused on 17,000 customers who went solar and had the rules changed on them in the middle of the game.”
Utility company NV Energy, which has been the subject of much of the criticism from the solar lobby, hit back at accusations that it was anti-solar, saying that “nothing was further from the truth.” The company pointed to how it contracted more than 329 megawatts of new solar last year. It also described the solar lobby’s claims about the new ruling killing the industry as overblown, calling the PUC’s decision “fair” by not unfairly spreading the burden of solar installations to non-solar customers.
“One of the things that’s been lost in all of this is that the solar cap in Nevada has been removed (by the ruling),” said Kevin Geraghty, vice president of energy supply for NV Energy. “There no longer is a limit on the amount of solar that customers can put on their roof.”
The hearing is the latest development in a long-running debate in the state about rooftop solar rates. Last year, both sides agreed to leave the decision to the PUC to create a new rate class for rooftop solar customers during the last session of the Nevada Legislature. The state reached its cap of residential solar installations last August, requiring new rules for subsequent installations.
In December, however, the PUC decided to hike monthly fees for solar and reduce reimbursement rates while also making the new rules apply to older customers. This meant that customers who signed up under the old rules are also affected by the decision.
The ruling led to a contentious back and forth between the solar industry and the state. Immediately after the December ruling, the industry accused Nevada of implementing a disingenuous bait-and-switch while also claiming the state was beholden to special interests.
“We believe the Commission’s decision flies in the face of Nevada law,” said Bryan Miller, senior vice president of public policy and power markets at Sunrun and President of The Alliance for Solar Choice, in response to the PUC decision at the time. “Sunrun is currently suing Governor Sandoval for failing to comply with a public records request that will show the truth about NV Energy’s political influence in his office, and which led to today’s illegal decision.”
Sunrun and SolarCity also ceased operations in the state, causing hundreds of employees to lose their jobs. SolarCity, for example, laid off 550 employees in the state just before Christmas. Uncertainty about net metering also was cited as a reason by Vivint Solar for suspending its planned expansion into Nevada last year.
Sandoval, meanwhile, pointed out that he has called for the Nevada Consumer Advocate to look into the case and urged the solar lobby to respect the legal process for seeking reconsideration of the decision. Sandoval also pushed back at accusations that his office was influenced by special interests, including a comment from SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive that he “do the right thing.”
“If such a statement suggests that I somehow influence the PUC’s decision Mr. Rive knows, or should know, that such conduct is inappropriate,” Sandoval said in a statement.
It isn’t the first time that state officials had a run in with solar supporters. In the last session of the Legislature, lawmakers — including those who supported solar — expressed frustration about aggressive and accusatory emails from the solar lobby. The frustration is a big reason why lawmakers decided to take the net metering decision out of their hands and gave the responsibility to the PUC instead.
“We went out on a limb long ago to bring solar to our state not to be browbeat on why it’s going better than expected,” said then Democratic Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick.
Following the PUC decision, however, several lawmaker expressed surprise at the commission’s ruling. Democratic state Senator Aaron Ford and Republican Assemblyman Derek Armstrong both sent letters sent to the PUC while Republican state senator Patricia Farley, who was the lead author of the bill that granted the PUC authority to rule on the matter, told Bloomberg Business she was “absolutely concerned” about the situation.
The solar lobby continued to claim political shenanigans late Wednesday.
“This is about removing a competitive threat to NV Energy and they have a tremendous amount of political clout to do so,” Sunrun’s Randall said. “What this is about is taking away consumer choice.”
NV Energy called the PUC ruling a matter of fairness to all ratepayers. Whether or not solar rates are paid for by solar customers or non-solar customers does not impact the company’s bottom line, according to Geraghty. Instead, talk about NV Energy and the fact that it’s a subsidiary of Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway is just a smokescreen by the solar lobby.
“NV Energy never profits in any way, shape or form from … the cost shifting and there is and was a cost shift,” Geraghty said.
With the PUC’s decision to deny a stay for new net metering rates, the solar lobby is ready for a protracted battle. This includes legal action.
“We’ve seen this in other states across the country … and the decision just won’t stand,” Randall said. “”We saw it in Wisconsin where lack of evidence to promulgate solar charge was overturned in the courts.”