Rooftop Solar

The War on Net Metering

^Rooftop solar supporters and solar installer and leasing company employees rally in front of the Nevada Public Utilities Commission building in Las Vegas NV on August 12, 2015.

August 15, 2015 - What is net metering and why is it so contentious? According to Solar CalFinder:

Net metering, or net energy metering, is an electricity policy which allows utility customers to offset some or all of their energy use with self produced renewable energy. Net metering works by utilizing a meter that is able to spin and record energy flow in both directions. The meter spins forward when a customer is drawing power from the utility grid (i.e., using more energy than they are producing) and spins backward when energy is being sent back to the grid. At the end of a given month, the customer is billed only for the net energy used. Net metering works only for grid-tied systems and what makes it so beneficial, besides offsetting a home’s energy consumption with a renewable source, is that excess energy sent to the utility can be sold back at retail price.

But this type of policy which encourages homeowners to buy or lease solar panels for their rooftops is the beginning of a new way to generate renewable energy which challenges old utility models. Lately both California and Nevada utilities, some owned by wealthy Warren Buffet, have launched an all-out war on policies that move toward energy democracy.

Basin & Range Watch participated in one battle a few days ago in Las Vegas where hundreds of rooftop-solar proponents came out en masse to protest a petition by the utility NV Energy that would place a cap on new owners who could benefit from net metering, and add three new fees to their bills.

Net Metering Rally

A huge crowd showed up of solar installer companies, Solar City, SunRun and local leasing business, as well as homeowners who put solar on themselves. There were 300 comments by people, and at least 400 people present protesting a freeze on Nevada's 3% net meter cap, which will send a lot of solar installer jobs out of state. There were a hundred or more people in Carson City too on the video conference line. So possibly 500 people showed up in person to this PUC hearing to ask to lift the cap so more people can benefit from solar rooftop and local jobs. many people voiced anger at NV Energy increasing rates. A big rally occurred outside in the parking lot with music. The utility wants to freeze the cap and place three new fees on rooftop solar systems. The Public Utility Commission (PUC) at the end of the day voted 3-0 to go with everything NV Energy wanted.

We started reading NV Energy's petition (it's only about 500 pages) and one of their arguments is how net metering rooftop solar customers are "usually using more electricity" than average users. This is not true in our experience talking with various homeowners who try hard to save energy all they can and not be wasteful. Not every house with rooftop solar is a mansion, many average homeowners and working class people choose to install photovoltaic panels on their roofs to save money and help the environment, we were told.

The Toiyabe Chapter of the Sierra Club made comments saying rooftop solar net metering customers save the utility the need to build expensive new power plants and therefore the cap should be lifted. David Von Seggern -- chair of the Toiyabe Chapter said his group has mobilized for greater access to rooftop solar. Rooftop solar helps utilities save energy by not building more costly new fossil fuel plants. Avoid environmental consequences by using rooftop solar. The solar industry is a wonderful match for Nevada, he said. He asked to allow the cap to go up, and find ways for those less able to install to afford rooftop solar system. "Allow citizens to be part of energy generation mix."

The whole argument of paying for interconnection was brought up by the utility, saying they pay 12 cents/kiloWatt-hour (kWh) to net meter houses, but remote large-scale solar projects are now as low as 4.5 cents/kWh. Of course they made no mention of those expensive transmission lines that need to be built or upgraded to bring that desert solar projects to the city. Ratepayers ultimately pay for new transmission lines.

Under the current net metering rules, the Alliance for Solar Choice -- a coalition of solar leasing and installer companies -- filed a petition with the Nevada Public Utilities Commission saying that the current 3% net metering cap will be reached well before the December 31 deadline. The alliance is asking the PUC to look at the case and determine a new cap -- before the end of the year. But the 235 MW cap will be reached this month, virtually freezing the fledging industry in the Silver State.

^Rally in support of rooftop solar.

^Hundreds of workers from local solar leasing and rooftop panel installer companies showed up to protest the NV Energy petition to limit the growth of rooftop solar.

^T-shirts say "Save Our Solar Jobs."

Solar Jobs

Solar City came to the meeting in numbers, and representatives said a 1000 families have signed up so far in Nevada, so there is demand. But hitting the cap will prevent further growth and NV Energy is not compromising, said a local representative of the leasing company. The cap should be lifted until a final decision is made.

Another solar installer worker, from the Carson City/Reno area, commented that he thought it "amazing that this industry is being asked to go away, there so much support." He quoted 6,000 jobs in Solar City, Sun Run, and other leasing and installer companies in Nevada. "Let us continue going strong."

Other solar workers commented that their jobs would go to more solar friendly states. It is a "growing progressive industry. Will Nevada support a free market, freedom of choice of how energy can be delivered to homes, or will you support the multimillion dollar utility? Lift the cap, have no additional fees," he said to the commission.

One rooftop solar installer explained how his company tries to help people who cannot afford expensive electricity rates, such as single moms -- they are not billed for 14 months. His company gives breaks to struggling families. "So shareholders can give a couple of dollars to help these families. Don't let Warren Buffet sway you. Put a $25 fee for using grid sure but let us keep installing solar," he told the PUC.

A Solar City worker switched jobs from being a gaming industry analyst to solar installation and leasing. He said customers like the choice. "Don't allow a monopoly to dictate what energy is available. Support an industry which is revolutionizing America, not one of the richest men."

Another Solar City worker said many families are trying to manage their bills, keep temperatures in their house higher to save money. he said competition helps keep rates down. "NV Energy escapes discipline, allows fixed prices and keeps a stranglehold on ratepayers. Fees and rates continue to go up from dirty power. The rights to choose options will be taken away. This cap will penalize customers who wanted to save" he quoted Pope Francis on environmental stewardship. He said net metering is working, and Nevada is # 1 in solar jobs.

A One Sun Solar owner, a woman, said more time should be given for thoughtful decision making. "It was too hectic during the last legislative session for negotiating Senate Bill 374 [a Nevada bill defining the net metering cap that was intended to prevent industry disruption]. We were all admonished do not worry about reaching a cap. But now the cap is reached and we need more time. It is an artificial time line. Let the December time line run its course, so there is more time in the process. We are hitting the last few megawatts, by Aug 27 the 3% cap will be reached," she said. "This will be very impactful to our industry. Allow the current system to remain in place, until a more balanced discussion takes place with cooler heads."

Public Comments

More public comments came in from other residents who also support solar, some of whom have independently installed solar panels on their rooftops.

A rancher in Carson City told the commission there is a need to let solar homes to grow. "You could fill an auditorium with supporters here." His sister also commented, saying "NV Energy should get out of way, it is going to happen. Now they have some competition."

The group PUC Watchdogs made a comment.

Assemblywoman Shelly Shelton made a comment that no one wants to see solar jobs go away. "That is not intent of legislature or PUC." She said this is all miscommunication. "Let it play out until Dec deadline."

A retired Air Force pilot and commercial airline pilot said "we have always been looking for this. Rooftop solar reduces fossil fuel use. NV Energy wants to stop it because they would lose profit. Why can't NV Energy put solar panels on my house? I had a lease company put them on. Nevada has been on top of the list for solar jobs, for once we are not on the bottom of the list (like for education). NV Energy's proposal hurts solar power. NV Energy is only worried about risk and their stock holders."

A homeowner commented that "the PUC represents the public. NV Energy is a monopoly and they want to keep it that way. It is a public utility."

A Las Vegas homeowner installed solar system on her house and is still waiting for NV Energy to hook up the net meter. "We could even export carbon credits to other states not blessed with the sun. Net metering allows homeowners to reduce energy costs and be good stewards of the environment."

A man installed his own 6 kiloWatt array on his roof. "NV Energy is progressing at a glacial pace. They could install solar panels. Don't put roadblocks and charges and fees in way of moving away from fossil fuels," he said.

Another homeowner in Las Vegas said it is "a basic right of freedom of trade to allow freedom of choice of where to get energy. NV Energy should subcontract with solar installers. When I installed solar on my house I was told I was not allowed to produce 100% of the energy. If I had a choice I would fill my rooftop. Don't punish those of us who choose to use rooftop solar. Our technology is evolving, do not fight progress by taxing it to death. It is a choice to save money and help environment, otherwise I think about being like the Boston Tea Party. It is about my freedom of choice," she told the commission.

A commenter said there has been an increase in solar of 418% in the last 10 years. "The utility model is decades old, it is not moving forward. 78% people in the state want residential rooftop solar. What is the PUC doing to move forward in policies that people are interested in? the PUC study said the impact of net metering would be minimal; but all NV Energy studies say otherwise -- but what are their sources and evidence, I don't see it?"

One man said "I had a business and had to adjust it to stay competitive and adapt. I am in process of getting home solar."

Another commenter said ,"NV Energy feels it's market share is threatened. Just like the old alternating current vs kerosene long ago. If ratepayers get savings in their electrical bills, homeowners will spend more in the state economy, and increase jobs. Elon Musk's gigafactory [for new battery technology in northern Nevada] is so close, it is a blessing."

A retired man said if NV Energy imposes tariffs it would eliminate any savings he would get to lease solar panels and save money to be able to get solar. "The PUC is there to protect public. Do away with the cap."

A Las Vegas resident said she installed solar panels on her roof four years ago, buying them herself on her limited income because it was the right thing to do for the environment. "I pay any other tax and fee other customers do. The utility does not have to build generation for me since I did it myself. So it is baffling I would have to pay more. Market diversity, jobs, grid stability all happen with rooftop solar policies. I calculated an eleven year payback period for my solar system, but now it is down to 8 year. I did this for my son. Solar panels maintain our lifestyles. They replace fossil fuels. Climate disruption is a problem I bear. we need the most careful approach to this work."

Another resident complained the NV Energy proposal was 500 pages long. "That is not transparent, it should be concise."

A further commenter said, "it is time to have our energy service evolve. This is similar to what happened to the telecommunications industry 30 years ago, there have been big changes since then, the break-up of monopolies. NV Energy will be around but their role needs to evolve. They get free energy back into the system. They can put this back into grid for other energy users who don't use solar rooftops. We should he able to buy our services from someone else. There are going to be changes in how we produce our energy. NV Energy is trying to control the market."

A homeowner explained how she was told "if I install more low-emissivity windows, put in efficient AC, put in insulation -- that will save money. Never happened, my rates just increased. NV Energy should look at saving money at their end. They stretch every time limit they have. I have three meters on my solar panels. NV Energy should be more efficient. They are raising rates and adding tariffs even when we are trying to save money, so I am not realizing any savings."

^Crowds filled two rooms in the Las Vegas PUC building, and hundreds more were connected by video from Carson City.

^Commission Chairman Alaina Burtenshaw holds a stack of cards of members of the public who wanted to make a comment. About 300 people made comments that day, overwhelmingly in support of raising the net metering cap to allow more rooftop solar to benefit.

^Science school students from Sierra Vista High School make a comment in support of raising the cap and increasing rooftop solar to reduce carbon emissions. "Anything we can do to reduce carbon should be a priority."

^A rancher from northern Nevada speaks in Carson City in favor of rooftop solar policies that benefit homeowners.

^Local TV news coverage.

^Did the commission listen to the public?

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