PHOTO/DENNIS MYERS The Nevada solar industry, once the coming thing, is stagnating under a utility regulation ruling.

In the Massachusetts Legislature, two measures raising the net-metering cap and allowing utilities to compensate rooftop users at wholesale instead of retail rates have been creeping toward enactment. Alarmed mayors from 32 towns and cities across the state wrote to members of a legislative conference committee:

“This will slow local economic development and cost jobs statewide. When Nevada passed similar rate changes, solar development slowed and solar developers left the state, taking an estimated 1,200 clean energy jobs along with them.”

On Dec. 23, acting on a new law approved by the Republican legislature, the Nevada Public Utilities Commission reduced the amount rooftop solar users receive for selling power to the grid and imposed monthly fees. Officials said the change was designed to avoid rooftop customers being subsidized by other customers. However, a PUC staff study said there was no such subsidy happening. Only a study by the monopoly NV Energy utility showed one.

Around the United States, an effort to stamp out local generation of electricity is underway, and Nevada finds itself on the cutting edge of that battle. So far, NV Energy and its owner Warren Buffett seem to have succeeded in slowing their critics down to a crawl, apparently hoping to delay any successful challenges until they can get into the safer precincts of the 2017 Nevada Legislature where legislators can be pressured.

Nevada District Judge James Russell this week ruled that a ballot measure proposed by the No Solar Tax political action committee employs the wrong device—a referendum instead of an initiative. A referendum puts an existing law up for a public vote of approval or disapproval. An initiative proposes new law. The No Solar Tax petition sought to use a referendum petition to reinstate the old rates by removing some language from the law.

Russell gave the petitioners time to take their case to the Nevada Supreme Court, but if his ruling prevails they will be forced to use an initiative, which has a different timeline than a referendum. They can switch to an initiative petition, but they can’t get it on the ballot this year. Initiatives must first go to the next legislative session—in 2017. If the lawmakers fail to act on the petition, that will further delay the petition, until voters can pass on it in the 2018 election.

The petitioners are going to go ahead with both kinds of petitions and hope the referendum prevails in court.

An aide to Gov. Brian Sandoval last week accused solar firms of misrepresenting the impact of state renewable energy policies but called for a legislative solution to the state’s net metering problem. That, too, would delay any change until 2017.

Sandoval assistant Dale Erquiaga told the state Energy Industry Task Force that Nevada’s renewable energy brand has been damaged by recent events.

Meanwhile, it’s not just Nevada that is nervous about NV Energy owner Warren Buffett. This is from California Current, a publication of the California Energy Circuit:

“Buffett Moving to Rule Regionalized Grid … Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Energy has almost completely surrounded the state to control transmission lines that will carry the electrons, plus the power plants that produce that energy, just as the Golden State pursues regionalizing the western grid to up its renewable energy game to 50 percent by 2030 by importing more out-of-state electricity.

“In different political and legal arenas, Buffett’s energy team also has been busy creating new rules to maximize his profits by driving out independent generators. Aside from his much publicized attack on rooftop solar energy and Elon Musk’s California-based SolarCity in Nevada, there are his less well known efforts to undermine the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978, which some say has been a consistent bulwark of the drive toward clean energy by requiring utilities to buy economically priced solar, wind, geothermal and biomass power.”

On another front, a group called Alliance for Solar Choice filed suit against the PUC in an effort to overturn the Dec. 29 decision. The suit came after the utility commissioners declined to reconsider that decision.

“The commission’s action not only puts a stake in the heart of future rooftop solar development, but it also unjustly applies the new rates to a new rate structure to customers who applied for, installed or contracted with the utility to connect rooftop solar units before Jan. 1, 2016,” the lawsuit filing reads in part.

Still another organization, Great Basin Solar Coalition, said it is pushing Nevada legislators “to call a special session to address this issue before the solar industry is completely eliminated from the state.”

Buffett’s public image for being friendly toward renewables is taking a beating under his demand for legal preference for a large utility model over rooftop generation—plus his recently stopping short of supporting the scientific consensus on climate change.

“It seems highly likely to me that climate change poses a major problem for the planet,” he wrote to stockholders. “I say ’highly likely’ rather than ’certain’ because I have no scientific aptitude and remember well the dire predictions of most ’experts’ about Y2K. It would be foolish, however, for me or anyone to demand 100 percent proof of huge forthcoming damage to the world if that outcome seemed at all possible and if prompt action had even a small chance of thwarting the danger.”

His and other utility executives efforts to stamp out local generation is roiling commerce involving renewables in California, Nevada, Arizona, and some surprising, less sun-drenched places like Rhode Island. There, and in numerous other states, opponents of local distribution keep repeating the notion that traditional customers are subsidizing net metering customers, a claim that exasperates renewable advocates.

“The claim that net metering is a subsidy to renewables has no basis,” Rhode Island Rep. Aaron Regunberg told EcoRI.org. “There is no evidence for that. If anything, it is the customer of the net-metered system that is subsidizing the utility, not the other way around.”

But the notion keeps getting repeated in news reports.

In Nevada, the only study supporting the claim by NV Energy is its own. A study by the PUC itself found otherwise, and a legislative study found a financial gain for non-solar customers.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...