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As community solar spreads nationwide, Nevada’s ‘modified’ system lagging behind

NV Energy’s community-based solar program is being underutilized by customers statewide; the utility’s efforts to grow it are being called ‘lackluster.'
Amy Alonzo
Amy Alonzo
The sign at NV Energy corporate headquarters

The idea of “community solar” — expanding access to solar energy to people who don’t have the ability or financial means to install rooftop panels — is gaining traction nationwide. Households and businesses buy into a local, shared solar producing facility, receiving credit and cost savings on their electricity bills for their share of the power produced.  

Through 2021, 39 states, plus Washington, D.C., had implemented community-based solar programs, including Nevada. State lawmakers passed a “modified” community solar program in 2019 that placed the program under the umbrella of NV Energy, the state’s primary electric utility.

But five years later, NV Energy has not reached the minimum construction standards set by the bill, enrollment in the program is lagging and the utility’s efforts toward fulfilling the bill are “lackluster,” according to state lawmakers and watchdog groups.

Under the legislation, between six and 20 sites generating community-based solar were to be constructed across the state — but so far just three have been built, one in Reno and two in Las Vegas. There are no immediate plans to build any additional sites.

A solar workforce training program created by the bill has recruited fewer than a dozen people, and customer enrollment in the program has also lagged. 

No hard deadline was put in place for NV Energy to roll out the program, and the bill does not have any clear requirements that the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada (PUCN) create enforcement mechanisms such as fines to ensure compliance.

But, as Assemblyman Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas) told NV Energy representatives at a January Joint Interim Standing Committee on Growth and Infrastructure meeting, lawmakers didn’t envision “something that was going to take over a decade to reach its potential.”

“It’s proven more difficult than I think we originally thought,” Ryan Bellows, vice president for government and external relations at NV Energy, told Watts during the committee meeting.

Bellows said the rollout has been slow because, although the bill was signed in 2019, regulations were not finalized by utility regulators until December 2021. 

Though utility executives are bullish on the program’s future, Christi Cabrera-Georgeson, deputy director of the Nevada Conservation League, said the program has not lived up to expectations.

“They (NV Energy) constantly have excuses as to why it’s not working. But they were the obstructionists that weren’t allowing us to have true community solar,” she said, referring to the modified version of the plan that was ultimately passed. “We want this to be successful, but this is not doing what it needs to do and what we sought it out to do.”

Former Sen. Mo Denis, center, on the final day of the 81st session of the Nevada Legislature on May 31, 2021, in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

A multiyear effort for community solar 

Nevada voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot question in 2016 that would have ended NV Energy’s monopoly over electric service in the state and turned Nevada into a “retail choice” state, where customers could purchase power from more than one provider. As a proposed constitutional change, the Energy Choice Initiative question needed to pass again on the 2018 ballot to take effect.

The success of the ballot question in the 2016 election cast a long shadow over energy policy during the 2017 legislative session. 

That year, former Sen. Mo Denis (D-Las Vegas) introduced legislation (SB392) that would have established community solar programs. Unlike the 2019 version that ultimately passed, this bill would have allowed developers — not just NV Energy — to create localized “solar gardens” to generate electricity for nearby businesses and households. 

The bill — opposed by NV Energy and organized labor — passed out of the Senate and Assembly with bipartisan support, but was vetoed by then-Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican who explicitly cited the “likely” passage of the Energy Choice Initiative in 2018 and raised concerns that the bill would “add even more change and uncertainty to an energy market already saturated in change and uncertainty.”

But thanks, in part, to a $63 million opposition campaign by NV Energy, Nevadans rejected the question at the 2018 ballot by a two-thirds margin.

Denis tried to bring the issue of community solar back to lawmakers in 2019, but his bill never received a hearing.

That same session, Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno (D-North Las Vegas) introduced AB465, saying at the time that the bill wasn’t outlining “the only community solar program the state would have. It’s a place for us to start and then grow from it and see what happens.” 

Monroe-Moreno did not return repeated calls for comment from The Nevada Independent.

The bill departed from the traditional mold of community solar by instead calling for the creation of a limited community solar program overseen by NV Energy, whose representatives helped draft the bill and supported its passage. 

The program called for construction of a handful of small neighborhood solar projects — between six and 20 — that would be combined with utility-scale solar projects. Low-income Nevadans opting into the program would pay a lower rate that would be subsidized by other ratepayers.

Then-Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, signed the nearly unanimously passed bill into law in June. 

Several clean energy advocacy groups also supported the legislation while acknowledging its shortcomings in establishing a “true” community solar program.

Other groups were more vocally opposed, including a solar industry trade group and the Coalition for Community Solar Access, which criticized the bill for providing little to no cost savings and forcing customers to rely on NV Energy.

“We believe this bill is an unnecessary and deeply flawed experiment for the state,” the coalition wrote in a 2019 letter.

Five years later, the coalition still believes the program is flawed, according to Kevin Cray, senior regional director of government affairs and policy for the Mountain West. 

“The whole spirit of community solar and how the programs tend to function don’t comport well with utility business models,” Cray said. “I feel what the utility is trying to do in this place is tell the world ‘we have community solar, leave us alone,’ and going back to larger scale investments to make a larger return for investors.

“It’s really not doing its job.” 

Denis still hopes a true community solar program is rolled out in Nevada. In the meantime, efforts to get the word out about what does exist need to be stepped up, he said.

“The problem with implementing community solar at a large scale is there has to be a commitment to an actual process of getting people to sign up for it,” he said. “Just putting it (a notice) in their bill or that kind of thing probably won't get a lot of people to sign up.” 

Marie Steele, VP of Integrated Energy Services at NV Energy, speaks during Preview Las Vegas 2024 on
Jan. 24, 2024. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

‘New green job’ training program not flourishing

Per AB465, NV Energy is required to build a minimum of three and no more than 10 small-scale solar developments in Northern as well as Southern Nevada. After NV Energy launched a campaign asking community members to nominate potential sites across the state to participate in the program, customers selected Freedom Park in East Las Vegas and the Moana Center in Reno. 

Completed in January, Freedom Park now has a carport facility with approximately 1,500 solar panels generating 480 kilowatt hours of electricity. The Moana Center is still under construction, but the solar array built on a carport at the center and completed late last year can generate 409 kilowatt hours.

NV Energy also developed a site at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas, although that project was already underway when AB465 was passed. The project went online in 2021 and is also a carport, generating at least 773 megawatt hours per year. 

Total costs for the completed Freedom Park and Moana Center projects will not be available until March, according to Meghin Delaney, media relations manager for NV Energy. 

The utility is opening another round of nominations for future project sites in May, but in the meantime Bellows confirmed NV Energy has no future projects lined up. Carport projects can be expensive, NV Energy’s leadership said, and the utility is now looking at ways to leverage federal funding to reduce the cost. 

The utility is working with the Nevada Clean Energy Fund, a nonprofit group that could receive up to $250 million in federal Solar for All funding from the Environmental Protection Agency, to “pair federal funding to bring the costs down,” said Marie Steele, vice president of integrated energy services. 

The speed and pace for the buildout of additional sites will largely be determined by the acquisition of federal funding, Delaney said. 

With only three projects completed and none on the horizon, Watts, the lawmaker, said the program should be moving faster.

“I was hoping that we were going to see more progress and faster progress … I hope we can figure out a way to improve this so it’s not going to take five or 10 more years to achieve the vision for the program that was laid out in 2019,” he told The Nevada Independent.

NV Energy touted that the Mojave High School project ushered in “a new green job training program.” The bill requires the program provide workforce training including apprenticeships related to the construction, maintenance and operation of the community-based solar projects. But few participants have gone through the program thus far.  

DETR, the state’s workforce agency, has helped recruit a combined 11 people to work on the projects — two in Reno and nine in Las Vegas. The recruits received solar panel installation training and will remain on the books for future solar jobs awarded to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Marchele Sneed, DETR’s employment security division manager in Southern Nevada, acknowledged that not many people have gone through the program, but said the skills learned are invaluable.

“It’s more value than volume,” Sneed said. “Solar is definitely going to pick up. They have the skill set, and being able to be called by the union is big.”

Assemblyman Howard Watts during an Assembly Committee on Ways and Means inside the Nevada Legislature on May 22, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Few enrolling in program

The other part of the expanded solar program — a special, renewable-powered billing category for certain subsets of utility customers — is also far from maximum capacity.

It is estimated that Southern Nevada’s program could serve more than 15,000 households and businesses combined and Northern Nevada’s could serve a combined 16,600 depending on megawatt hours used (based on a cap of 400,000 megawatt hours statewide).

The program is broken up into the following categories:

  • 25 percent for low-income customers, defined as those who do not make more than 80 percent of median income. 
  • 25 percent for disadvantaged businesses and nonprofits owned by 50 percent or more women, veterans, members of a racial or ethnic minority or a traditionally underrepresented group. None of the business owners can have a net worth more than $250,000.
  • 50 percent dedicated to customers the program describes as “eligible premise,” meaning those who cannot install solar on their property due to physical or ownership constraints, such as renters.  

The utility estimates it will have around 4,700 low-income Southern Nevadans enrolled by the end of this year.

But by the end of this year, the utility estimates that just 894 low-income Northern Nevada customers will take advantage of the program — about 18 percent of the total capacity NV Energy estimates the program can handle. 

Statewide, only 260 enrolled businesses and nonprofits — just over 3 percent of the estimated 7,515 that could participate — are projected to use less than 6 percent of allocated power. And the estimated 2,200 eligible premise customers — just over 14 percent of those who could participate — will utilize about 11 percent of allocated power. 

Interest in the program does not appear to be growing. Between August 2022 and December 2022, Southern Nevadans made 377 calls inquiring about the program — a 64 percent decrease from 2021. Still, utility executives are confident that the program will continue to grow, and efforts to promote the next round of enrollment include inserting advertisements in monthly bills, holding groundbreaking ceremonies at the completed community solar sites and outreach on social media. 

“There are almost 10,000 customers participating in the low-income portion of the program. That’s a great success,” Steele told The Nevada Independent, noting the utility has only been enrolling customers in the program since 2022. “I think it’s a great success we’re going to continue to build on.”

Cabrera disagrees, saying the program's low participation numbers are, in part, due to what she described as poor outreach and a limited enrollment period.

Interested participants have only a two month window to apply — from Sept. 1 to Oct. 31.

And despite NV Energy reporting a proposed operating budget of $1.2 million for the program in 2023 regulatory filings, including $320,000 for marketing and outreach, those efforts aren't working, she said. 

It’s not reaching the right people. Proper community-based outreach is not there, and hasn’t been there the last five years,” she said. “They would have to kick it into high gear and expand their outreach and do really meaningful community engagement. 

“I am not optimistic.”


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