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Lawmakers tour Tesla’s secretive battery factory

CARSON CITY — Ten state lawmakers received a tour of Tesla’s secretive new battery gigafactory under construction east of Reno on Wednesday.

Lawmakers who accepted the invitation for the sneak peak also had a chance to meet with Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Lyndon Rive, founder of the rooftop solar company SolarCity and Musk’s cousin. Musk is SolarCity’s chairman and largest shareholder.

The lawmakers, representing both parties and both the Assembly and Senate, included Assembly Majority Leader Paul Anderson, R-Las Vegas, and Senate Minority Leader Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas. Steve Hill, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, also took the tour. Media representatives were not invited.

Recent Oscar winner Leonardo DiCaprio, a climate change adherent, was also at the Tesla factory on Wednesday. While he chatted with lawmakers he was there primarily to interview Musk for a documentary.

After the tour, the lawmakers heard a vision of Nevada’s energy future that Rive suggested should include a net metering policy that will reduce reliance on centralized fossil fuel plants and instead focus more on rooftop solar and storage.

In his presentation, Rive said Nevada is at an inflection point.

“Do we continue building old technology, or embrace the new energy economy?” he asked.

SolarCity stopped selling and installing new rooftop solar systems in Nevada after state utility regulators adopted a new rate classification for net metering, where homeowners receive a credit for the excess energy their systems generate.

The company said 550 jobs were lost in Nevada because the new rates no longer provide any incentive to install rooftop solar systems.

“Tonight we presented to a group of Nevada’s leaders how innovative new technologies will enable a distributed energy grid that empowers customers,” Rive said in comments provided to the Review-Journal. “We thank Tesla for providing their Gigafactory to show this future of energy being built right here in Nevada.”

Tesla weighed in on the net metering issue prior to a final decision made last month by the Nevada Public Utilities Commission, arguing in particular against a new, higher monthly fixed charge for rooftop solar customers being phased in over the next 12 years.

Diarmuid O’Connell, vice president of business development for Tesla Motors Inc., said in a letter to the PUC that new distributed energy technologies such as energy storage and electric vehicles, among others, “are making it easier than ever for customers to be active grid participants responding to price signals built into their rates.”

Lawmakers who took the tour passed a bill in the 2015 legislative session directing the PUC to consider a new separate rate for net metering customers. The issue is expected to surface again in the 2017 session.

A coalition of rooftop solar groups also is seeking to put the net metering issue in front of the voters in November. A referendum petition has been filed but is being contested in Carson City District Court. NV Energy, a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, is fighting the referendum.

Rive said in his presentation that with a strong net metering policy, the next step will be battery storage technology that will allow excess electricity to be returned to the grid when it is needed most. The Tesla gigafactory is looking at battery technology not only to produce a lower cost electric car, but at the rooftop solar storage market as well.

Nevada lawmakers in September 2014 approved $1.3 billion in tax incentives to lure Musk’s massive battery factory to the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center east of Reno. The $5 billion, 10 million-square-foot factory is a joint project of Tesla Motors and Panasonic Corp. and is currently under construction.

Contact Sean Whaley at swhaley@reviewjournal.com or 775-461-3820. Find him on Twitter: @seanw801

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