Solar panels being installed on a Nevada home in 2015. (R-J photo by Jeff Scheid)
I never could figure out why, when NV Energy jacked up the rates charged to residential solar panel owners because they were somehow being subsidized by non-panel owners, the rates for non-panel owners were not concomitantly reduced and yet the move was somehow going to be revenue neutral.
Two reports out this week say NV Energy’s subsidy contention is bogus, and, in fact, solar panel owners are providing a net benefit to power customers in general.
A report from The Brookings Institution notes that Nevada’s net metering rates — that change solar panels from being an asset to a liability — have caused the installation of new solar panels to plummet 92 per cent in the first quarter of this year.
The Brookings report, by Mark Muro and Devashree Saha, asks and answers what it calls the burning question:
Does net metering really represent a net cost shift from solar-owning households to others? Or does it in fact contribute net benefits to the grid, utilities, and other ratepayer groups when all costs and benefits are factored in? As to the answer, it’s getting clearer (even if it’s not unanimous). Net metering — contra the Nevada decision — frequently benefits all ratepayers when all costs and benefits are accounted for, which is a finding state public utility commissions, or PUCs, need to take seriously as the fight over net metering rages in states like Arizona, California, and Nevada. Regulators everywhere need to put in place processes that fairly consider the full range of benefits (as well as costs) of net metering as well as other policies as they set and update the policies, regulations, and tariffs that will play a critical role in determining the extent to which the distributed solar industry continues to grow.
As I have said before the problem is that monopoly power companies have an infrastructure cost that remains no matter how much power it sells. The only difference between a solar panel owner and a customer who conserves and is efficient is that the solar panel output can be measured. NV Energy calculates that solar panel owners were avoiding paying their fair share of infrastructure costs — to the tune of about $52 a month.
But solar panel installer SolarCity and the Natural Resources Defense Council calculate that rooftop solar provides a net benefit to all Nevadans of 1.6 cents per kilowatt-hour in actual costs and as much as 3.4 cents per kWh if you include benefits to the environment, which is admittedly hard to calculate.
The report by Brookings also notes that a 2014 study prepared for the Nevada Public Utilities Commission found that net metering provided $36 million in benefits to all NV Energy customers and over the 25-year lifetime of the panels the net benefit amounted to $166 million — just for the ones installed so far.
A 2015 study from Maine said the value of rooftop solar was $0.33 per kWh compared to the average retail price of $0.13 per kWh. “The study concludes that solar power provides a substantial public benefit because it reduces electricity prices due to the displacement of more expensive power sources …” Brookings concluded.
The report goes on to list numerous other studies that found solar panels benefited power customers in general rather than being a drain.
Brookings addresses the infrastructure cost issues by recommending decoupling. The NRDC says this is done by regulators of private utilities using “modest, regular rate reconciliations every year to compensate for under- or over-collection of fixed costs during the previous year. More than half the states have adopted decoupling mechanisms for either electric or natural gas utilities as a necessary (but not sufficient) part of the policies that allow utilities to invest in the cheapest and cleanest energy resource: energy efficiency.”
Though 15 states have adopted decoupling, according to Brookings, states like Nevada, which has not, are fighting net metering the hardest. “Typically, decoupling has been used as a mechanism to encourage regulated utilities to promote energy efficiency for their customers,” the Brookings authors say. “However, it can also be used as a tool to incentivize net metering by breaking the link between utility profits and utility sales and encouraging maximum solar penetration. Advocates of decoupling note that it is even more effective when paired with time-of-use pricing and minimum monthly billing.”
Mt. Wheeler Power Co., which covers all of White Pine County as well as parts of Nye, Elko and Eureka counties and parts of three counties in Utah, still provides net metering rates for its customers with solar panels. The current rate is 3 cents per kWh but that is expected to increase when the company’s wholesale provider is expected to increase rates, a company executive said.
Valley Electric Association, which services Nevada power customers along the California border from Mineral County to Sandy Valley in Clark County, shows on its website that it also provides net metering rates.