Nevada is one of the most favorable places in the US for solar power, but the Nevada Public Utilities Commission and NV Energy have worked hand in glove to stifle solar power in the state. Things have gotten so bad this year that SolarCity ceased all operations in the state and closed its offices, putting more than 500 people out of work.
NV Energy is part of Berkshire Hathaway, the giant conglomerate owned by Warren Buffett. Like those other oligarchs, the Koch Brothers, Buffett is working overtime to protect his investment in fossil fuels and associated enterprises. Concern for the environmental damage his business activities cause is largely absent.
Switch has two massive data centers in Nevada to serve such clients as Zappos and Cisco. Like Google and Apple, Switch has been active in using solar power to lower its energy costs and reduce its carbon footprint. It says it started trying to buy solar power from NV Energy in 2011.
Switch filed a lawsuit this week alleging the agreement it eventually entered into for the purchase of solar power, which was brokered by the Nevada Public Utilities Commission, was unfair and overpriced. The suit goes on to claim that employees of the Nevada Public Utilities Commission acted inappropriately. It asks for $30 million in damages for fraud, negligence, and conspiracy.
Switch says NV Energy ignored its requests in 2014 to purchase solar power, forcing it to look for other solar suppliers. Frustrated with NV Energy’s opposition, it filed a request to disconnect from the grid. The request was denied on the grounds that losing such a large consumer would drive up prices for all other NV Energy customers.
Instead, the PUC brokered a deal allowing Switch to buy energy from First Solar but only if is went through NV Energy, an arrangement that raised the price paid by Switch. The company says it felt it had no choice. It calls the deal it agreed to an unlawful attempt to “retain Switch as a customer of the monopoly NV Energy.” Switch also says that the NPUC’s attorney, Carolyn Tanner, acted inappropriately by discussing the case on social media using a pseudonym.
The Nevada PUC subsequently allowed two casinos in the state to leave the grid, but only upon payment of hefty penalties for their departure.
Solar power interests have gotten two initiatives on the ballot in November. One called the Energy Choice Initiative would enable companies to buy power on the open market rather than only through the NV Energy. That’s exactly what is needed to break the stranglehold of traditional utilities on the market. Another would overturn the PUC’s decision earlier this year that imposed substantial monthly charges on private solar energy systems.
Solar power is America’s best tool to interrupt the dependence of utility companies on fossil fuels. But those companies have trillions invested in generating facilities and the grid infrastructure. They are desperate to protect their investment at all costs.
Courts are poorly equipped to deal with what are essentially political questions. It would be better if elected officials would take the lead in protecting the best interests of their constituents, but with American government for sale to the highest bidder at all levels and regulators in the pockets of the regulated, the courts are often the only recourse available.