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An 8.1 kW solar installation near Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

Unsustainable solar growth rate, too much for Nevada to handle

Prior to 2014, solar energy was growing in Southern Nevada at a strong, healthy pace. Solar was still rather costly, but consumer interest was growing and the local power company, NV Energy, was offering its customers a monetary incentive to dive in and take the solar gamble…which is exactly what many people did. But it wasn’t until SolarCity came on the scene in May 2014 that solar growth in Southern Nevada began to explode.

Before a solar customer can be interconnected with the power grid, they must receive a special meter, called a net meter, from the power company. Prior to SolarCity’s arrival, the time it took for a customer to get their solar net meter installed by NV Energy was just a few weeks. After SolarCity, that time had jumped to “just” a few months. According to a representative of NV Energy’s Renewable Generations Team, the number of net meter installations had soared from 700 to 7,000 with SolarCity’s presence, explaining NV Energy’s inability to accommodate the intensely growing solar market. It became nearly impossible for solar customers and installers to reach a representative from NV Energy’s renewables program. During the boom, they continued to remain short-staffed and incapable of addressing solar customers in a timely manner. Some customers were known to have waited many months to get their net meter. Naturally, this created animosity between new solar customers and NV Energy. However, this was just the beginning of a rift that would develop between NV Energy and their solar customers…a rift that would eventually halt the growth of residential solar in Nevada.

The inability for NV Energy to adequately keep up with demand was only a part of the challenge associated with the booming solar industry. Another problem was education, or the lack thereof. This is evident by the number of north-facing solar installation that dot the Las Vegas Valley. Solar works best when it actually faces the sun. For fixed-position solar panels in the northern hemisphere, that would be south. As contractors, some originally specializing in solar pool heating (not the same thing as solar electricity), scurried to get a piece of the solar boom, it became evident that neither NV Energy nor the authorities having jurisdiction had a good understanding of what constitutes an effective solar system. NV Energy began its incentive program in the early 2000s, and it wasn’t until 2012 that they initiated a requirement that the system face primarily south. Interestingly, when SolarCity showed up, it was apparent they did not hold to that standard as they installed east and west facing systems all over the valley.

While all this was happening, the underlying problem went unnoticed, and that was a lack of education in the field of solar technologies. The workforce was, at least in part, unknowledgeable about how these technologies effectively operate. However, insufficient education is not new to the state. Nevada ranked 44th in the nation for Science and Mathematics according to the Science and Engineering Readiness Index and a national survey, “Kids Count,” ranked Nevada 50th in education in 2013. These factors have lead to an atmosphere of under-qualified workers, uneducated consumers, and hundreds of inefficient examples of solar power. All of this was too much for Nevada to handle, but that was just the bottom of the iceberg. The tip was when the Public Utilities Commission announced earlier this year that NV Energy could now change the net metering arrangement with solar customers by significantly increasing their customer charge and eventually reducing their kWh credit from around 11 cents down to just over 2 cents. In summary, to learn how not to support the growth of solar power and its environmental benefits, just look at how it's being handled in Nevada.