- Associated Press - Friday, February 12, 2016

LAS VEGAS (AP) - The Nevada Public Utilities Commission voted Friday to phase in higher rates for rooftop solar customers over a longer period of time than previously approved - a concession to rooftop solar customers who say higher rates make it harder to recoup their investments in panels.

Regulators voted unanimously to implement the increase gradually over 12 years instead of four.

The decision came after hours of public comment and after hundreds of people - many of them rooftop solar installers laid off by companies that pulled up stakes in Nevada after December’s rate hike announcement - rallied outside the agency’s building in Las Vegas.

Protesters wore matching teal T-shirts urging regulators to “Bring Back Solar,” sang “You Are My Sunshine” a cappella, and brought wheelbarrows full of signed cards indicating support for a proposed ballot measure to reverse the changes.

“I think they didn’t anticipate people going this crazy over the things they’ve done,” SolarCity salesman and protester Anthony Rivera, 38, said outside the hearing, wearing a Bring Back Solar T-shirt around his head to block the sun. “I think it snowballed out of control and I don’t think they realized what they were doing.”

Regulators approved a rate hike for solar customers at the end of last year as a way to phase out a subsidy they say traditional customers pay to support solar users, who still tap into NV Energy’s grid at night or when their panels don’t meet their energy demand.

Commissioners said extending the timeline would help people adjust to the rates and earn back more of their capital investment.

The proposal didn’t placate rooftop solar companies. They previously said the state incentivized rooftop solar investments in the past and is now pulling the rug out from under solar users and companies.

Commissioner David Noble’s “contortionist twisting of the law belongs in a Vegas Cirque du Soleil show, not the halls of government,” said Brian Miller, an executive with solar panel installer Sunrun and a vocal critic of Nevada’s governor, who appoints commissioners but said he won’t meddle in their regulatory work. “Brian Sandoval’s legacy will be letting his hand-picked commissioners eliminate a booming industry while he complicitly stays silent.”

Sandoval, for his part, offered his first criticism so far of the PUC’s proceedings, although he stopped short of convening lawmakers for a special session on the matter and said existing solar users could seek recourse through an energy task force he reconvened this week to work on solar policy.

“Today’s decision does not go far enough to protect (solar customers’) interests,” he said in a statement Friday.

Nevada lawmakers passed a bill this spring asking the commission to set new rates for solar users once the state hit a statutory solar capacity cap. Parties upset with regulators’ final decision have filed lawsuits, offered hours of biting public comment at regulatory meetings and are seeking relief at the ballot box.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has tweeted his support for solar advocates’ fight, while his primary opponent Hillary Clinton has backed a federal effort to address the Nevada issues and similar fights taking place in other states.

“Utilities should not be allowed to penalize consumers with retroactive rule changes that cause financial hardship and slow the transition to a clean energy economy,” Clinton said in a statement Thursday.

Meanwhile, utility regulators accuse rooftop solar companies such as SolarCity of failing to make clear in their sales pitches this past year that a rate change was in the works and could change customers’ return-on-investment calculations. They also say it’s unfair for 98 percent of utility customers to bear costs for the 2 percent who have solar systems.

“It appears that some small-scale (rooftop) solar vendors advertised unrealistic payback periods,” Noble wrote in the draft order. “The commission will not reward the bad behavior of some small-scale (rooftop) solar vendors by requiring non-(solar) ratepayers to subsidize (solar) ratepayers for longer than is necessary.”

Rooftop solar advocates, who question the premise that traditional customers are subsidizing solar customers, have accused commissioners of being beholden to NV Energy.

An attorney representing the PUC says the tension has escalated to the point that commissioners are getting threats for their decision, and regulatory staff members are uneasy coming to work because of people arriving at meetings open-carrying firearms.

On Friday, uniformed police officers and private security officers watched over the busloads of protesters in the PUC parking lot, while a metal detector was set up inside the building.

PUC General Counsel Carolyn Tanner said solar companies are inciting people and need to dial down their message.

“I think they need to tone down the rhetoric,” Tanner said. “I think it’s very dangerous.”

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