2 Nevada ballot initiatives focus on solar, splitting supporters

Source: Benjamin Storrow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, August 9, 2018

In 2016, many Nevada greens were enthusiastic about the idea of restructuring the Silver State’s power market. This fall, when the proposal appears on the ballot for a second time, many will be actively working to defeat it.

The shift reflects an upheaval in Nevada’s electricity sector.

Two years ago, voters were still smarting from state regulators’ decision in 2015 to eliminate net-metering, the credits paid to solar-owning consumers who send electricity back to the grid. Many environmentalists were eager to punish NV Energy, a vertically integrated utility that maintains a monopoly over Nevada’s power market.

So when a group of casinos and a data company came forward with a proposal to end NV Energy’s monopoly and introduce competitive wholesale power markets to the state, many green energy supporters signed up (Climatewire, Oct. 24, 2016).

A ballot question called the “Energy Choice Initiative” passed with 72 percent support, in what was widely viewed as a rebuke of NV Energy’s solar policies. But because the initiative calls for amending the state constitution, voters must approve it a second time.

The political environment has changed since then.

Today, Nevada’s rooftop solar industry is flourishing following a legislative intervention to restore net metering (Climatewire, June 16, 2017). On Monday, state regulators announced that applications and installations for rooftop solar systems had reached 80 megawatts.

Now, many of the environmental groups that once opposed NV Energy are applauding the utility’s plans to install roughly a gigawatt of solar and are blasting the restructuring plan. The Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project and Western Resource Advocates have all come out against changing the constitution.

“The tide is turning,” said Rebecca Wagner, a former state regulator who now works as a private consultant. “We’re on this trajectory of NV Energy presenting a good integrated resource plan, people being happy where rooftop solar is going, and environmental advocates taking on a new role for them of supporting NV Energy.”

Renewable energy figures prominently in the restructuring debate, with each side arguing that its position will bolster the state’s solar industry. The yes campaign is being financed by large power consumers that have sought to leave the NV Energy system in recent years. Switch, a data company, and Las Vegas Sands Corp., a casino operated by GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson, are prominent supporters (Energywire, Aug. 3).

Restructuring proponents say eliminating NV Energy’s monopoly will introduce more choice into Nevada’s utility market, making it easier for power generators to meet consumer demand for renewable energy.

“Renewables will expand and will expand tremendously,” said Jon Wellinghoff, a former chairman of the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission who has been hired by supporters as a policy adviser.

Wind and solar are now establishing power prices across the West, he noted, meaning the pace of renewable adoption is likely to increase in a restructured market because power prices will determine the source of new power generation.

Wellinghoff, a Nevada native, called the environmental opposition “a blip” and noted that none of the four organizations opposing the plan are headquartered in Nevada.

NV Energy is spending heavily to defeat the measure after sitting on the sidelines in 2016, touting its solar plans as proof of its clean energy credentials. But it’s hardly the only one concerned.

State Assemblyman Chris Brooks, a Democratic lawmaker who led the legislative push to restore net metering, worries that Nevada’s solar industry can ill afford the uncertainty generated by restructuring. The ballot measure calls for overhauling the electricity market by 2023, but lawmakers only meet every other year in Nevada, meaning it could take years for the state to flesh out details of the plan.

By contrast, the legislative fixes passed last year provide investment certainty for Nevada’s solar installers for the next 20 years, he said.

“One thing business likes more than anything is certainty, and that goes for any type of business, including rooftop solar and renewable companies,” Brooks said. Of the restructuring proposal, he added, “As a Nevadan and a policymaker, I just don’t know that I’m willing to gamble with Nevada’s future in that way.”

Complicating matters is the presence of a second energy question on the ballot this fall. The proposal calls for increasing the state’s renewable portfolio to 50 percent by 2030. The state’s current renewable portfolio standard requires that 25 percent of power sales be met with renewables by 2025. The measure is being funded by liberal billionaire Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action campaign.

RPS boosters have taken pains to distance themselves from the restructuring debate. When restructuring supporters endorsed the RPS question in late July, the renewable campaign notably declined to return the favor, saying only that it was glad to have support from both sides.

They have cast their plan as a safety net of sorts, ensuring renewables’ continued growth regardless of the outcome of the restructuring debate or the gubernatorial contest between Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, and Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt.

“We’re going to run our own race with the amount of noise and excitement around energy choice this cycle,” said Katie Robbins, campaign manager for Nevadans for a Clean Energy Future, the group leading the RPS campaign. “We need to make sure we’re educating people on the difference.”