The apparent end of a rocky road in Nevada, but not for community solar

By John David Baldwin on July 25, 2017
Installers work on a rooftop solar array in Nevada
Installers work on a rooftop solar array in Nevada

It has been a rocky eighteen months in Nevada for solar advocates. In December 2015, the state’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) eliminated net metering. This gutted the Nevada solar industry and sent shock waves throughout the country. In June, Governor Sandoval signed into law a bill, AB405, which will restore net metering in the state. Passed with near unanimous approval from the legislature, it also cements Nevadans’ right to take control of where their electricity comes from.

Called the Renewable Energy Bill of Rights, the relevant section from AB405 includes certain fundamental rights, including the right to “generate, consume and export” electricity, to store energy, to obtain “fair credit” for exported energy, to remain in the same broad rate class to which the owner would belong without net metering, and not to be subject to any fees or charges not applied to others within that same rate class.

“This is about guaranteeing that people will have a right to choose clean energy if they want it,” said Andy Maggi, Executive Director of the Nevada Conservation League. “More and more people want to and are choosing clean energy for their homes and businesses.”

Travis Miller, Director of Operations/Nevada for the energy provider Sunworks, and a board member of the Great Basin Solar Coalition, said, “Recognizing the citizen’s right to produce energy and to receive a fair value for excess energy sent to the grid provides the stability required for the rooftop industry to grow. Adding consumer protection to this bill serves to provide transparency and further stability for Nevada consumers. We believe the consumer protection piece will spread to other states. With SEIA’s [Solar Energy Industries Association] model, contractors who value transparency and best practices can easily participate. SEIA is doing some excellent work in this area, and was basically a foundation upon which AB405 was negotiated.”

Miller’s prognosis for Nevada’s immediate solar future is bright. “The Nevada market can expect rapid scaling over the next 12 months,” he said. “It’s no secret that rooftop projects in Nevada slowed dramatically over 2016. During that period we saw the exit of national contractors, and the closing of many small businesses. I think you can expect growth to return us to 2015 rooftop deployment speed before the end of 2017. That will mean lots of new jobs.”

“The coalition of groups and advocates working to overturn the PUC’s decision from 2015 was one of the most diverse I’ve ever been a part of,” Maggi said. “Solar advocates come from many communities and walks of life, and that mattered when we talked to legislators and decision makers. It was possible [for them] to see just how important this issue was for so many people.”

“Advocates worked hard to get accurate information to the public,” Miller said, “but ultimately, credit goes to Nevada voters for creating the demand for a legislative solution. Thus we saw bipartisan pressure to correct the situation that was clearly evidenced by the Q-3 results [that is, the passage of the Nevada Question 3 referendum last November: see this CPN article] and voter communications with their representatives. Certainly, business closures and job loss numbers signaled increased concern and the need to prioritize the issue for many legislators as well.”

“All entities involved deserve a lot of credit; it wasn’t a simple process to reach this solution,” Miller said.

Miller offered advice for advocates in other states who are fighting efforts to undermine net metering.

“Enlist the members of your community; they already support you,” Miller said. “Keep the conversation focused on solutions that can work for the whole system. Solar needs to be a major part of our future energy grid. That means working with our existing grid network to shape it to its maximum potential. That provides lots of challenges, but also opportunities.”

This bill comes as the governor signed a whole slate of bills last month to create incentives for energy storage and electric vehicle-charging infrastructure, and to boost funding for energy efficiency for low-income residents.

Referring to those other energy bills, Miller said, “They all serve important roles and can work together like pieces of a puzzle. While they all have their place, net metering is the foundation that customer generation depends on.”

However, there was one important energy bill that the Governor, unexpectedly, vetoed: the community solar bill (SB392), claiming a possible conflict between that bill and AB405.

“SB392 works with AB405, giving more people access to clean energy and net metering,” said Maggi. “It certainly doesn’t conflict with it. I was surprised that the Governor vetoed any energy bill. He has put so much of his reputation on being a clean energy leader and has in many ways lived up to that standard. It was really out of character for him. [SB392] was a way to get more people access to clean energy in the context of that law, especially low-income community members who have historically been locked out of the rooftop solar market.”

In his veto letter, Gov. Sandoval said that the issues for the community solar bill had not been fully vetted, a claim which Maggi strongly refuted: “NO. I absolutely don’t agree with the governor. Energy was a huge issue in the session. I’d argue it was the most vetted issue of the session. The people saying it wasn’t vetted just didn’t get the answers they wanted after it was.”

“A lot of people tried to use the Energy Choice Initiative as an excuse to delay action,” Maggi continued, “but that was simply unnecessary. It was a good talking point, but there was no real reason to delay. Question 3 doesn’t get rid of existing policies and those policies can easily be incorporated into the new [freer energy] market.”

Maggi is confident that a new community solar bill will eventually be passed.

“I don’t believe that we are done with community solar. Getting clean energy into the hand of every Nevadan that wants it regardless of income or neighborhood is a huge goal of ours. What specific policies materialize moving forward will be heavily impacted by the governor’s Energy Choice, and now RPS, task force, as well as the 2018 election. It’s why NCL is going to be focused on making sure Nevada elects a clean energy champion to the governorship and defends all the legislative champions that really stepped up this legislative session,” Maggi said.