Nevada's Sunshine Just Got More Expensive and Solar Customers Are Mad

The state's utilities commission voted Wednesday to keep a rate structure favored by large utilities to raise rates and end solar credits.

In Nevada, rooftop solar users face higher rates and disappearing rebates. Credit: Marufish via flickr

In a crushing loss for Nevada solar users, state utility regulators voted 3-0 on Wednesday evening to keep a solar policy that may be the most controversial in the nation.

Starting Jan. 1, Nevada's more than 17,000 residential and small-scale commercial solar users were hit with higher electricity rates, coupled with reductions in the credits they receive for sending their unused solar energy back to the grid. The state Public Utilities Commission had approved these changes less than two weeks before, astonishing and angering the solar industry and customers.

The backlash has been swift and intense. Customers have balked. Major solar installers, including Sunrun and SolarCity, announced they were ceasing local operations, closing offices and cutting hundreds of jobs. Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, who appointed the regulators, tried to distance himself from the decision.

The controversy has spread even to the presidential campaign, where two Democratic contenders have criticized the decision. Bernie Sanders called it "just about the dumbest thing I have ever heard." More recently, Hillary Clinton said, "I don't think any change in rules should penalize people who were permitted and encouraged to do what folks have done" in Nevada.

Nevada is among a handful of states that have repealed incentives aimed at encouraging residential-scale solar and other forms of distributed generation, part of a push by some utilities and fossil fuel interests to fight the spread of renewable power. The leading industry trade group Edison Electric Institute has called customer-owned distributed energy a "disruptive challenge" to the control utilities have over America's electricity supply.

What particularly rubbed people the wrong way in Nevada, however, was abandoning the concept of "grandfathering." When other states, including Arizona and Hawaii, increased rates for their solar customers or rolled back credits, they did so for new customers; existing customers were grandfathered into existing policies. Nevada changed the rates across the board.

Defying the request of solar advocates, Nevada regulators announced their decision on Dec. 22 to approve immediate rate and credit changes for both future and existing solar customers. Those rates will increase, and the credits will decrease every year until 2020.

For a typical Nevada homeowner, the basic monthly bill increased $12.75 to $17.90, with the credit for energy returned back to the grid decreasing from 11 cents per kilowatt-hour to 9 cents per kilowatt-hour. When the full rate change goes into effect in 2020, the monthly bill will be $38.51 and credits will be 2 cents per kilowatt hour.

The biggest defenders of the change include the state's utility regulators and the affected utility NV Energy. They say it addresses the burden being placed on customers not using the net metering benefit, which gives solar customers that deliver electricity back to the grid large rebates on their utility bills. Those customers, they argue, aren't paying their share of utility costs, including grid upkeep, and those costs are falling unfairly onto non-solar users.

"[Net metering] customers receive grid services and use the grid differently and, as the Commission's order recognizes, require different prices than full-requirements customers," NV Energy wrote in a statement. "The Commission's order sets a higher basic service charge to reflect these facts."

Solar customers make up only a small percentage of Nevada's utility customer base.

The new rule has a wide array of opponents: solar customers, solar workers and advocates; energy analysts; the Nevada Bureau of Consumer Protection; and politicians inside and outside the state. They say regulators did not consider the benefits solar users provide to the grid, including extra electricity and lower environmental impacts. These benefits were previously identified in a study conducted years prior by the same regulatory department, but that study wasn't considered in this case. In contrast, regulators in Colorado last year elected not to change local net metering policies—partly because of the benefits provided by their solar and other distributed generation customers.

"The most shocking aspect of this decision is that the Public Utilities Commission and Governor encouraged Nevadans to go solar and then punished them retroactively with new fees and jacked up rates—it was a completely unconscionable bait-and-switch and we will fight it with everything we've got on behalf of our customers," Chandler Sherman, a spokesman for SolarCity, wrote in an email.

Mark Dyson, a manager at Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy-focused think tank, did some rough model calculations to better explain the impact of the Nevada decision. For an average Nevada customer before the new changes, solar customers saved more money on their bills than it cost to install a solar system, Dyson explained. After the changes, it appears customers could be worse off if they installed solar compared to not going solar, he said.

Nevada solar customers could continue to benefit from their panels despite the changes, Dyson added, but that would require getting creative. They could add other technology that allows house appliances to be directly connected with the panels, changing the way they use electricity from the grid. 

Protest Doesn't Sway Vote

Nevadans gave public testimony for several hours before Wednesday's vote; many spoke out against the changes.

Even more people submitted their comments in writing, including Dale Matz from northern Las Vegas. Matz, an independent audio technician, and his wife invested in rooftop solar panels for their home two years ago to save money on electric bills, with an eye toward retirement in a few years. According to Matz's initial calculations, they would pay off the panels, which cost thousands of dollars, in approximately 16 years.

But that was before Nevada state utility regulators "changed the game," as he describes it. In a statement Matz had prepared to read to the commissioners, he said now he and his wife "will never break even. In fact, we will more than likely lose money."

When Matz showed up early to the meeting, the commission hearing room was already filled to capacity. He joined hundreds of others in line. After waiting for hours, he submitted his comments in writing and went outside to join a large protest, he said, which included actor Mark Ruffalo, an environmental advocate.

"If this decision stands, it will effectively kill solar in southern Nevada and what a shame—this is the perfect climate for it; we have so many sunny days," said Richard Stewart, a Nevada retiree who owns solar panels and is a colleague of Matz.

In 2014, Nevada had the third-highest rate of new installations; 339 megawatts of solar capacity went online that year, according to the trade group Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). It also ranked fifth in the nation in 2014 for total solar capacity, boasting 974 megawatts of solar—enough to power 150,000 homes.

Both the Bureau of Consumer Protection and The Alliance for Solar Choice, the groups behind the requests rejected Wednesday, filed separate motions last week requesting a new hearing. The Southern Nevada Home Builders Association, SEIA and the advocacy group Vote Solar also filed motions to reconsider the case. Regulators have until mid-February to approve or reject those appeals.

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