- Associated Press - Monday, March 28, 2016

LAS VEGAS (AP) - A Carson City judge dealt a setback Monday to a proposed ballot measure that aimed to reverse a recent rate hike for Nevada’s rooftop solar customers.

Judge James Russell ruled that the proposal filed by the group No Solar Tax PAC, which is backed by rooftop solar companies, didn’t qualify as a referendum and should actually be pursued as an initiative petition.

An initiative petition approved by voters in November would require review from the Nevada Legislature in 2017 before becoming law.

“We respect the court’s decision today and will follow the court’s guidance to file an initiative petition to bring solar back to Nevada,” said Chandler Sherman of the group Bring Back Solar.

The group also plans to start collecting the more than 55,000 signatures needed to qualify the referendum for the ballot, so if it wins an appeal of Russell’s decision, it can take the more direct referendum route.

The measure seeks to repeal parts of a bill passed nearly unanimously last spring that has led to higher rates for rooftop solar customers and prompted installation companies to lay off hundreds of Nevada-based employees.

The referendum would take some powers from regulators on the Nevada Public Utilities Commission, return Nevada to the more generous solar rates of the past, and remove any cap on the number of solar users statewide.

The proposed ballot measure was challenged by Citizens for Solar and Energy Fairness, a coalition that includes NV Energy. Opponents say it forces the 97 percent of NV Energy customers without solar panels to subsidize the 3 percent who do have them.

Some elected officials are wary about changing the policy via the ballot, saying it could usher in unintended consequences and tie the hands of lawmakers in the future.

“Sometimes we’ve learned that passing something by a ballot measure is harder to remediate or fix,” said Democratic Assemblywoman Olivia Diaz, who said she hadn’t made up her mind on the measure. “I think some of these (problems) do have legislative remedies.”

Debate over solar rates gained steam last spring, as Nevada approached a statutory cap on the number of rooftop solar panel users who could participate in net metering - the process of selling excess electricity back to NV Energy.

Nevada lawmakers ultimately passed a compromise bill that was publicly supported by rooftop solar company SolarCity and directed regulators to set new rates for customers that avoid any unreasonable cost-shifting.

Regulators approved new rates effective Jan. 1 that raise base charges for solar customers and reduce reimbursements for their excess power over the course of 12 years.

Commissioners said the rates will phase out subsidies that traditional energy customers pay to support solar customers, and will better reflect the declining cost of solar energy as more large-scale solar “farms” come online.

Rooftop solar companies, which sell or lease panels on the premise that customers will save enough on their energy bills to easily make payments on the panels, dispute that solar customers are a net burden. They say the rate changes make their business model unworkable and create a financial hardship for customers who invested in solar under the more favorable pricing regime.

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