How Earthjustice is Helping to Revive the Solar Industry in Nevada

Despite roadblocks, Earthjustice and public advocacy groups are making headway in reviving the solar industry in the Silver State.

Citizen outcry and legal battles are pushing to keep the solar industry thriving in sunny Nevada.
(Courtesy Vote Solar)
Citizen outcry and legal battles are pushing to keep the solar industry thriving in sunny Nevada. (Courtesy Vote Solar)

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You wouldn’t think it would be so difficult to have a thriving rooftop solar industry in sunny Nevada, but thanks to the efforts of the Nevada utility NV Energy, it’s been an uphill battle.

Early adopters of rooftop solar in Nevada benefitted from net metering—the ability to sell excess electricity back to the grid at retail rates. Then in 2015, Nevada’s public utilities commission changed the rules, replacing this 20-year-old framework and sending the industry into a tailspin. Under the revised rules, utilities charged rooftop solar owners more for the electricity they drew from the grid and paid them less for the electricity they contributed.

Rooftop solar supporters fought back and scored a hard-earned victory through the recently passed Assembly Bill 405 (AB 405). The law protects solar customers from discriminatory rate hikes and gives them fair credit for energy they send to their neighbors. But when the electric company NV Energy put forward a  so-called “implementation proposal,” it didn’t deliver on the promise of the new legislation. Instead, it would hike the fixed charges residents and small businesses pay each month and undervalue rooftop solar.

And so Earthjustice intervened this week in a Public Utilities Commission of Nevada (PUCN) docket, representing Vote Solar, to ensure the commission properly implements AB 405 and revives rooftop solar in Nevada.  

“NV Energy is trying to raise unavoidable fixed charges for many customers under the cover of AB 405,” said Jill Tauber, one of the Earthjustice attorneys representing Vote Solar in this case. “We are opposing the utility’s unlawful and unreasonable proposal and advocating for proper implementation of a law designed to immediately reestablish the rooftop solar market in Nevada.”

Adds Sara Gersen, the other Earthjustice attorney representing Vote Solar in Nevada: “NV Energy’s proposal doesn’t provide customers with an opportunity to offset the electricity they buy with the solar they generate on their homes and business, as AB 405 requires. We will work to ensure that AB 405’s clear goal of restoring solar in Nevada is accomplished as soon as possible.”

We expect the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada (PUCN) to issue an order in the case later this month.

A History of Legal Battles and Public Outcry

When the PUCN revoked the net metering rate structure that had existed since 1997, consumer solar investment ground to a virtual standstill, triggering significant job loss in the state and undermining ratepayers’ ability to control their energy bills.

Not to be defeated, communities across the state banded together to fight for fair solar policies.

Nevadans showed up in full force at a PUCN public meeting on January 13, 2016. After the PUCN issued its now-infamous decision that crushed the rooftop solar market, homeowners urged the commission to change course. But after hours of public comment, the commission rejected a request to delay implementation of its decision while it reconsidered its orders.

Earthjustice appealed the PUCN’s decision for existing customers at the Carson City district court, on behalf of Vote Solar, arguing (among other claims) that the PUCN’s decision was made through an unlawful process. During the public hearing for the case in February, community members on fixed incomes who had invested in solar to manage their utility bills voiced their outrage, as well as parents and grandparents who demanded clean energy for future generations and solar industry workers whose jobs were on the line.

At last, on September 13, 2016, the Carson City district court ruled with Earthjustice that the PUCN decision to hike rates on existing solar customers left existing solar customers with inadequate notice and did not satisfy the due process clause of the Nevada constitution. But while the Court reversed the decision for customers who already invested in solar, it kept the commission’s decision with respect to new residential and small business rooftop solar customers.

In November 2016, Earthjustice and Vote Solar took the fight all the way to the Nevada Supreme Court, where we challenged the part of the decision that kept solar out of reach for future customers. 

Mandate to Revive Solar

By December, a year after the initial PUCN ruling, we helped clear the way for rooftop solar in Northern Nevada. In an NV Energy rate case where Earthjustice and Vote Solar intervened, the PUCN unanimously approved a ruling that opened the territory up to an additional 6 megawatts of rooftop solar under net metering and left the door open for a possible extension in the future. The commission acknowledged that its previous order “all but crushed the rooftop solar industry in Northern Nevada.”

On February 20, 2017, concerned citizens took to the streets in Carson City and Las Vegas in several rallies urging state legislators to increase the use of renewable energy. Nearly 150 people gathered in Las Vegas and close to 100 gathered in Carson City. Many of those attending these rallies were residents or small business owners who wanted to make their communities safe and healthy places to live and work.  

Advocacy efforts from the solar industry and local community groups and coalitions kept the pressure on policymakers to restore solar in the Silver State. As the Nevada legislative session drew to a close in June 2017, Gov. Brian Sandoval signed AB 405, a bill that unanimously passed the state Senate and aims to revive rooftop solar in the state.  

It Takes a Community

Our victories show that by banding together, we can fight for clean energy at the state level and win, despite our current political climate. Through litigation, legislation and community action, we are seeing states across the country push back on attacks on solar energy. Our efforts demonstrate that there is hope for climate and clean energy progress.

But there’s still more work left to do in Nevada. Today, we are working to make sure that NV Energy properly implements AB 405, and we will continue to fight for fair solar policies consistent with Nevada law.

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Alyssa Ritterstein was a press secretary in Washington, D.C., from 2014–2018.

Earthjustice’s Clean Energy Program uses the power of the law and the strength of partnership to accelerate the transition to 100% clean energy.