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September 23, 2014

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NV Energy promises transparent review of grid for rooftop solar

Catherine Cortez Masto

Catherine Cortez Masto

Ross Miller

Ross Miller

Gov. Jim Gibbons

Gov. Jim Gibbons

Clean-energy advocates have conjured a vision of solar panels lining the rooftops of homes and businesses, powering Nevada with a plentiful and renewable source of energy. But, they say, it will remain nothing but a vision unless the 2011 Legislature requires power giant NV Energy to purchase this homemade electricity.

The state’s energy office says the deck will be stacked against any push for such widespread solar production because the only study of how much small-scale solar energy Nevada’s grid can handle is being conducted by NV Energy, which has opposed aggressive policies that favor rooftop solar power.

Meanwhile, a separate, independent study proposed by the state’s Energy Office was killed last week after lobbying by NV Energy.

The company argues that small-scale projects are not cost effective and require subsidies that other ratepayers must shoulder.

But consumer advocates say the utility’s opposition has more to do with the potential threat the projects pose to company profits. (Energy generated by the solar panels would be owned by the home or business and sold to NV Energy. If there are enough users, it will decrease the need for new power stations.)

“I don’t fault NV Energy. They have to do what’s good for the shareholders,” said Robin Reedy, Gov. Jim Gibbons’ chief of staff. “But good government should do what’s right for Nevadans. Usually, what’s good for shareholders is good for Nevadans. But not in this case.”

Representatives of NV Energy and the Public Utilities Commission, which regulates the power monopoly, say the company-led $200,000 study into so-called “distributed generation” will be accurate. A stakeholder group, including solar company advocates and consumer protection advocates, will monitor the study, which is due by the end of the year.

“We are the only ones who proposed a transparent process,” said Tony Sanchez, senior vice president at NV Energy. He said the study will be vetted in public hearings and likely conducted by the firm Navigant, which solar advocates say has a good reputation.

But critics complain this is all window dressing to distract from the company’s control of the study.

The independent study was killed last week by a vote of the state’s Board of Examiners. Secretary of State Ross Miller and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto voted against the $236,000 contract, which would have been paid for entirely by stimulus funding. (Gibbons voted for it.)

Following the vote, Reedy complained that NV Energy “controls” the state. In an interview this week, she said Miller and Cortez Masto “were representing their future political interests” by supporting the influential NV Energy.

But Cortez Masto said having duplicative studies would overly tax NV Energy, which would have to participate in both studies. Miller called it “wasteful spending” and said it didn’t matter if it was state or federal money.

Both said they are confident that the NV Energy-led study will be unbiased.

Rose McKinney-James, legislative representative for the Solar Alliance, a group of small-scale solar companies, said during the last session there was a wide disparity in the costs and benefits of rooftop solar presented by Solar Alliance and NV Energy. They produced conflicting sets of data to lawmakers, she said.

“We need a credible study to inform the decisions that the next legislature will make about solar power, particularly solar generation,” she said. “Under ideal circumstances, some independent third-party group would conduct (the study.)”

But, she added, she was “hopeful” that the checks put in place by the utilities commission would “ensure the (NV Energy) study is objective and useful.”

Rebecca Wagner, of the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada, said she asked NV Energy to conduct the study to get reliable numbers on the state’s capacity, and the cost of rooftop solar.

She said regulators will ensure that NV Energy conducts the study appropriately, and said no matter the firm selected, NV Energy would have to be consulted.

“As the regulator, we will ensure that this study is conducted in the open,” she said. “If we come look at the draft and it doesn’t look right, we’ll tell them to go back to the drawing board.”

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