Nevada PUC chair speaks out on solar decision

Nevada PUC chairman Paul Thomsen talks to News 4's Terri Hendry

It's not often we see a utilities commissioner in the news. But all that changed following the Nevada Public Utilities Commission's decision impacting the rooftop solar industry and residential solar customers.

The Nevada legislature mandated the PUC review the electricity rate structure to specifically look at cost shifting. Cost shifting is when non-solar residential customers are said to be subsidizing those without solar for using NV Energy's grid. PUC Chairman Paul Thomsen said, "If I reduce the burden for one individual or group of people, I have to increase it for someone else. It is that simple."

It is an argument the rooftop solar industry and other experts dispute, citing studies showing rooftop solar may actually benefit all electric customers. Thomsen and the two other Commissioners disagree, citing different data provided by NV Energy.

Over the next 12 years, the solar rate change will increase fixed charges for solar customers. It will also reduce net metering rates, or the rate NV Energy pays for solar power produced but not used by the solar customer.

Thomsen said the PUC is simply phasing out the net metering subsidy that has been in place in Nevada since 1997. He said, "First of all, I would not call this a solar rate hike, I would say were are reducing the subsidy."

The most controversial aspect of the PUC's decision was to apply the changes retroactively to existing solar customers in addition to any new ones. Thomsen said, "People talk about grandfathering in, and I use the example that your grandmother does not pay a lower rate than you or anyone else because she has been using electricity a lot longer. Everybody pays the same."

Residential solar customers said the rate change will mean it will take them longer to recoup their investment in solar, if they ever recoup it. Those customers also said they will end up paying more for electricity than if they had not invested in solar once the changes are fully implemented in 12 years.

All three members of the appointed panel are lawyers. All were either appointed or reappointed by Gov. Brian Sandoval. Thomsen is the newest member. He was the Director for the Governor's Office of Energy when he was asked by the Governor last October to serve on the panel as Chairman.

He said, "You know, when I left the Governor's Office, the only thing he told me was to have the strength to do what is right, and that was the last communication I had with him."

Both commissioners Alaina Burtenshaw and David Noble had careers at the PUCN prior to their appointments.

Thomsen takes exception to any notion NV Energy, lobbyists, or the Governor influenced the outcome. He said, "The Governor, I heard him say he was disappointed in our decision. We have no communication with him. You know, we're our own independent entity, and as a former judge, the Governor fully understands ex parte communication and has never tried to contact me once."

Thomsen also said, "I know there was this discussion about, does the Governor call me, does Warren Buffett call the Commission, and the answer is unequivocally no."

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