Rooftop solar fees become dominant issue for Nevada energy task force

In this file photo, solar supporters hold signs during a rally in front of Public Utilities Commission offices in January 2016. On Tuesday, March 22, 2016, members of Nevada’s New Energy Task Force heard public comments critical of a ruling by the utilities commission that raised fees for rooftop solar customers.

With Gov. Brian Sandoval's administration eager to move past damaging publicity from a regulatory decision to increase bills for Nevada rooftop solar customers, the possibility of amending that decision was a key issue during an energy task force meeting Tuesday.

The task force plans to study the issue as it considers recommending energy-related bills for the next legislative session, raising the possibility of an effort to roll back the controversial rate change.

Convened at Sandoval's request, the New Energy Industry Task Force created a subcommittee to examine the issue before the group's next meeting in May. The subcommittee includes a wide variety of governmental, economic and industry interests, with members that include a representative from Vote Solar, Tesla, NV Energy, data company Switch, a state economic development official and the office of Nevada’s consumer advocate.

The New Energy Industry Task Force, which has not met since 2011, is studying three issues: clean energy development, the future of the electricity grid and user-generated power with a focus on rooftop solar panels. During the first meeting, though, it became clear that one of the most pressing concerns was how the state should move forward in the wake of a December 2015 ruling on rooftop solar by the Public Utilities Commission.

The ruling, which increases a fee for customers and slashes the value of credits earned for generating excess electricity under a program known as net metering, has faced sharp criticism from solar advocates and clean energy investors outside of the state. It also prompted major companies — SolarCity and Sunrun — to roll back operations in Nevada.

An aide representing the governor’s office conceded that the criticism, whether merited or not, has damaged the state’s reputation as a facilitator of clean and renewable energy development.

“We would like your advice on how we move beyond that,” Dale Erquiaga, an aide to the governor, told the 12-member task force, the office’s most public recognition of the critiques.

The governor has criticized the ruling for not grandfathering existing customers under old rates, a move that the commission has defended by saying it didn’t want to discriminate.

The Energy Task Force heard lengthy public comment, almost all of it devoted to the issue of rooftop solar. Scott Shaw, director of research and commercial development for Nevada-based Go Solar, criticized the commission’s ruling and urged the task force to remedy it.

“I plead with you to develop a coherent energy policy that Nevada can depend on and investors who come from outside of Nevada can depend on,” Shaw said during his public comments.

One commenter applauded the commission for reining in an industry that he described as being overrun with outside companies. He said firms like SolarCity and Sunrun had behaved like “carpetbaggers” and asked the task force to consider the interests of local developers.

If the task force recommends legislation to Sandoval, it must be submitted by June.

Assemblyman James Oscarson, one of two legislators on the task force, said he could not predict if the task force would propose legislation.

"I think it’s premature what the task force will recommend at this point,” Oscarson said. "I think if you’ve got a group of people that can address that issue, they are in that room."

During the Tuesday meeting, Anne-Marie Cuneo, director of regulatory operations for the Public Utilities Commission, said the ruling fulfilled a legislative mandate to avoid the unreasonable shifting of costs from solar customers to other ratepayers. In its final decision, the commission said rooftop solar customers avoided paying for their use of the grid and some of the utility’s costs.

The commission, Cuneo said, is restricted by a body of laws on rate structure. As a result, Sen. Pat Spearman, who also serves on the task force, cautioned against proposing a law that focused exclusively on net metering. She said the task force should ensure that energy policy did not contradict by developing a comprehensive plan in which net metering would be one component.

"Everyone is myopically focused on net metering when net metering is a symptom of a larger problem,” she said. “If your cursor isn’t working on your computer, you need to know why."

In a conference call with reporters Monday, Rebecca Wagner, a former Nevada utilities regulator, said she had a different interpretation of the commission’s legislative mandate on the solar issue. She said the task force could propose a “hard reset” to net metering policy.

State officials have been grappling with net metering for years. In 2011, the last energy task force recommended that the state consider how it accounted for net metering usage.

Despite the focus on net metering, the task force’s mandate is much broader. Its goal is to advise on policy for a modern and more renewable electricity grid, a push that coincides with several national efforts. Energy experts believe policy will need to adjust in the coming years to accommodate customers who adopt new technologies, such as home battery storage, charging stations for electric cars and rooftop solar, that could in many cases be tied to the grid.

This year, Sandoval joined 16 governors in backing an accord that advocates for diverse power resources, clean transportation and modernizing the grid infrastructure.

Erquiaga described the accord as a “guiding source.” The task force will also consider the state’s energy portfolio, especially in light of the Clean Power Plan, a federal rule to decrease carbon dioxide emissions. Although implementation of the rule is on hold pending several judicial challenges, state officials say Nevada is on track to meet its standards.

In a presentation, an NV Energy official said the state was sourcing about 10 percent of its energy from coal, 68 percent from natural gas — which emits about half as much carbon dioxide as coal — and 22 percent from renewable sources.