CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — The Nevada Public Utilities Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to move forward with a new rate structure for customers with rooftop solar panels, in spite of loud and persistent protests from installation companies that say the switch will usher in a doomsday for their industry.
The three-member commission adopted a proposed order that would reduce by 75 percent the amount NV Energy pays customers for excess power their solar panels produce and change the flat service rate for customers with solar panels. The changes in so-called net metering policies would phase in over five years, starting Jan. 1.
The exact amounts of the changes haven't been decided, but solar companies say they expect their customers' base service charge to double or triple over the five years.
"It will destroy the rooftop solar industry in one of the states with the most sunshine," SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive said in a statement after the order was released in draft form Monday. "The one beneficiary of this decision would be NV Energy, whose monopoly will have been protected. The people will have lost choice, jobs, and faith in their government."
The commission said, however, that the current rate structure shifts costs from solar customers to people without solar panels. A new structure would phase out subsidies that have been in place since 1997 and better reflect the cost of serving solar customers, who still use NV Energy transmission lines and tap into the utility's power at night or when their panels aren't generating their energy.
Commissioners did side with solar companies in declining to approve a new "demand charge," saying it could confuse customers and overwhelm them at a time when other rate changes are taking effect. The charge is more typically used for large commercial energy customers and reflects the cost of serving a customer when they're using the most energy.
Solar companies argued that customers would see a spike in their bill, for example, if they happened to have a blow dryer, a toaster and an iron going at the same time one morning, even though they kept their energy usage low in general.
The commission left the door open for future consideration of demand charges, noting they're gaining popularity around the country.
The decision caps nearly a year of high-profile debate about the future of rooftop solar policies in Nevada. State lawmakers deliberated this spring about a cap on the number of customers who can participate in net metering but decided to leave detailed solar policy-setting to the regulators at the Public Utilities Commission.
Still, solar companies upset with proposed changes have staged protests, circulated petitions and even filed a public records lawsuit against Gov. Brian Sandoval, saying he might be colluding with NV Energy lobbyists and they need to look through his text messages to find out. They have also faulted him for failing to intervene in the final decision of the PUC, whose members are appointed by the governor.
Sandoval has countered that the commission is a quasi-judicial body that acts independently of his office.
"I cannot, and will not, interfere with its deliberations or try to influence decisions issued by the PUC as it meets its statutory obligations," he said in a statement Tuesday. "I am hopeful that the commission will find a solution that takes into consideration the thousands of jobs created by this emerging industry while balancing the interests of all ratepayers."