Judy Treichel was just trying to do the right thing for herself and for the planet – and for that she's being penalized as a result of efforts by the Koch brothers and other right-wingers working to protect the state's fossil-fuel monopoly.
A couple of years ago, she spent $8,500 to have solar panels installed on her modest Las Vegas home. She took advantage of a federal renewable energy tax credit and a rebate from NV Energy, Nevada's energy utility. And because of an arrangement called net metering, she earned money for the power generated by her solar panels that she did not use.
She figured that her investment in the panels would pay off in a few years because of the dramatically lower electric bills she would be paying. And NV Energy stood to win because as more people followed Treichel's example, the utility company would not have to spend money on new generating plants and could more quickly decommission its remaining dirty coal-consuming plants.
But Treichel learned last month that she's going to get jolted with new punitive charges designed to discourage rooftop solar installations, thanks to a ruling by Nevada's Republican-controlled Public Utilities Commission. The effect, she said in an interview today, is that "we will never get our investment back" unless the charges are somehow struck down.
There is, in fact, a grassroots effort to get those charges struck down. The Public Utilities Commission held a public hearing on the new charges today that was so packed with outraged citizens that Treichel, a longtime renewable energy advocate and the executive director of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force, found that she could not get into the hearing room.
"It's going to be a campaign issue," Treichel said, as presidential candidates from both parties as well as state office-seekers gear up for party caucuses next month.
This is the latest chapter in a fight I first wrote about in 2013 calling attention to efforts by the Koch brothers-subsidized American Legislative Exchange Council to kneecap the growth of home solar installations.
"ALEC has been involved in attacking renewable energy for the last four years," said Gabe Elsner of the Energy and Policy Institute, an organization that advocates for green energy and has had to go toe-to-toe against similar attacks in several other states. "It really is a concerted effort ... to stop the growth of distributed renewable energy."
ALEC passed a resolution in September that declares that encouraging homeowners to install solar panels "increases subsidies, electricity costs, and taxes while shifting costs to non-solar customers." Doing so is "antithetical to free markets," its resolution says.
Under that guise, Nevada isn't just stopping at "refraining from granting special privileges to the solar power industry," to quote the ALEC resolution. The state had placed a limit on the number of households that could participate in net metering, which the solar industry was desperate to lift in order to meet consumer demand. That cap was lifted, but at the behest of NV Energy, the Public Utilities Commission has opted to dramatically increase the monthly transmission fee solar users pay and cut the rate that homeowners would receive for sending power back to the electric grid, to a point so far below what customers pay for a kilowatt-hour of NV Energy electricity that it would be cheaper to just consume NV Energy than to install panels.
As a result, solar companies in the state are shutting down operations and laying off workers.
When Nevada's Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval was asked earlier this month about the utility company (and ALEC) argument that solar users were being unfairly subsidized by other ratepayers, all Sandoval could say was that "it's a very, very complicated math problem."
Treichel calls the cross-subsidy argument "absolutely insane" and groundless. "You can make a case for it – if you do enough creative accounting," she said.
It's not that NV Energy has a fundamental aversion to solar power. The company – which was purchased by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway in 2013 – runs a 15-megawatt solar farm at Nellis Air Force Base north of Las Vegas. But Treichel said that it does not like the fact that ordinary people have through individual solar and wind installations the power to break free from a centralized power monopoly – and there is a conservative ideological bloc willing to help it defend its monopoly even as it pays lip service to a so-called "free market."
The utility "has a business model that only makes money if they are generating energy," she said. But she predicted that it will eventually go the way of the old telephone monopoly of the 1970s, which was broken up by the combined force of antitrust action, changing technology and consumer demand. "It's the dragon's tail as the dragon is being slayed, thrashing about and trying to bring down as much as it can."
One of the things that could be brought down is the electability of political candidates who are on the wrong side of this issue. A poll done for the Alliance for Solar Choice found that 74 percent of Nevadans – including 69 percent of Republicans and 80 percent of Democrats – would be less likely to support a politician opposed to lifting the cap on solar installations. That opposition would presumably hold for the draconian fees that are a cap on solar installations through financial means.