In Nevada, a debate is raging over what the proper net metering rate should be and who should set it. A net metering rate determines the amount of money utility companies have to pay residential customers who have rooftop solar systems for the excess electricity they feed back into the grid. In theory, a customer with a rooftop solar installation can sell power to the local utility at high daytime rates and then use less expensive electricity at night. In some cases, customers have actually reduced their monthly utility bill to zero. And in states where it’s permitted, some have net revenue from their solar power systems.
Image: solar panels at a high school in Nevada, via BlackRockSolar (CC BY 2.0)
Utility companies say that is unfair to them, because they still have to maintain all the wires, poles, transformers, and substations that make up the entire electrical grid. (They don’t mention numerous grid benefits that come from distributed solar power.) The companies have powerful lobbyists making their case in state legislatures across the country. Solar advocates counter that using electricity from renewable sources benefits the entire community because it doesn’t add greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere. They also say thousands of jobs in the solar industry are at stake.
After promising solar advocates a public hearing on the issue, the Nevada legislature decided unanimously last week to pass the buck to the state’s public utilities commission. That created a firestorm of protest, says Think Progress. Currently, Nevada law caps the number of customers who can participate in net metering at 3%. A new law would lift that cap but impose a monthly fee on solar users.
Proponents says the Senate reneged on its promise to the people. “The Nevada Coalition to Protect Ratepayers and the thousands of solar employees we represent have anticipated a public hearing concerning the future of rooftop solar. To this date we have not received one,” Bryan Miller, co-chairman of an industry group, The Alliance for Solar Choice, said in a statement.
The Nevada Public Utilities Commission now has until July 31 to decide the amount solar customers will have to pay. After Arizona imposed a similar fee in 2014, residential solar installations plunged. SolarCity, the largest installer of rooftop solar in the country, closed some offices and transferred almost 100 employees to other states, citing a lack of business. Nevadans warn that the same thing could happen in their state.
Up until now, Nevada has been a leader in rooftop solar and experienced the fastest growth of solar power in the nation, according to The Solar Foundation. The state has nearly 6,000 workers employed in the solar industry. Solar advocates fear many of those jobs will disappear if new solar charges are imposed.
State Senator Kelvin Atkinson (D) told the Las Vegas Review Journal the bill to lift the cap on net metering was the second most heavily lobbied piece of legislation in this year’s session. As enacted, the bill transfers the decision on how to address the net metering cap to the public utility commission. “Everybody won’t be happy,” Atkinson said. “Everybody won’t be thrilled, but it’s the right thing to do.”
Actually some people are happy — the lobbyists who got paid enormous fees to work hard against the public interest.