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Nevada Utility Relents Amid Solar Collapse

LAS VEGAS (CN) - Nevada's largest utility on Monday offered to grandfather net-metering rates for customers, as solar companies flee the state and a class action challenges new rates that eliminate discounts.

"This grandfathering proposal is being offered in recognition of NV Energy's desire to treat all customers, including those who had previously made a decision to install rooftop solar, fairly," NV Energy President and CEO Paul Caudill said.

The utility proposes allowing its net-energy-metering customers to continue under old rules for up to 20 years, and said it will submit its new grandfathered rate proposal to the Nevada Public Utilities Commission on Feb. 1.

Net metering allows customers who generate their own energy via solar power to feed electricity back to the grid, and gives customers a discount based on the amount of electricity added to the grid, according to the Solar Industries Association.

Nevada is among several states that are revising net-metering rates, mostly because of the rapid adoption of solar power and utilities reaching pre-set limits on net-metering customers, according to Green Tech Media.

"Some states are tapping the brakes for solar by undermining this key policy or adding new fees and charges on solar customers," N.C. Clean Energy Technology Center analyst Benjamin Inskeep said in the center's recently published nationwide report, "The 50 States of Solar : A Quarterly Look at America's Fast-Evolving Distributed Solar Policy Conversation."

Inskeep said 27 states are reviewing rates for solar energy, and federal tax breaks and other incentives to adopt solar power are scheduled to expire this year.

"These types of policy changes could hold back the spread of clean, locally produced energy," Inskeep said.

In Nevada, net-metering customers received a rate discount via the state's Excess Energy Credit, which is based on the kilowatt hours of electricity received by NV Energy.

Net-metering customers stopped getting credits on Jan. 1, but NV energy said it will apply banked credits until they are used up.

Nevada's net-metering rate change comes on the heels of NV Energy's application to produce more solar energy at a facility about 25 miles northeast of Las Vegas near the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

Advocates for Nevada's solar industry sought a stay of the new net-metering rates, but the Nevada Public Utilities Commission on Jan. 13 denied it, saying only 2 percent of Nevada residents use solar power.

The commission held a day-long public hearing on Jan. 12, during which some 500 residential customers showed up to protest the new rates.

In the wake of the rate changes, several solar companies already have laid off workers and announced plans to leave the state.

"This is a very difficult decision, but Governor [Brian] Sandoval and his [Public Utilities Commission] leave us no choice," SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive said on Dec. 23. He added: "The people of Nevada have consistently chosen solar, but ... their state government decided to end customer choice, damage the state's economy, and jeopardize thousands of jobs."

Rive said Sandoval and Nevada's Office of Economic Development helped bring solar power giant SolarCity to the Silver State in 2013 and encouraged the company to create new jobs, which it did by hiring 2,000 local workers in two years.

The state's rooftop solar industry thrived in 2014, posting the most solar jobs per-capita in the nation, Rive said. SolarCity was the largest solar power employer.

"Now, in what amounts to a massive bait-and-switch for the local solar industry and its customers ... the governor's [Public Utilities Commission] has effectively shut down the rooftop solar industry and taken the extraordinary step to punish over 12,000 existing solar customers, including schools, with exorbitant fees in what appears to be an attempt to protect the profits of the state's largest utility," SolarCity said.

SolarCity, Vivant Solar and Sunrun all announced plans to close operations in Nevada and lay off hundreds of jobs because of the uncertainty of Nevada's solar industry. All three cited the lack of a grandfathering clause for net metering customers.

NV Energy's offer to grandfather net-metering rates might be too late to stop some or all of the solar companies from leaving the state, but it might render a class action lawsuit moot.

Lead plaintiffs John Bamforth and Stanley Schone on Jan. 12 filed a class action in Clark County accusing NV Energy of consumer fraud, deceptive and unfair trade practices, unjust enrichment and negligence for ending the net metering discount.

Their attorney Martin Little, with Jolley Urga Woodbury & Little, was not available by telephone Wednesday to determine if the class action might be rendered moot if the Public Utility Commission approves NV Energy's request to grandfather net-metering rates for up to 20 years.

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