Two victories for net metering

By John David Baldwin on October 16, 2016

Two Western states, Nevada and Colorado, have recently chosen to retain their existing net metering programs in the face of formidable opposition from utilities. Although each case reflects different circumstances – the Colorado win required nearly two years of constant effort; the Nevada fight took place only over the course of about a week – popular support for solar power was a critical factor in those victories.

The Nevada Public Utilities Commission (PUC) had previously set a 235 MW cap for the total amount of rooftop solar that could be installed in the state. Once that cap was reached, the PUC had ruled, a new interim tariff needed to be legally determined and adopted. Earlier in the year, the utility NV Energy (a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Energy) had repeatedly reassured regulators that the cap would not be attained until 2016, so supporters of net metering believed they had plenty of time to prepare a defense of the existing system. In July, however, NV Energy suddenly announced that the cap was about to be hit, months ahead of schedule, and when this happened on August 21, it brought the solar industry in the state to a sudden halt.

Community activists in Nevada swung into action, according to Jessica Scott from Vote Solar, a nonprofit organization that helps ensure access to solar across the country. The Gymcats, an organization that trains young gymnasts, dancers and others, participated at a rally, led by the organization’s leader, Cassie Rice. The local group Black Rock Solar, which provides not-for-profit entities, including Native American tribes, access to clean energy – and which had recently reached a milestone by installing 5MW of solar power across Nevada – also took part in the effort to maintain net metering as it exists. They were joined by such organizations as the Sierra Club and Western Resource Advocates. On social media, a campaign called “Keep Nevada solar shining” proved highly effective. Advocates used Thunderclap, a tool that builds social media support, to reach more than 325,000 people and generating 111 supporters.

These efforts produced the desired effect: on August 26, the PUC rejected NV Energy’s plan, which would have gutted net metering, and voted, 3-0, to extend the current system to the end of the year. This represented a triumph for net metering supporters, albeit a temporary one, as the PUC will have to rule before the end of 2015 on a permanent rate plan.

In Colorado, the story was somewhat more complex, as the victory there – the commissioners ruled that the state’s net metering program was “satisfactory and balanced as is” – was the result of more than 18 months of hard work. Rallies (including at the headquarters of the utility, Xcel), letters to the commissioners, workshops and petitions were initiated to generate and sustain support for the program. A poll was also taken, which demonstrated that 74 percent of Colorado voters would vote “yes” on a ballot measure preserving net metering. The local conference of the NAACP ultimately persuaded two dozen organizations to join them in signing a letter to Governor Hickenlooper urging him to lend his support to the net metering program.

Scott noted the NAACP has done a good deal of work around this issue. “The NAACP has established recommendations for Renewable Portfolio Standards, Energy Efficiency Resource Standards and Net Metering Standards to provide guidelines for state energy policies.” She added: “Vote Solar awarded their 2015 Solar Champion award to Jacqui Patterson, Director of the Environmental and Climate Justice Program, NAACP. Ms. Patterson is the lead author of the Just Energy Policies report and was instrumental in the March clean energy resolution. Following the release of the Just Energy Policies reports, Vote Solar began to reach out to NAACP state conferences in states where Vote Solar is active. NAACP CO-MT-WY State Conference and Vote Solar worked with a broad coalition of partners to get signatories to the letter.” (For a previous CPN article about the NAACP and its stance on solar power, see here.)

Scott stressed the importance of interested parties standing together and speaking out in this struggle.

“I think it’s really important for solar as a whole to have unified messaging. This is really about energy democracy and making the consumer’s relationship with energy providers a two-way transaction.”

When asked to compare and contrast the two state victories, Scott added, “In Colorado, this has been an 18-month investigation, so this is a big victory. In Nevada, it’s important to be vigilant in this fight… The [state’s] law makes it mandatory that the commission decide what to do by the end of the year, now that the utility has hit the net-metering ‘cap.’ So this is a short-term victory only.”