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Utility regulators reject call to delay new rooftop-solar rates

CARSON CITY — State utility regulators on Wednesday rejected a call to stay new rooftop-solar rates for net metering customers despite a daylong hearing that saw dozens of homeowners ask for a delay while the Dec. 22 decision is reconsidered.

The Public Utilities Commission voted unanimously to reject a delay in the implementation of the new rates after hours of public testimony.

Hundreds of rooftop-solar customers and workers chastised members of the Nevada Public Utilities Commission for voting to include them in the new net metering rate that will force them to pay more in fixed monthly service charges and receive less credit for the excess electricity their systems generate.

But after hours of public testimony, PUC Chairman Paul Thomsen said he was offended by witnesses who suggested the panel did not know what it was doing when it adopted the new rate.

Thomsen said the new rate, which took effect Jan. 1 for all residential rooftop solar customers, is designed to create a path forward for the solar industry while treating all ratepayers fairly.

The new rate is intended to ensure that the 98 percent of residential utility ratepayers who are nonsolar customers do not subsidize those with solar systems, he said.

Speaker after speaker criticized the panel for its decision, as well as Gov. Brian Sandoval and members of the Legislature, for failing in the 2015 session to exercise leadership on the net metering issue.

PUC Commissioner David Noble had recommended that a stay be denied, saying there was no irreparable harm to keeping the new rate in effect while the Dec. 22 decision is reconsidered.

But commissioners heard an earful from upset solar customers both in Las Vegas and the capital. Most speakers asked that existing rooftop solar customers be grandfathered in under the more generous net metering rate that existed prior to the Dec. 22 decision.

The only decision in front of the PUC was whether to stay the new rates, however.

Denise Curtis, a retired public librarian from Las Vegas, asked the commission to "keep their word" to those who invested in rooftop solar under the original net metering rate, which included a higher reimbursement rate for the surplus electricity generated by their systems.

Actor Mark Ruffalo, a New York state advocate for rooftop solar, said the decision of the PUC takes money from average people and gives it to the wealthy who own and invest in NV Energy. The company is owned by Berkshire Hathaway and its CEO Warren Buffett.

The rooftop-solar market is where new wealth is being created, he said.

"The actions you are taking today are taking from the mouths of the people and giving it to a single monopoly utility," Ruffalo said. "You are taking from the people and giving to the rich. You are the anti-Robin Hood. People aren't going to forget, you have a lot of really angry people out there because they see what's happening."

James Collier of Henderson said he signed a legal contract with NV Energy with a set credit for excess electricity. The argument that net metering customers are subsidized by nonsolar customers is patently false, he said.

"Any excess energy I generate is immediately available to my neighbors with no investment on their part," Collier said.

SolarCity installer John Kelley said the PUC decision resulted in the rug being pulled out from under the rooftop-solar workers.

"Solar customers' investments are thrown away," he said. "Personally, I'll have to weigh the choice of if I stay with the company I love, doing the job I love, but I'll have to leave my family behind to do my job in another state."

Two major rooftop-solar customers, Sunrun and SolarCity, both announced they would no longer sell or install systems in Nevada as a result of the new rate structure, which includes a higher monthly fixed charged and a lower credit for excess electricity, phased in over the next five years. SolarCity said it eliminated 550 jobs in Nevada. Sunrun said the job loss was in the hundreds but had no firm estimate.

Both The Alliance for Solar Choice, a group of rooftop-solar firms, and the state Bureau for Consumer Protection, on Friday filed motions for reconsideration of the new rate.

There are 14,832 interconnected net metering customers at Nevada Power Co. in Southern Nevada, and 2,423 customers with Sierra Pacific in Northern Nevada. The companies are part of NV Energy.

Sandoval has defended his record on net metering, noting that he signed two bills passed by the Legislature extending the program. He also noted that his Office of Economic Development provided $1.2 million to SolarCity so it could open offices in Las Vegas in 2014.

"I don't know if there has ever been a better friend of rooftop solar than me," Sandoval said.

The Legislature rejected a request to raise the net metering cap under the original rates in the 2015 session, instead asking the PUC to review and establish a new separate rate class for rooftop solar customers.

Noble has criticized SolarCity and Sunrun for presenting misinformation on the rooftop solar rate.

Noble said that for Nevada Power customers with residential rooftop systems, the annual bill increase in the first year of the new rate is $20.15, which equates to just $1.68 per month on average.

"This will not cause irreparable harm, especially when put in the context of a total average annual bill of $1,054.95 for the average residential NEM ratepayer compared to a total average annual bill of $2,156.54 for a residential non-NEM ratepayer," he said.

The PUC also on Wednesday approved modified orders allowing the Las Vegas Sands Corp., MGM Resorts International and Wynn Resorts to leave as customers of Nevada Power and secure their own energy supplies on the wholesale market. An issue over what energy supplies the companies could acquire if they leave was clarified, but the exit fees were left unchanged.

The fees approved by the commission total $86.9 million for MGM, $15.7 million for Wynn and $23.9 million for the Sands, plus recurring fees and charges to recover certain ongoing costs that cannot currently be quantified.

The Review-Journal is owned by a limited liability company controlled by the Adelson family, majority owners of Las Vegas Sands.

Contact Sean Whaley at swhaley@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3900. Find him on Twitter: @seanw801

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