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Utility proposals harm consumers and the environment

Solar power has taken off in Nevada and across the country. Driven by the appeal of a pollution-free energy source with no fuel costs, rooftop panels have popped up in neighborhoods across the state bringing transformative change to our energy system.

In response, power companies are throwing road blocks in the way of solar power’s progress, undercutting the right of consumers to control how much energy they consume and produce. If the utilities win it will become harder, if not impossible, for most consumers to go solar.

Utilities recognize that people overwhelmingly support clean energy and want fair credit for the value that rooftop solar provides the grid and the community. So they spin their anti-solar policies as pro-clean energy and pro-consumer. They’ve even gone so far as to create fake solar front groups to counteract the uniform opposition to their proposals from solar companies and rooftop solar owners.

I’ve seen this strategy time and again from powerful special interests, whether its regarding bank fees, retirement security, or utility bills. Our staff in Arizona and Illinois are currently opposing proposals similar to the one in Nevada — and dealing with similar strategies to confuse the public and decision makers.

Utility arguments rest on the claim that the current policy for compensating rooftop solar users for the excess energy their solar panels provide to the grid — known as “net-metering” — is unfair to non-solar using consumers. They claim a cost-shift occurs wherein customers without solar panels pay extra to subsidize those with them

This claim is not supported by evidence.

If anything, net-metering undervalues, not overvalues, the benefits of rooftop solar. Rooftop solar reduces the need for costly transmission lines and new power plants, increases the reliability and resiliency of the power grid, and helps Nevada comply with regulations that seek to reduce carbon emissions.

Here in Nevada, a recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council and SolarCity found those benefits added up to $7 million per year.

A report released last summer by Environment America Research and Policy Center reviewed 11 separate analyses of the value of rooftop solar. Eight of them concluded that prevailing rate structures undervalue rooftop solar. The three that reached a different conclusion were funded by utilities.

The NV Energy plan approved by the Nevada Public Utilities Commission tripled the “fixed charge,” the part of your bill that remains the same no matter how much energy you consume. It also lowered the net-metering credit for rooftop solar customers, making it harder for consumers to finance home solar panels and nearly impossible to earn back their initial investment.

Even worse, these charges will also be placed on the 30,000 Nevadans who went solar, punishing consumers for their investments in clean energy.

The response has been clear and unambiguous: The new rate structure simply does not work for Nevada consumers. After the PUC decision, solar applications in Nevada plummeted by 93 percent in the first month alone, from 1,311 applications in December 2015 to 90 in January 2016. The new rate structure, justified as consumer friendly, has effectively eliminated consumers’ ability to choose to go solar.

This is a loss, not only for individuals who want to go solar, but for all Nevadans who are losing out on the environmental, economic, public health and infrastructure benefits of rooftop solar. The new rates have devastated Nevada’s solar industry, forcing thousands of jobs and economic development out of state. Nevada was recently a guiding beacon for other states as a leader in solar growth. That beacon has turned into a distress signal, warning what can go wrong when utilities convince decision makers to adopt anti-consumer, anti-solar policies.

There is room for debate in any policy dispute, but only if all sides are fairly representing their interests and goals. Utilities are attempting to disempower consumers by making it harder to control energy usage and renewable energy production. Don’t let them.

Andre Delattre is executive director of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and the U.S. PIRG Education Fund.

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