Monthly Archives: January 2016


Jim Rogers is the former CEO and chairman of the board for Duke Energy. He continues to advocate for sustainable energy access as written in his book Lighting the World. More about Jim’s book can be found at Here he discusses the fight against energy poverty.

United Solar Initiative: Since leaving Duke you’ve written a book called Lighting the World, which points to the current state of world energy poverty. Why is energy poverty an issue?

Jim Rogers: It’s my judgement that access to electricity is a basic human right. It is foundational in that it enables medical care, education, economic development, and more efficient farming. And the efficient farming is especially important given that about 50% of people in low-income countries– and I always say low-income countries rather than developing countries because I think it’s a better way to talk about it– but in low-income countries, farmers make a living in the agriculture sector.

And the UN has finally found that electricity should be one of their sustainable development goals for 2015- 2030. And this is a breakthrough for the UN because when setting their goals in 2000, they failed to recognize access to electricity as a millennium development goal.


USI: What are the specific benefits to fighting this form of poverty in our world?

Rogers: I think that the math is stunning. About 1.2 billion people have no access to electricity. Of the 1.2 billion, 600 million plus are in Sub-Saharan Africa, roughly 300 million are in India, another 100 million in Indonesia, and the remainder scattered around the world. So bringing access to electricity basically enables societies to develop and to grow, to start to lift people from poverty. And actually, if you study the US, a high-income country in the world today, in the 20th century providing access to electricity and all that enables fundamentally changed our economy, transformed the lives of people, extended the life expectancy for both men and women. So access to electricity has played a very dominant role in the development and the cultures of high-income countries.


USI: What role do you see for-profit energy companies/utilities playing in the fight to end energy poverty?

Rogers: My focus has been on the 1.2 billion people in rural areas of low-income countries. There has been a reluctance of state-owned utilities to extend the grid to these rural areas. And the important fact today is that the price of solar has fallen to a place where it is cheaper and matches the capability to pay better in these low-income countries than extending the grid. So the important point is we are able to bring electricity to these people, help lift them from poverty, give them an opportunity to own and then deploy technologies up the ladder of the various solar technologies. And we do all of this in a way that puts them on a trajectory that allows them to be climbing out of poverty without adding to the carbon emissions in the world in the same way it has occurred in high-income countries.


USI: You’ve advocated for energy efficiency and a transition to a low-carbon future. What do you see as key to that transition?

Rogers: Well the transition is already underway. And in the last decade the falling renewable cost, specifically of wind and solar, has really driven the replacement of coal plants with natural gas, especially shale gas, which has 50% the carbon footprint of coal. Renewables have zero emissions, and at the end of the day, they have grown dramatically. The way I think about it is, whether you’re in a high-income or low-income countries, five years ago solar wasn’t as cost effective or competitive as other alternatives. And actually, my writing of the book couldn’t have occurred five years ago because I couldn’t have made the case solar was a more affordable alternative and matches the increasing capability to pay as people get on the income trajectory brought on by greater economic development. So I think the development of solar and wind is transforming how we provide electricity both in the US and other high-income countries as well as in the rural areas of low-income countries around the world.


USI: Why solar?

Rogers: There are several things that underpin the importance of solar today. One is you’ve seen the fallen price that makes it affordable and competitive with other alternatives. The other reason solar is so important- it is basically carbon free and allows us to continue crossing the bridge to a low-carbon world. Coupled with that is the fact you’ve seen the emergence of storage technologies, which really, either way, addresses the intermittency of solar. So my belief is that in the longer-term, and you’ve already seen this recently, solar trumps wind because it can be distributed. And at the end of the day, solar will be cheaper, solar will be distributed, solar will lead to a more resilient grid in the high-income countries and will lift people out of poverty in the low-income countries.


Article- Meredith Ratledge

Photo- Clean Technica

Welcome Sign to North Carolina

Duke Energy says 2015 marked a banner year for solar power in North Carolina, as its companies set a record for the amount of solar energy they added in the state – more than 300 MW.

In its regulated service territory, Duke Energy committed $500 million for a major expansion of solar power in North Carolina. Last year, the company constructed and now owns four utility-scale solar projects totaling 141 MW and is buying 150 MW of solar power from other developers. The 141 MW represents about 25% of the total installed solar capacity in Duke Energy’s North Carolina service territory in 2015.

The company-owned sites are in Bladen, Duplin, Wilson and Onslow counties. At the Onslow County site, the 13 MW Camp Lejeune Solar Facility is the company’s first solar project located at a military base.

“Solar is helping to modernize our generation mix and better serve our customers’ needs,” says Rob Caldwell, senior vice president of distributed energy resources. “We plan to continue the momentum; we’ve already announced we will build an additional 75 MW in 2016.”

Also in North Carolina, Google was the first customer to announce participation in Duke Energy’s Green Source Rider, a program that gives customers the option to purchase renewable energy to offset new energy consumption. Duke Energy will buy the power from a 61 MW solar project, owned by Rutherford Farms LLC, for Google’s expanded data center in Caldwell County.Duke Energy Renewables, a commercial business unit of Duke Energy, built eight solar projects in North Carolina last year, totaling more than 160 MW and representing an investment of nearly $400 million. This included the 80 MW Conetoe facility and a 5 MW project in Tarboro, which was completed on Dec. 31.

“With these projects, Duke Energy Renewables more than doubled its solar capacity in the state last year,” says Greg Wolf, president of Duke Energy Commercial Portfolio. “We’re proud to partner with communities throughout eastern North Carolina to bring competitively priced solar energy and economic development to the region.”

Article By: SI Staff

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Young boy at water pump / well. Samba Diallo, age 7. Sansacoto Village.

United Solar Initiative could not have found a better fit. When World Vision originally reached out to United Solar Initiative, members of USI knew good things were in store.

World Vision, the largest nonprofit provider of clean water in the world, is making strides to expand its efforts in drinking water provision. The organization recently extended its already bold commitments to provide clean water in the coming years. Currently reaching a new person with water every 30 seconds, by 2020 the organization hopes to provide clean water to a new person every 10 seconds. And by 2030, it plans to provide water to every person in every community that it serves.

For World Vision, an expansion of these efforts means an expansion of its partnerships in order to do its work both more efficiently as well as on a larger scale. That’s where a partnership with USI is brought into the picture.

Over the next several years, United Solar Initiative will solarize 100 World Vision water pump systems in 10 different countries, the majority to be installed in West African countries. The average solar panel system, at 2500 watts, will provide the energy needed to give water access to between 1500 and 3000 people, depending on the community size and pump system type.

Keith Kall, senior director of strategic partnerships with World Vision, spoke to the nature of the relationship.

“Some of these communities where we work are off-grid, or if they are near or on-grid, the grid is really unreliable. So to have a solar company or solar-focused nonprofit is a great partner to be associating with,” he said.

A partnership with an organization like United Solar Initiative helps World Vision to better its potential as a water provider as USI offers solar energy solutions. Kall noted that through such a partnership, where USI provides solar panels and installation expertise, “that really allows us to use the money that we do have to go farther.”

Steven Thomsen, co-founder and vice president of USI, believes that the partnership with World Vision “lets us both play to our strengths.” The partnership “allows us to focus on our core competency,” deploying solar power in developing countries, and allows USI to “start learning about clean water (provision),” he said.

Thomsen attended the World Vision WASH conference, the Water and Sanitation Hygiene community of practice meeting, hosted in Ethiopia in May of 2015. He described that the conference brought together World Vision’s partners, donors, and supporters from across the world in order to plan a scaling up of World Vision’s efforts. He was not only impressed by the organization’s ambitious new goals for 2030, but also the different approaches its partners are taking to aid in solutions to the water crisis, citing new water tablets as well as the creation of a Sesame Street Character that addresses the importance of clean and safe drinking water access.

“There’s so much more to solving (the crisis) than putting in wells,” Thomsen said.

This certainly holds true of Kall’s outlook, who points to water as a key aspect of a country’s development. World Vision’s model in these communities, in most situations, is water pump installations that are paralleled by providing other development efforts — education, economic development, and health programs. While this model looks different for every community, he notes that “everything is in fact predicated on water.”

Without the water that these communities need, Kall explained that underperformance becomes a reoccurring motif in terms of meeting economic development, education, and health goals. When women and children have to spend time each day walking for drinking water, “a large part of your population (is) not engaged in economic development work… and a lot of young children don’t go to school,” he said.

“Eighty percent of diseases are water-related in the developing world, so any type of health interventions will underperform as well without access to clean drinking water,” he said.

It is Kall’s personal belief that these “interventions are accelerated once clean drinking water is available.”

This water crisis is an issue United Solar Initiative originally came into contact with when completing its first projects in San Ramone, Nicaragua in the summer of 2014. Thomsen recalled his experiences there.

“We asked the community members, ‘What are the biggest needs you see on a daily basis?’ One of their first responses was, ‘We need access to clean water.’ So we thought, okay, how can we use electricity to help bring clean water to people?” he said.

USI had been hoping to address the water crisis issue since this encounter but was unsure how to overcome the barriers put in place by the complexity of the water pump installation process. This question was answered by the offer extended by World Vision — a perfect way for USI to create this shift in its approach.

“Ultimately our goal is to provide electricity to people living without it, and that can take a lot of different forms… Our core mission remains the same, but what that electricity is being used for is changing,” Thomsen explained.

Co-founder and President Alex Wilhelm expressed his enthusiasm for what the relationship has to offer, noting that World Vision is “giving us the perfect way to go about our mission.” He is excited particularly by the project’s “scalability and the ability to impact thousands of people.”

Wilhelm hopes that these projects will mark the foundation of a long-term relationship. In such a relationship, USI hopes to be a part of many more projects beyond the initial 100 that have been outlined, perhaps to become the partners solely responsible for World Vision’s solar installations.

Kall explained that World Vision’s 2020 and 2030 goals would be unattainable without good partners. As United Solar Initiative becomes key to helping attain these goals, it will be allowed to expand its horizons, redefining what it means to provide solar energy solutions. Through this partnership, United Solar Initiative’s work has been given more purpose, as it hopes to create a larger impact on the developing world. Throughout the relationship, the organization hopes to see its empowerment of developing communities through solar energy come to fruition.

Article By: Meredith Ratledge


Nevada is currently embroiled in an enormous controversy over rooftop solar power. With a recent decision, regulators have cut off the state’s burgeoning solar industry at the knees, enraging customers and sending solar companies fleeing the state.

For the state’s monopoly utility, it’s a successful attempt to avoid competition. For the well-funded conservative groups fighting the spread of solar around the country, it’s the first decisive victory. For most Nevadans, however, it represents an own goal, a senseless act of self-sabotage.

We’ll walk through what happened and what it means for the future of solar — but first, for those with short attention spans, a tl;dr.


  • Nevada’s public utility commission has radically revised the state’s net metering program, slashing payments to solar homeowners by half and raising fees, a move advocates say will destroy the state’s fast-growing (and wildly popular) solar industry.
  • The changes are retroactive, so existing solar homeowners are seeing their payments shrink. They are pissed.
  • Three major solar companies have already announced they are pulling out of the state, costing it hundreds of jobs, with more to come.
  • Solar companies, homeowners, and advocates have mobilized and pressured the state to reconsider the decision, but so far it has refused.
  • Nevada is a crucial presidential swing state, and this decision could backfire against Republicans in 2016.

All right, let’s start with what happened in the state over the past year.

vegas solar(Shutterstock)
Get it? Because Vegas, and gambling, and solar … oh, never mind.

The Nevada PUC has kneecapped solar in the state and is sticking to it

In 1997, Nevada implemented net metering, a policy that requires utilities to compensate solar homeowners and businesses for the energy their panels generate, at the going retail rate for electricity. (More on that below.) The policy was tweaked several times in the ensuing years, expanding the types of customers eligible and the total amount of power permitted.

Partially as a result, Nevada has one of the fastestgrowing residential solar markets in the United States. The industry now employs around 6,000 Nevadans.

As the number of solar customers grew, NV Energy, like many utilities across the country, started pushing back against it. To the utility, net metering just meant lost customers and lost revenue.

NV Energy has had about enough of this, thanks.

Matters came to a head last year.

Solar advocates warned for months that the net metering “cap” would be reached in the summer — by law, net-metered solar can represent no more than 3 percent of peak load in the state. If the cap was hit and net metering payments dried up, thousands of solar jobs would be lost.

In May, the legislature passed Senate Bill 374, which contained an amendment by Sen. Patricia Farley (R) that punted the final decision on net metering over to the Nevada Public Utility Commission (PUCN).

When the cap was hit in August (causing solar installer Vivint Solar to back out of a planned expansion in the state), PUCN voted hastily to extend current payments through the end of the year.

Months of lobbying from both sides ensued. In December, PUCN shocked everyone by voting 3-0 to slash net metering payments by roughly half — paying solar customers the (lower) wholesale rate for electricity rather than the retail rate — and raise fixed fees on solar customers by some 40 percent. Payments will ratchet down, and fixed fees ratchet up, gradually through 2020.

What’s more, PUCN made the changes retroactive — it’s not just new solar customers who will receive the lower payments but Nevada’s 17,000 existing solar customers as well. In many cases, the lower payments undercut the economics of their investment decisions, leaving them, well, screwed.

nevada-solar-protestors.0solar protest in nevada
Not happy customers. (Sam Lopaze)

Solar companies, customers, and advocates have rallied and appealed to PUCN to change its mind, or at least delay the new payment regime while the decision is reconsidered. But PUCN dug in its heels and stuck to its decision.

Nevada is under fire, and solar jobs are fleeing the state

Backlash was immediate. Hillary Clinton spoke out against the decision. Bernie Sanders called it “just about the dumbest thing I have ever heard.” Martin O’Malley said PUCN is “sabotaging” the solar industry.

The solar industry in the state was outraged. Vivint CEO Greg Butterfield issued a statement saying the decision “will cost jobs, economic output, and consumer choice, while protecting the interests of an entrenched monopoly — NV Energy.”

On January 6, SolarCity announced that it was eliminating more than 550 jobs in Nevada. Later that day, Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) reacted with a defensive statement, saying that SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive should “respect the process and pursue his legal options, which include seeking reconsideration of the order or ultimately judicial review.”

Sandoval also noted that he has “called for the Nevada Consumer Advocate to engage in the case, which it has done.” (On December 24, the Nevada Bureau of Consumer Protection filed a motion with PUCN to block the ruling, saying it was “not consistent with the Governor’s stated objectives.”) He stressed that any direct intervention in PUCN’s decision would be illegal and later told a reporter that Rive’s attacks are “propaganda.”

musk and sandoval(Photo by Max Whittaker/Getty Images)
SolarCity founder Elon Musk and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, in happier times.

The next day, on January 7, Sunrun announced that it was ceasing all operations in Nevada, taking hundreds of jobs with it.

Sen. Farley, author of the amendment handing PUCN the decision, now says she is “absolutely concerned” about the loss of jobs and that solar customers who “relied on the old rate structure … should have a remedy.”

For now, the only route open to solar fans is legal. Sure enough, January 12 saw the filing of the first class-action suit against NV Energy.

So that’s what’s happening. But what’s the fight really about, anyway? Let’s briefly take a look at the policy at the center of the storm.

Net metering: not as boring as it sounds

Net metering is one of many energy policies that sounds like it was named by a left-brained engineer, thus ensuring that it will bore and repel all normal people. But it’s actually pretty clever.

The question net metering answers is simple: How can we get people to generate their own energy without a bunch of expensive new infrastructure and monitoring programs? How can we make it easy for private individuals to invest in renewables?

Well, everyone already has a power meter. In the vast majority of cases, it’s an electromechanical meter — that little spinning wheel in the box outside your house that the meter guy comes by and squints at periodically.

power-meterpower meter(Shutterstock)

The humble electromechanical power meter, secret key to a solar future.

So the idea behind net metering is this: A customer installs solar panels and an inverter that allows the power to make its way onto the grid; when the customer is producing more than she is using, the meter wheel spins backward; at the end of the month the utility adds up the spinning and the reverse spinning, and the customer pays for her netusage of utility electricity.

If she’s produced more than she’s consumed, her bill is negative; the utility pays her the retail rate for her excess power. This is known as net metering’s parity principle (the key feature of the policy and the center of the dispute).

The surplus power a solar customer generates spills over into the nearest residence or building with demand, rarely more than 1,000 meters or so. When that customer receives the surplus energy, his meter wheel spins, ensuring that the consumption is tracked and the utility gets paid for it.

Thus, all the solar customer’s generated electricity is tracked, accounted for, and remunerated — without any new infrastructure or bureaucracy. All it requires is the trusty old meter. Easy!

(There’s a three-part history of net metering herehere, and here, if you want to go deeper.)

The case against net metering

Net metering caught on throughout the 1980s and ’90s; as of March 2015, 44 states and Washington, DC, have some version in place, either passed through the legislature or implemented by the PUC.

As rooftop solar spread and accelerated, the utility industry started worrying. Every KWh of electricity that customers generate themselves represents a KWh they are not buying from their utility, a straightforward loss of revenue. What’s more, solar often coincides with periods of peak demand, when the utility is selling its most expensive power, so solar panels cut into utilities’ top profit centers.

In January 2013, the Edison Electric Institute (the trade group for US investor-owned utilities) released a widely discussed analysis that warned of a vicious cycle ahead for utilities. It goes like this:

  1. Customers install solar (and soon, batteries to store the energy) and give the utility less money.
  2. The utility still has the same fixed costs to pay off (the grid and other infrastructure, mostly), so it has to boost rates on non-solar customers to cover them.
  3. As rates rise on non-solar customers, they have greater incentive to go solar.
  4. Return to 1.

That’s the much-ballyhooed “death spiral” that utilities fear above all else.

death spiral(Edison Electric Institute)
The death spiral in question.

So this is the case made by utilities (and conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity) against net metering: Solar customers use the grid — for power when it’s dark, for backup, to send power to neighbors — but do not pay their fair share of the fixed costs of maintaining the grid. That forces utilities to raise rates on everyone else, known as “cost shifting.”

In other words, utilities say, net metering is a subsidy to solar customers at the expense of other ratepayers.

The case for net metering

Solar advocates reply that utilities are exaggerating the costs and undercounting the benefits of distributed solar energy — which they have every incentive to do, because distributed solar reduces their profits.

The benefits of distributed solar power come mainly from what it avoids. It reduces:

  • Carbon emissions
  • Local pollutants
  • Grid infrastructure costs (because the energy is generated where it will be consumed, it doesn’t require transmission and distribution over power lines)
  • “Line loss” (power lost during transmission)
  • The cost of wholesale electricity (by “shaving” the midday peak of demand, solar reduces the need for expensive “peaker” power)
  • The cost of meeting state renewable energy mandates and Clean Power Plan requirements

Adding up all the costs and benefits of distributed solar is a difficult and somewhat subjective undertaking. Methodologically, it’s still a bit of a mess. As this review of studies notes, “some benefits and costs may be difficult or impossible to quantify, and some accrue to different stakeholders.” Costs and benefits also vary from place to place, depending on local conditions.

All that said, most studies have found that the impact of solar customers on non-solar customers is a) relatively small, and b) usually net positive.

happy solar customers(Shutterstock)
How could you ever hate on this happy solar family?

(Again, though, even if total benefits outweigh costs, they certainly don’t outweigh costs from the utility’s perspective. Many of the benefits are social; the lost revenue is all too concentrated.)

What the Nevada loss means for net metering

As it happens, PUCN commissioned one of those studies, just last year. Here it is. It finds that by 2016, researchers “expect that non-participants are very nearly neutral and will experience neither a large benefit nor a cost due to new (net metering) installations.”

In other words: Cost shifting is negligible in Nevada.

solar house for sale(Shutterstock)
Now look what you’ve done, PUCN.

PUCN now says that study is out of date, since NV Energy has almost seven times as many net-metered customers as it did when the study was conducted. But it didn’t explain why the basic conclusions would have changed. Nor did it commission a new study. It just accepted NV Energy’s (extremely self-interested) cost estimates.

In other words, what happened in Nevada was by all indications a raw exercise of power and influence on the part of the utility and conservative groups. It didn’t hurt that Sandoval and the majority in the legislature are Republicans.

That it all comes down to political power shouldn’t be surprising. The fact is in most of these skirmishes over net metering, there are two self-interested parties battling — utilities and conservative business groups on one side, solar companies and advocates on the other — and the side with the most power wins. Such is politics.

lyndon rive(Photo by Jerod Harris/Getty Images for DIRECTV)
SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive, explaining that he will snap you like a twig if you get in his way.

From a broader perspective, though, the news for solar advocates is still mostly good. In the vast majority of net metering fights so far, the solar side has proven more powerful; utilities have lost almost all these battles. This is a rare case when progressives boast the most intense, fired-up constituency.

From a wonk’s perspective, the whole war is somewhat lamentable. Economists like Severin Borenstein are right that net metering is a somewhat blunt instrument. It could be improved in any number of ways, or replaced with better-designed policies that more closely track the real value of solar to the grid.

Like many clean energy policies, net metering is something of a kludge, a mix of historical happenstance, path dependence, and political economy. It’s not something an economist would sketch on a blank piece of paper.

In some ways it’s similar to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Progressives know there are ways to improve those programs. But they also know that conservatives will use any opportunity to destroy them, so they find it’s safer just to protect them as they are. They are much better than nothing.

So too with net metering. It’s a suboptimal policy, but it works, and it’s already on the books, so solar advocates are suspicious of any efforts at reform. The results in Nevada are only going to reinforce that posture.

What the Nevada loss means for Nevada politics

Nevada is a crucial presidential swing state — indeed, Politico calls it “super-swingy.”Republicans have managed to capture the governorship and a majority in the legislature, but the state voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 and boasts a rising population of Hispanics, which is likely to tilt the political balance further.

swing states(U.Va. Center for Politics)
Nevada swings like a Las Vegas … uh … I don’t have any good Las Vegas jokes.

So Nevada Republicans are in a pickle. To keep their state in play, they badly need to appeal to moderates and independents. That makes this solar decision a potential political catastrophe.

According to a 2014 national poll by CleanEdge, 67 percent of Republicans and 72 percent of independents support tax incentives for solar power. Some 87 percent of Americans say renewable energy is important for the nation’s future, and solar was the top pick of every single demographic group.

The poll found that solid majorities oppose utility efforts to charge extra fees to solar homeowners, and — this is significant — opposition to such efforts is “stronger among rural dwellers and Republicans than city residents and Democrats.” In fact, 66 percent of Republicans oppose such efforts.

What’s worse, a poll of Nevadans conducted by Moore Information found that support for existing net metering policies is overwhelming, as is opposition to the changes proposed by NV Energy. Some 73 percent of registered Nevada Republicans support the previous rules and oppose the changes.

So just at a time when the Nevada GOP need to be broadening its appeal, it is instead signaling its allegiance to monopoly utilities and fossil fuels, alienating swing voters and even its own moderates.

As I’ve argued many times, clean energy is a wedge issue that favors Democrats. It divides Republicans, putting their hardcore base (and fossil fuel money) on one side and their more moderate and independent-leaning voters on the other side.

Gov. Sandoval has walked right into this trap. PUCN’s decision may benefit the utility in the short run, but it threatens to tarnish the GOP’s image in Nevada, a crucial shift in a state that could help determine the 2016 presidential election.

Article By: David Roberts

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What has actor Mark Ruffalo, Bernie Sanders and 12,000 Nevadans so upset?

“Don’t tax the sun!” chants a crowd of hundreds of people gathered outside of a non-descript office building in Las Vegas on Wednesday. One person holds up a neon yellow sign that reads: “Sandoval stole my sunshine,” a reference to the state’s Governor. Another reads: “Solar lives matter.”

The angry protestors are gathered outside of the office of Nevada’s Public Utilities Commission, the regulatory body that sets rules for the state’s electricity, gas, and water utilities. Among the crowd are homeowners who bought solar panels, and workers who have been earning a living by installing rooftop solar panels.

Celebrity actor Mark Ruffalo, a long time environmental activist, briefly grabs a megaphone and riles up the crowd: “Let’s make life uncomfortable for them. For the Governor. For the PUC. Because they’re wrong!” shouts Ruffalo.

What has all these Nevadans, and even the Incredible Hulk, so peeved? Last month, regulators approved a new plan that tacks on fees and lowers compensation paid to owners of home and commercial solar systems. The regulators held its first hearing about the ruling on Wednesday.

Actor Mark Ruffalo addresses a protest over new solar fees in Las Vegas.

Their decision is the latest move in the complicated and increasingly combative environment around the boom in rooftop solar panels.

For decades utilities have built businesses off of moving electricity from a large power plant to their customers’ homes and businesses. But now, with the growing popularity of solar panels, those customers are now producing power on their roofs and sending it back onto the power grid.

The solar situation in Nevada has grown particularly contentious. That’s because the new fees in Nevada, which will jump to $40 a month, won’t only apply to new solar customers, but also to the 12,000 or so people that already own solar panels. Some of these customers spent tens of thousands of dollars to have the solar panels installed, and now, with the extra costs, it will take them much longer to pay off that investment.

As a result of the new plan, the solar industry says selling solar in Nevada no longer makes economic sense. The largest U.S. solar installer, SolarCity  SCTY -5.40% cut 550 jobs from Nevada last week, with plans to relocate the affected workers to more solar-friendly states. Another large solar installer, Vivint Solar, has said it could make similar cuts. Several thousand solar jobs in the state could be eliminated.

A protest outside of the Public Utility Commission in Las Vegas.

The solar industry, and the protesters, say the regulators and Gov. Sandoval have created an unfair advantage for the state’s utility, NV Energy, which is owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Energy. Critics accuse the governor of having political advisors that are top lobbyists at NV Energy.

Solar company Sunrun  RUN -3.13%  even went so far as to file an open records request for communication between NV Energy employees, lobbyists, Gov. Sandoval and his staff, and current Public Utilities Commission Chairman Paul Thomsen. After their request was refused, Sunrun sued Sandoval.

The governor and NV Energy defend the regulator’s decision because they say non-solar customers have been unfairly paying more than their fair share for maintaining the power grid. The governor has said the solar companies have “resorted to bullying tactics,” and have tried to pressure his office and “improperly influence the PUC’s independent decision making process.”


Nevada isn’t the only state that has tried to tack extra fees on solar customers to pay for grid maintenance and upgrades. Arizona utility Salt River Project approved similar extra fees for solar customers.

Last year, SolarCity sued Salt River Project over the fees while calling them an attempt to maintain an energy monopoly in the state and unfairly block competition. SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive has called the new fees in Nevada “unethical, unprecedented, and possibly unlawful.”

The solar debate in Nevada is starting to get a national spotlight. During a speech in the state, Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders recently called the ruling “just about the dumbest thing I have ever heard.” On Wednesday Sander’s official Twitter account tweeted: “I stand with the hundreds of Nevadans asking @nevada_puc to protect NV solar jobs and investments in our clean energy future.”

This week, cleantech investor Nancy Pfund, who has backed both SolarCity and electric car company Tesla  TSLA -0.58% , sent a letter to the Nevada regulator’s commissioner that harshly criticized the ruling. The letter was signed by 17 other Silicon Valley investors.

Pfund wrote: “we are gravely concerned about the unprecedented decision to impose significantly new charges on existing customers and reduce the value of the credit for excess generation. This is already creating a chilling effect within the investor community and will force us to reconsider future commitments of capital in the state.”

For the Nevadan solar customers who are now getting hit with new fees, the ruling is an emotional one. At the protest, solar panel owners, solar industry workers and others took turns telling the crowd their stories.

A woman who sold solar contracts for a living took the megaphone and said her job had once filled her with pride, but that those feelings had turned to dismay as she realized people she sold contracts to were now getting a raw deal. A line of people trying to fit into the small hearing room to comment or listen stretched around the block.

Inside the hearing dozens of homeowners asked for a delay in the ruling. The regulators rejected their appeals.

Ruffalo slammed the regulators in the hearing: “You are taking from the people and giving to the rich. You are the anti-Robin Hood. People aren’t going to forget, you have a lot of really angry people out there because they see what’s happening.”

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Solar is the energy employer of the future — or at least that’s how the numbers look today.

A new report on the state of the solar industry out Tuesday from the nonprofit Solar Foundation shows that the number of jobs in the United States in the solar industry outpaced those in the oil and gas industries for the first time ever.

As of November 2015 there were almost 209,000 people who worked in the solar industry, 90 percent of whom only work on solar-related projects, according to the report.

There were only about 185,000 people working in oil and gas in the United States in December 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The oil industry has had a rough 18 months, as the price of oil slid from more than $100 a barrel in the spring of 2014 to just over $30 a barrel in recent weeks. The low price has caused layoffs in what had been a robust and growing shale oil extraction business.

The solar industry, meanwhile, continues to grow as the technology becomes cheaper, making it a better deal for the average household. The Solar Foundation’s report also shows how the price of installed solar panels continue to drop:


The bulk of the solar jobs seem to be coming from the installation of solar panels, with some growth in development and sales. Manufacturing actually declined a bit. According to the report, that’s probably because another Silicon Valley solar company, QBotix, shut down back in September.

Regardless of that blip in the industry, solar installation jobs are completely taking off:


The one place where solar hasn’t caught up to oil and gas, it seems, is in the pay. According to the report, solar installers — which account for a plurality of jobs in the industry — get $21 per hour on average. The pay in sales and design is higher, at $28.85 and $26.92, respectively.

But oil and gas workers on average get $44 an hour, according to BLS.

There are reasons for those differences, though. For one thing, oil and gas extraction requires a lot of geoscientists and engineers, both of which are professions that pull in $65-75 per hour (that’s comfortably in the six figures annually) and push up the average for the whole industry. Refinery operators make about $29 an hour, and roustabouts (day laborers on oil rigs, basically) make about $17 an hour.

Solar is unquestionably better for the environment than the oil industry. But in the short term, it’s unclear whether it’s better for the economy.

Article By: Shane Ferro

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