Net energy metering didn’t come up in Hillary Clinton’s town hall meeting in Nevada yesterday, although both supporters and opponents of the solar policy hoped that it would.
Nevada has become central to the value-of-solar debate, as the solar industry and NV Energy once again clash over how to address the state’s net-metering cap, which could be hit by the end of the month.
In late July, NV Energy filed a 500-page application with the PUC that would create a three-part charge for solar customers in the state. The proposal would reduce the credit solar customers receive for electricity they send to the grid from 11.6 cents to about 5.5 cents. The utility says the changes are needed to address an unreasonable cost shift between solar and non-solar customers.
The filing was criticized by the solar industry, which has pointed to several studies (including one in Nevada) that show net-metered customers cover their own costs and that distributed solar benefits all ratepayers. Failing to raise the net-metering cap in Nevada, they say, would effectively kill the state’s burgeoning industry.
Vivint Solar, the second-largest rooftop solar installer in the country, recently announced it has suspended its expansion into Nevada amid the policy turmoil.
Now, the debate on how to value solar has made its way to the national stage. At a town hall meeting in New Hampshire last month, Clinton, the leading Democratic presidential candidate, expressed support for net metering and criticized utilities for blocking the practice.
"Number one, we've got to prevent backsliding," she said, according to a recording of the event. "That's why I said watch out for utilities that want to stop clean renewable energy, and enabling customers to sell back to the grid because they want to prevent the transition."
Republicans provoked Clinton to address net metering at yesterday’s meeting in Nevada, where the power company opposing the policy is owned by one of Clinton’s strongest supporters, Warren Buffett. Buffett’s company Berkshire Hathaway purchased NV Energy in 2013. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported on the political scuffle:
Republican operatives pointed reporters to Clinton's remarks [in New Hampshire], and to records showing Buffett made a $25,000 contribution to a pro-Hillary Super PAC last year. He also donated $2,700 to her campaign in April. The billionaire businessman has made no secret of his support, saying in May that "I'm going to vote for her."
In the view of her critics, Clinton is showing inconsistency. "Her willingness to raise money from the very people she slams on the campaign trail shows just how fake her rhetoric is," said Republican spokesperson Fred Brown.
Clinton’s stance on net metering is meaningful in the broader context of the 2016 election. She has been accused of lacking a sincere political platform in the presidential race thus far, but in recent weeks, her campaign has made a push to prove she’s a strong backer of clean energy.
Last month, Clinton released her climate-change plan that calls for boosting U.S. installed solar capacity from its current 20 gigawatts to 140 gigawatts by the end of 2020, through both distributed and utility-scale solar projects. Overall, Clinton pledged to increase renewable energy generation to 33 percent of the U.S. electricity mix by 2027. By comparison, President Obama’s Clean Power Plan would increase renewable energy generation to 28 percent by 2030.
Clinton also upped Obama on her environmental credentials this week by coming out against oil drilling in the Arctic, days after the president gave Shell the go-ahead to start production in the North.
To reach Clinton’s ambitious low-carbon energy goals, her campaign created the Clean Energy Challenge. The proposal includes defending the Clean Power Plan, increasing public investment in clean energy R&D, expanding renewable energy generation on public lands, fighting to extend federal tax incentives for renewables, and overcoming “barriers that prevent low-income and other households from using solar energy to reduce their monthly energy bills.”
Clinton’s support of distributed solar on rooftops would, on its face, put her at odds with utility-owner Warren Buffett. In reality, NV Energy’s solar policy is likely a few degrees removed from her personal relationship with the billionaire donor.
Meanwhile, Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, an outspoken clean energy advocate, has pointed the finger at Republican mega-donors for fueling opposition to pro-solar policies, the Las Vegas Sun reports.
Reid said NV Energy is part of a nationwide battle to limit rooftop solar that’s led by billionaire fossil-fuel barons Charles and David Koch. NV Energy's parent company, Berkshire Hathaway Energy, has fought to eliminate rooftop solar programs in legislatures, utility commissions and courtrooms across the country. NV Energy tried to thwart a measure that would have allowed more rooftop solar in Nevada during the 2015 legislative session.
“The Koch brothers are worth more than 135 million Americans combined," Reid said. “Why are they interested in stopping rooftop solar? It hurts their bottom line -- their tar sands project in Canada. Their coal, oil and gas here in America...NV Energy is part of it. [...] Their bottom line is money, profits.”
The PUC threw out a solar-based proposal last Wednesday to raise the net-metering cap through the end of the year. The PUC will meet with interested parties again this Friday to find a way to keep the solar industry alive before a new rate structure is approved in 2016. Regulators are expected to reach an interim solution on August 26, according to solar advocates.
Lauren Randall, a spokesperson for Sunrun, said her company strongly supports Hillary coming out in favor of net metering, but added that it isn’t only an issue for Democrats. Net energy metering started under President George W. Bush in 2005, and was recently backed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R).
Rather than framing Clinton’s solar policy as a source of conflict, as some Republican campaigners have, it should be seen as further support for a bipartisan policy solution, and encourage regulators to prevent the solar market in Nevada from stalling, according to Randall.
“We don’t need to roll back a fundamental billing mechanism or put fees on solar users,” she said. “We need a different proposal than what the Nevada utility has rolled out, which would kill the solar market.”
Net metering and solar fees have become one of the top electricity policy issues in the country this year. According to a new report by the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center, there were 18 instances in 16 states of proposed or enacted changes to net-metering policies during the second quarter of 2015.
The report also found 32 examples from 18 states of utilities seeking to increase residential customers’ monthly fixed charges by 10 percent or more over the same period. These charges don’t only affect solar customers, but weaken the rooftop solar value proposition.
While Nevada isn’t the only state grappling with its solar policies, it will be the state to watch in the coming days. In addition to the PUC net-metering decision expected next week, Nevada will host Sen. Reid’s National Clean Energy Summit on Monday, featuring a debate on the merits of net metering and its role in the future of rooftop solar.