Public Utilities Commission Staff Denies Lobbying Contacts, But Won’t Release Noble’s Meeting Records
Checks and Balances Project has been using public records requests to help citizens better understand the origins of what one couple called “the Christmas bait-and-switch decision” by the Public Utility Commission of Nevada (PUCN) to end the solar rooftop industry in the Silver State.
The December 23 decision – shepherded by Commissioner David Noble – is resulting in the loss of employment for some 5,000 workers in Nevada’s solar industry, cutting the promised economic benefits of 12,000-17,000 people that the PUCN had previously encouraged to go solar, and making it unaffordable for others to participate.
The stunning decision ignored results of the PUCN’s own study and drew the ire of the Nevada Attorney General, State Consumer Advocate, state legislators, and potential investors in the state. More than a thousand people packed a recent PUCN hearing to protest what one former state consumer advocate called the worst decision by the Commission, ever. The Los Angeles Times editorial page warned its state utilities commission to “not be like Nevada.”
Influence of Edison Electric Institute
As citizen anger rises against the anti-rooftop solar decision, it seems reasonable to ask about the origins of this decision that so many oppose and so few support. Public records suggest the origins of this decision stem from the national lobbying arm of the utility industry, the Edison Electric Institute (EEI).
EEI has been vocal in its opposition to rooftop solar since 2013, saying that homeowners going solar pose a “mortal threat” to traditional utilities. NV Energy is an EEI member company with strong ties to the national lobbying arm:
- Former NV Energy CEO Michael Yackira was EEI Chair in 2013, the year Berkshire Hathaway purchased NV Energy.
- Gregory E. Abel of Berkshire Hathaway Energy was elected an EEI vice chair and member of the executive committee of the board in June 2015.
- Berkshire Hathaway Energy presented an in-depth presentation (see slides 19 and 30) at the 2015 EEI Financial Conference that outlines an NV Energy net metering proposal very similar to the one adopted by the Commission.
Just Trust Us
Yet the PUCN’s Assistant General Counsel Garrett Weir is angered by my reporting in a recent Reno Gazette-Journal op-ed, “PUC Solar Decision Raises Anger, Questions.” Commissioner David Noble did not have regular contact with EEI or its representatives, Mr. Garrett stated.
Mr. Weir’s statement matches the response by Anne-Marie Cuneo, PUCN’s director of regulatory operations, who authored the order, when questioned by Jon Ralston. When he asked if NV Energy had inappropriately influenced the decision, Cuneo responded:
“That is an absolutely shameful accusation… The commission hears almost 500 cases a year, and if you were to look at their record, they clearly don’t favor NV Energy on many of the other cases. To make a statement like that based on the outcome of a single data point is irresponsible.”
Shameful accusation is an ironic assertion coming from Nevada’s PUC. The agency doesn’t keep an accurate sign-in log of visitors to its Carson City headquarters and recently told us that Commissioner Noble’s public office appointment calendar isn’t a public record.
Nevada taxpayers are effectively expected to take on face value that there was no lobbying contact of Mr. Noble, despite a widely opposed decision that will cut the livelihoods and incomes of up to 23,000 of Nevadans.
Use Regulatory Tools
We thought it was worth comparing the language of the “Christmas Bait and Switch” decision to that in an article written by EEI and sent on November 3, 2014 in a briefing book to Commissioner Noble and utility commissioners in other states. An article inside titled “Getting Solar Pricing Right,” encourages the use of regulatory tools to stifle the growth of rooftop solar.
“The most straightforward regulatory approach is to require [rooftop solar] customers to pay for more of the grid services they use through a higher monthly customer charge and to simplify the tiered rate structure. Increasing the monthly customer charge significantly reduces the NEM subsidy… The time to change net metering is now and regulatory tools are available to do so.”
Anti-Rooftop Solar Decision
Although the Commission’s own 2014 study found the benefits of net metered solar energy systems to include savings on conventional power, lower transmission infrastructure costs, reduced utility costs for all Nevadans and increased state revenue, Nevada’s PUC chose to side with the national utility lobby – and NV Energy.
The PUCN staff says NV Energy’s national lobbying association, the Edison Electric Institute, had no influence on the “Christmas Bait and Switch” decision. But the language from EEI mirrors that in Noble’s decision. If there’s nothing there, then why not release his appointment calendar and other public records we have been seeking for over 21 weeks?
Nevada’s Public Utilities Commission seems to think that it can wait out the storm of public anger and refuse to answer straightforward questions. Something tells us that 5,000 people who will lose jobs and another 12,000-17,000 people who will see their utility bills skyrocket won’t sit still for stonewalling on public access to public records.
Evlondo Cooper is a senior fellow with Checks and Balances Project, a national watchdog blog that seeks to hold government officials, lobbyists, and corporate management accountable to the public. Funding for C&BP comes from pro-clean energy philanthropies and donors.