CARSON CITY — Nevada’s burgeoning rooftop solar industry crashed and burned last year after new rates for net metering eliminated financial incentives for the green energy investment.
Now several state lawmakers want to get the industry back on track and growing again.
Nevada lost more than 2,500 rooftop solar installation jobs in 2016 after the less generous net metering rates were approved by the state Public Utilities Commission. Net metering provides homeowners with a credit for the excess electricity their systems generate.
Both the Assembly and the Senate have created special subcommittees on energy to focus on ways to make rooftop solar financially attractive for homeowners and put Nevada back on track with the industry and the thousands of jobs it can create in a state with nearly limitless sunshine.
This while balancing the effort with the vast majority of ratepayers who are not rooftop solar customers.
Specific proposals on net metering are not likely to emerge until later in the session.
Legislation dealing with energy issues has been introduced, including a measure that would require 80 percent of Nevada’s power to come from clean and renewable energy sources by the year 2040. The current goal for Nevada’s Renewable Energy Portfolio is 25 percent by 2025.
EXPERIENCE WITH ENERGY ISSUES
The Assembly subcommittee chairman is Chris Brooks, who has more than 15 years experience with the solar and green technology industries in Nevada.
The panel will focus both on net metering and renewable energy for the state, he said. Brooks introduced the bill seeking to increase reliance on renewable energy to 80 percent by 2040.
“Nevada is a leader in renewable energy and has been for quite some time,” Brooks said. “A lot of it is utility scale and you just don’t see it. We do a great job in providing clean energy.”
NV Energy is working to eliminate coal-fired electricity production, and projects that by March, 76 percent of its energy production will be from natural gas, 18 percent from renewable projects and 6 percent from coal.
Brooks said his renewable energy portfolio bill will help diversify the economy and create good-paying, high-quality jobs.
“But there is a lot of confusion and awkward starts and stops in rooftop solar policy,” he said.
A net metering bill passed by lawmakers in 2015, Senate Bill 374, sent the issue to state regulators for action after an effort in the Legislature to increase the allowable amount of net metering failed.
“I don’t know that we had enough information and enough guidance in that bill,” Brooks said. “And the results were unsatisfactory for most everyone involved. So now I think the Nevada Legislature has to take up those conversations.”
LEGISLATION STYMIES BUSINESS
The 2015 legislation directed the PUC to address any unreasonable subsidy to rooftop solar homeowners from non-solar customers. The PUC set a new rate for rooftop solar customers but it generated a huge outcry. Regulators grandfathered in customers who applied for the program before the new rate took effect on Jan. 1, 2016.
But major rooftop solar companies left the state because business ground to a halt under the new rate structure.
In 2016, Nevada saw a 32 percent loss in the installation sector, from 8,285 jobs to 5,598, according to a survey released this month by The Solar Foundation.
There are 24,852 net metering customers in Nevada with NV Energy generating 220.4 megawatts of electricity. But there have only been 60 new applications for net metering submitted to Nevada Power since Jan. 1, and only six for Sierra Pacific.
CHANGE MAY BE IN THE WIND
The PUC recently directed NV Energy to offer projected cost savings to as many as 1,250 future solar customers of its Sierra Pacific company in Northern Nevada at the original net metering rates. The utility, which operates as Nevada Power in Southern Nevada, has asked that this decision be reconsidered, arguing the savings should apply to all customers.
In the Sierra Pacific order, the panel, with two new appointees from Gov. Brian Sandoval, repudiated the earlier decision to make rooftop solar less financially attractive for homeowners, called the result “incongruous with the policy of the state of Nevada, the intent of SB 374, and the public interest.”
In comments on the Sierra Pacific order, PUC Chairman Joe Reynolds said: “What is the meaning of value? How important is rooftop solar to the state of Nevada and how should it be valued? Value is not always objective, but that doesn’t mean it’s meaningless. It’s real, just difficult to put a value to it.”
The PUC has not acted on the request for reconsideration.
The decision has potential implications for Southern Nevada homeowners who may want to consider installing rooftop solar systems. A rate case that could raise the issue for Nevada Power customers is expected later this year, but lawmakers may act on the issue before then.
Jessica Scott, regional director at Vote Solar, called the decision to reinstate net metering “an important step toward solar progress in Nevada.”
COMPETITION MAY BE ON HORIZON
Another wrinkle in the energy debate is Question 3, approved by voters in November, which would open the energy market to competition for all consumers if approved a second time in 2018.
Sandoval recently announced the creation of a committee to prepare for potential approval of the Energy Choice initiative headed by Lt. Gov Mark Hutchison.
“Stability in our energy market is crucial for all Nevadans,” Sandoval said. “A second passage of this initiative will change the way Nevadans consume energy from flipping on hallway lights and ensuring power in our hospitals to illuminating the neon lights of the Las Vegas Strip.”
Jennifer Taylor, executive director of the Clean Energy Project in Nevada, said it will be critical for the committee to consider ways to increase the use of energy efficiency and renewable energy.
“Governor Sandoval’s Committee on Energy Choice has an opportunity to ensure the principles endorsed by energy choice advocates, which will promote a clean energy economy that is already creating healthier communities and thousands of jobs, are an integral part of the market transition,” she said.