‘Dark years of solar’ behind us? Sandoval signs bill to resurrect solar industry
By Yvonne Gonzalez (contact)
Thursday, June 15, 2017 | 7:30 p.m.
Rooftop solar customers will get more credits for their excess solar energy with the governor’s signing of a net metering bill, a measure that is expected to revive the industry in Nevada.
Using a custom-made solar panel desk, courtesy of Tesla, Gov. Brian Sandoval signed three clean energy bills Thursday at the company’s Las Vegas warehouse. Tesla is among several companies, including Vivint and Sunrun, gearing up to install rooftop solar in Nevada as a result of the change in the state’s net metering policy.
Assembly Bill 405 sets the rate that certain customers can be credited for energy they send to the grid, laying out a step-down rate structure as more homes are equipped with solar panels.
Sandoval said he signed the bill establishing net metering when he was a new governor in 2011. Net metering continually hit its cap of total utility capacity and lawmakers inched the level upward in subsequent years.
Sandoval said that during all this, there was what he called a “hiccup.” A Public Utilities Commission decision in 2015 made changes to net metering and led to higher bills for solar customers, causing companies including Vivint and Sunrun to leave the state.
Assemblyman Chris Brooks, D-Las Vegas, said the governor’s office and other key groups were on board with working out the bill to restore net metering. He said he worked to combine his consumer protection bill with another measure, sponsored by Assemblyman Justin Watkins, D-Las Vegas, that sought to boost credits for solar customers.
He said the bill was amended with input from a range of groups, including NV Energy. The energy provider recommended the credit structure in the bill that goes down to no lower than 75 percent of the retail rate as more homes are equipped with solar panels.
Brooks said he drew on 17 years of experience in the industry, having started the first rooftop solar company in the state.
“Between that and working with all the stakeholders, we found a solution,” he said Thursday.
The bill signing took place in a room where Tesla has started receiving shipments of solar panels, said Diarmuid O'Connell, Tesla’s vice president of business development. The company is going to start hiring to support the new line of business, though O'Connell said it’s unclear how many new employees there will be.
“This is all equipment and infrastructure to essentially relaunch this business, which is what we’re doing,” he said at the warehouse Thursday.
Tesla co-founder and Chief Technical Officer JB Straubel said the net metering bill will bring back solar energy to Nevada, and Sandoval agreed. Straubel said that the company would begin installing solar panels in Nevada as soon as the governor signed the bill.
“It’s going to ultimately provide a pathway for the whole solar industry, not just Tesla but the whole industry, to grow sustainably and with a secure future for years and years to come,” Straubel said.
He said the company has about 1,000 customers who were basically left in “limbo” when net metering collapsed.
“We’ve already begun the outreach to start up this business again,” Straubel said. “This isn’t something that’s going to take days, weeks, months — we’re already starting this.”
PetersenDean Roofing & Solar CEO and President Jim Petersen said in a statement that the company has been installing solar for decades, including during what he called the “dark years of solar.”
“Now that the people have spoken and demanded that a fair market for rooftop solar energy via net metering be restored, we are excited and poised to resume our position as a market leader,” he said Thursday. “Not only will we provide a great value to Nevada residents in the form of cheap, clean power for their homes, but we expect to provide a significant number of skilled, high paying jobs as we add staff to our existing offices in the Las Vegas and Reno markets.”
Distributed resource planning and energy efficiency
Also signed on Thursday were renewable energy bills sponsored by Sen. Pat Spearman, D-North Las Vegas. Senate Bill 146 establishes distributed resource planning, a process that has electric utilities plan to meet future consumer needs.
“With the growing demand of distributed energy resources like solar panels, electric vehicles and energy storage products, we have to plan ahead and we have to make sure that we meet the demands of all this implementation,” Sandoval said. “So this measure will achieve that goal and make sure our state is prepared for a clean energy future.”
Senate Bill 150 creates a process for requiring that electric utility companies meet energy savings goals and require that low-income residents benefit from some of the money for energy efficiency programs.
Sandoval said that this was a detail that needed to have a light shined on it, “no pun intended.”
“This bill will ensure that our utility companies are also working to save ratepayers money by conserving energy,” Sandoval said.
The governor has yet to come down on either side of two other pieces of renewable energy legislation, one that seeks to raise the state’s renewable energy consumption and another that sets up community solar programs.
Sandoval said Thursday that these are two complex pieces of legislation.
Assembly Bill 206 would boost the state’s renewable portfolio standard to 40 percent by 2030, and Senate Bill 392 could allow customers to pay into a community solar project for utility credit.
“As I get deeper into that bill,” Sandoval said of community solar, “it’s a lot larger scale than I thought it was going to be, and also there’s very little PUC oversight. There are just some consumer protection issues that really concern me in that bill.”
The Energy Choice Initiative, a voter-approved policy for an open and competitive energy market, is a concern, he said. Voters need to approve the initiative again in 2018 for it to be amended into the state constitution.
“We would be one of the few states in the country that would seek to adopt a new portfolio standard prior to making a decision on energy choice,” Sandoval said.
Elspeth DiMarzio of the Sierra Club said the group has been advocating for the passage of AB206 since late 2016. She said some members of her group are among those who are continuing to urge the governor to sign the bill.
“If anything, AB206 can complement energy choice in just as meaningful a way as any of the other legislation we’ve seen this year,” she said.
Brooks, the net metering bill sponsor, is also behind the RPS measure.
“We’re crossing our fingers,” he said Thursday of the two renewable energy bills left to be signed.
“Nevadans care about where their energy comes from and Nevadans want us to invest in a clean energy economy,” Brooks said.
Sandoval is on deadline to either sign or veto the two bills by the end of the day Friday.
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