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Solar Customers Anxiously Await PUC Review Of New Rates

Elliott Brown, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

  [This story will be updated following the PUC meeting in Carson City this morning.]

The Public Utilities Commission is reconsidering a controversial change to rates for rooftop solar customers Wednesday, but companies including SunRun and SolarCity have already announced massive layoffs. And customers who installed solar panels are already seeing increases in their power bill. Reno Public Radio's Julia Ritchey talked with some of those unhappy customers.

Last month the PUC gave NV Energy the OK to raise rates for existing solar customers.

That includes Reno City Councilwoman Naomi Duerr, who invested $50,000 to install 36 solar panels on her home five years ago.

"So you have $50,000 and you're saying, ‘What can I do to both improve my property, reduce my energy costs?’” she says. “So we looked at a lot of different alternate energy options."

Duerr's family settled on solar because of the economic incentives Nevada offered at the time. She received both a grant from NV Energy and federal tax credits which yielded a savings of about $30,000.

"In addition to the grants and the tax credits, we wanted to have that significant reduction in our carbon footprint,” she says. “We wanted to help the planet — you know, the feel-good factor."

Now, Duerr, and thousands of other net-metering customers like her, are in limbo. New rates that started January 1st have raised the basic monthly service charge from $15 to $21 and will eventually double over the next five years.

Additionally, the PUC reduced the amount NV Energy had to credit these customers for surplus energy they generate and put back to the grid. Those rates will drop from about 8 cents a kilowatt/hour to less than 3 cents by 2020.

"You're not only looking at today's world when you're making an investment decision, you're anticipating what the future world will look like," says Duerr.

Duerr estimated a payback for her initial investment of eight to 10 years based on the reduction in energy and the offsets of the net-metering program.

"With these new changes, we're looking at a payback of 40 to 50 years," she says.

NV Energy would not comment for this story, but PUC Commissioner David Noble has defended their decision. He argues that the rate increases for solar customers are minimal and that the industry has already received $16 million in subsidies through the program.

However, John Sagebiel, assistant director of environmental programs at the University of Nevada, Reno, disagrees.

"If you dig into that argument, essentially what they're saying is I'm buying less of their product, which is energy, because I'm generating some of my own,” he says. “And in buying less, I'm causing the net average rate to go up. Kind of. Not really, and that is therefore a subsidy — that is not a subsidy to me."

Sagebiel was an early converter, installing rooftop solar in his Reno home back in 2005 just after the legislature approved a bill to accelerate the development of the solar market. He says if anything, the ruling proves that solar has been too successful.

"We were trying to create an industry, we, the state of Nevada, directly by our legislature,” says Sagebiel. “They did that. They created an incredible number of jobs. I think the payoff was phenomenal."

A Washington Post article last year found that utilities across the country have been pushing back against a surging solar rooftop market, mostly by going through industry-friendly public utility commissions to hike fees.

Several states, including Arizona, Wisconsin and New Mexico have considered scaling back their net-metering programs.  

Regardless of the PUC's decision, Duerr and Sagebiel say they will keep their systems in place — for now.

"We are basically stuck,” says Duerr. “We were told we were going to be partners with NV Energy, right in our contract, and that we would be assisting them in meeting the company's goal of sustainable, green energy. All of that sounded like the right thing to do."

Duerr says she doesn't expect to see a return on her investment now, but is hoping the PUC will change course and leave existing customers alone.

Julia Ritchey is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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