When SolarCity, one of the nation's largest solar installers, opened a flagship training center near Las Vegas, the press release that accompanied the launch included glowing praise (and a little self-congratulation) from Gov. Brian Sandoval:
"I'm proud to celebrate the opening of SolarCity's new training center, which will make Nevada the regional hub for training workers in the jobs of the 21st century. Our homegrown solar industry has already created over 6,000 good Nevada jobs, and has tremendous potential to continue driving innovation, economic diversification, and opportunity in the Silver State."
Fast forward a couple of months, and SolarCity has just announced that it is closing the center, quitting the state and that it can't even get Gov. Sandoval on the phone to discuss what went wrong.
So what's going on?
As reported over at GreenTech Media, the state's Public Utility Commission recently approved cuts to net metering rates as well as higher fixed charges for homeowners who went ahead and installed solar. It's no surprise that solar companies don't like this. Net metering and other incentives have proven crucial in supporting the nascent solar industry, allowing it to grow even in chilly northern states. And given the astounding levels of subsidies received by fossil fuels, not to mention the competitive advantages enjoyed by state-regulated monopolies, even many free-market conservatives have found themselves sympathetic to the arguments that solar deserves some levels of financial support to level the playing field.
What's really gotten solar companies riled up, however, is the fact that Nevada's changes to solar policy are being retroactively applied — meaning homeowners who made the decision to go solar based on one set of government policies are now being punished by a retroactive policy change that will leave many significantly out of pocket. Here's how Lyndon Rive, SolarCity's CEO, described the conundrum:
"I contacted Governor Sandoval multiple times after the ruling because I am convinced that he and the PUC didn't fully understand the consequences of this decision, not only on the thousands of local jobs distributed solar has created, but on the 17,000 Nevadans that installed solar with the state's encouragement. I'm still waiting to speak to the Governor but I am convinced that once he and the Commissioners understand the real impact, that they will do the right thing."
SolarCity officials have stated that they wherever possible, will seek to transfer employees to states with friendlier solar policy frameworks. In the long term, however, utility bosses may find their victory on net metering short lived. With home energy storage options becoming increasingly affordable, many observers have posited that states that go too far in discouraging solar usage may actually provide incentive for would-be solar adopters to unplug entirely from the grid.
The other interesting thing worth noting is that there was a time when solar companies had little clout within this political or economic sphere. Yet as more and more people install solar, and more and more people get jobs in the solar industry, the clean energy sector is starting to flex its muscle and make its voice heard.
Something tells me we haven't heard the last of this controversy.