Solar battle shifts toward Legislature

LAS VEGAS — Rooftop solar advocates had hoped to take their cause directly to voters after a rate hike this year rocked the industry in Nevada, and their chances of winning on the ballot looked good after they gathered more than double the number of voter signatures needed to put a sweeping referendum on the November ballot.

But after the Nevada Supreme Court dealt them a major blow this month by unanimously declaring the measure was unfit for a statewide vote, rooftop solar advocates are now looking to the longer and more circuitous route of winning over state lawmakers.

“Our opportunities going forward are going to be largely with the Legislature,” said Louise Helton, a rooftop solar advocate who owns Las Vegas-based 1 Sun Solar Cos.

In a modest victory that could bring relief to rooftop solar customers jarred by the rate hike, Gov. Brian Sandoval has requested a bill for next spring that would “grandfather” existing customers back into their old rates. NV Energy recently announced it’s pursuing an effort to do the same through the Nevada Public Utilities Commission.

But the other half of the equation is creating rates that would encourage future rounds of Nevadans to install rooftop panels, thus restoring jobs that dried up amid the higher rates. A state energy task force committee that’s meeting Tuesday is scheduled to review proposals on how to accommodate future customers beyond the 30,000 or so who might be eligible for grandfathering.

Those proposals could eventually become bills that would end up right where the solar controversy started flaring up last year — the Nevada Legislature.

Lawmakers last spring authorized the Nevada PUC to set new rates for rooftop solar customers because the state was approaching a cap on the number of net metering participants. The commission decided that solar rates should go up, saying the existing rates forced customers without solar panels to subsidize those with the panels.

The move prompted large solar companies to lay off many of their employees in Nevada and launch a high-profile campaign expressing their frustration.

The Bring Back Solar Alliance, backed by more than $2 million from rooftop solar giant SolarCity, staged protests outside PUC headquarters and dispatched an army of signature-gatherers with petitions aimed at reversing the rate hike through the ballot. They dispute that there’s a subsidy, saying rooftop solar provides a net economic benefit to Nevada when more factors, such as environmental impact, are considered.

Their petition had more than 115,000 voter signatures by a June deadline — double what they needed for a ballot measure that would allow older, more favorable rates for an unlimited number of Nevada customers.

NV Energy opposed the referendum with a TV ad blitz contending the change would force the vast majority of customers to pay more on their electricity bills.

The state Supreme Court ruling Aug. 4 means voters won’t get a direct say on the issue — a disappointing development for rooftop solar proponents. But the publicity on the solar issue has put indirect pressure on state legislators, many of whom are encountering a more solar-savvy electorate as they knock on doors in their re-election bids.

The court ruling “clarifies the role Nevada’s leadership must play in representing the majority of Nevadans who want to bring solar back to Nevada,” Bring Back Solar Campaign Manager Erin McCann said in a statement.

The group is meeting with lawmakers and showing them polling data that suggests voters are more likely to support a candidate if they believe the person will fight for the rooftop solar industry. Lawmakers say they’re listening.

“We share the concerns of our constituents over the PUC’s drastic ruling last year and look forward to finding a sustainable, long-term solution that better reflects the needs of consumers and demands of our environment,” Democratic Senate Leader Aaron Ford and Democratic Assembly Leader Irene Bustamante Adams said in a joint statement.

Meanwhile, companies like Helton’s are staying afloat by providing other services such as energy efficient retrofits. She’s hoping for a compromise not just because it would reinvigorate the residential rooftop solar side of her business, but because customers want a way to personally tackle problems like climate change.

“It’s wonderful to know I was part of the solution and not the problem,” Helton said. “People who still aspire to solar and renewable energy solutions for their homes are going to have to wait and see.”


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