August 21, 2017 Read More →

Solar Energy Progress in Nevada May Be a Harbinger for Other States

High Country News:

Near the end of 2005, Louise Helton had one of those life-changing moments that usually only happen in Hollywood movies. Friends had invited her to join Nevada movers and shakers in an ostentatiously decorated Las Vegas casino ballroom to hear former President Bill Clinton speak. He challenged the audience to diversify the state’s economy, and to do so in a very specific way. Adopting a Southern drawl, Helton recalls the words that inspired her: “And he said, ‘If I were y’all, y’all would be the Saudi Arabia of solar.’ ”

 Clinton’s pitch made sense to the 51-year-old Helton. With its abundant sunshine, Nevada was well positioned to become a clean energy leader. Besides, the state lacks its own coal or natural gas reserves, so it has to import those conventional fuels, thus benefiting other states’ economies instead of its own. “There is no better or cheaper resource than the sun that is shining down on the sunniest place in the West,” Helton says.

Clinton’s words percolated away inside Helton for a few years. Then, in 2008, she took the leap. Using savings from the two decades she spent working with at-risk kids, she opened her own company, 1 Sun Solar Electric. She kept costs down by melding it with her life partner’s successful tile and stone company, and in 2009, they started attaching solar panels to roofs in Las Vegas. Her timing was unfortunate; the recession hit Las Vegas especially hard and the impacts lingered, but Helton was able to keep her small crew working and her business in the black. By the time Nevada’s economy bounced back in 2014, the cost of solar panels had plummeted. Helton’s company was ready to ride the wave. “We were making a very good living and supporting a crew of folks who were able to support their families,” she recalls.

Her business relied on a state law that required the monopoly electricity provider, NV Energy, to pay customers for power generated by their solar panels. For each unit of energy provided to the grid, NV Energy would give them a free unit. This one-to-one swap, called net metering, kept solar customers’ bills low and reduced the time it took to recoup their upfront investments.

Big companies that lease solar panels, such as SolarCity and Sunrun, swooped into Nevada, hiring hundreds of people. In 2015, a record 24,564 people applied to be solar customers with NV Energy, according to the company. But near the end of that year, the Public Utility Commission of Nevada, the state’s utility regulators, crushed the nascent solar boom by increasing fees for solar customers and slashing reimbursements for the power they feed into the grid. That fundamentally altered the economics of rooftop solar. “It was stunning,” Helton recalls. “That’s how we found ourselves upside-down and backwards and almost out of business.”

The Nevada regulators’ order was the most extreme example of a nationwide effort by corporate utilities — panicked about losing market share and profits — to roll back net-metering policies. It’s backed by the deep pockets of fossil fuel industrialists like the Koch brothers, conservative lobbying groups like ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the electricity industry’s own trade group, the Edison Electric Institute. But the Nevada regulators unexpectedly sparked a fierce resistance movement, comprised not only of environmentalists and clean-energy advocates, but also libertarians, small-business owners like Helton, and ordinary citizens who have installed rooftop panels or thought about doing so. It’s not just a battle between dirty and clean energy; it involves corporate profits, individual freedom and the appropriate role of government in incentivizing market shifts. And if the ultimate outcome in Nevada is any indication, the utilities have a tough fight ahead of them.

Full article: Big Utilities Meet Their Match in Solar Scuffle 

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