By Jerry Mooney
There is a strange argument heard across the country regarding climate change. The reason it’s strange is that those denying its reality seem to also blanket in their dismissal around the idea that burning coal and oil create any environmental impacts. It’s as if we could suck on a car’s tailpipe and receive pure oxygen. But for a second, let’s forget about pollution. Let’s forget how inefficient it is to extract fossil fuels from the ground, transport them, refine them and then burn them for fuel. Let’s even forget the tragedy of the commons and the expenses that are passed on to everyone. For now, let’s focus on how those making more money than anyone in any other industry in the history of humankind continue and benefit disproportionately from exclusive tax benefits, feel the need to further rig the game.
It’s no big secret that companies like Exxon and the Koch brothers have done nefarious things to maintain their energy empires, but recently there has been a new player cast in the role of villain. Warren Buffett has typically been treated like the venerable old grandpa who incidentally amasses billions of dollars because he saves the breadties from his Wonder Bread sacks. But let’s not be naive, Warren Buffett is a capitalist and he’s a capitalist with leverage.
Nevada’s electricity company NV Energy, owned by Berkshire Hathaway, is the energy monopoly that supplies all of Nevada’s electricity, all except that provided by rooftop solar. Rooftop solar has been thought of, up until recently as a cute little niche for eccentric, green millionaires to squander their money in the effort to feel eco-proud. But solar the industry has grown and is growing faster. Solar currently employs more workers than the coal industry, having created over 200,000 jobs. This growth is now seen as a threat to the establishment as opposed to part of the evolution of sustainability. This threat is not being ignored either.
Despite the fact that the fossil fuel companies have a monopoly, NV Energy and deep pockets Buffett needed to tilt the game even more in their favor. They convinced the Nevada PUC to change the rates for net metering. Net metering is the way that utility companies buy back electricity provided by individuals and distribute it into the grid. With net metering, excess solar from a rooftop enters the grid, reducing the capacity load, helping everyone.
This is particularly helpful in Nevada that has peculiar energy consumption. Because casinos use so much electricity and their needs are consolidated, while the population of the Nevada is spread out and consumption is erratic, rooftop solar has helped provide stability to Nevada’s electricity demands. Additionally, Nevada is one of the sunniest places in America, making it a good candidate for solar collection as well a state in great need of air conditioning. All of these factors add up to a situation where rooftop solar should be a welcomed asset helping to share the burden of providing electricity. In fact the Governor of Nevada, Brian Sandoval, originally encouraged his state to aggressively adopt solar, providing incentives.
Because of this and because the economics shifted to the point where a solar became cost effective, solar adoption exploded in Nevada. Solar adopters could actually pay for their system with the cost offsets within a few years of installation and then enjoy reduced utility cost thereafter. This was enough for people to install panels. These decisions were made independent of any environmental impacts. The economics made enough sense for those who could afford the initial setup to do so in droves. Some used money from their retirement funds, thinking that they would spend now to enjoy lower expenses in the future when their income fell. Eventually solar providers began aggressive installation models, allowing customers to receive a free system installed on their roofs, for the cost of the excess energy produced plus the tax incentives. The equipment would be owned by the companies, but would provide a lower electricity bill to the “host”.
Then the bait and switch happened. In a backroom deal on the day before Christmas Eve, the PUC meet and adopted, in a hurried fashion, a law that changed the game. The new legislation charged solar adopters more to be on the grid and reduced the amount that they received from returning their excess power back to the grid. This meant that someone with solar actually paid MORE for their electricity than a non-solar customer even though they produced energy.
Of course this outraged those who had solar installed. No longer could they afford the systems that they set up to save them money. People who spent tens of thousands of dollars and expected to see that money returned in cost savings were suddenly stuck. Solar companies immediately began laying off workers. The systems that were set up for free became sunken cost.
The most outrageous part about this scenario is that NV Energy made $315 million in PROFIT last year. I don’t expect companies to be charities, but to have an already profitable business model and go to such corrupt lengths to suckerpunch companies and people. Now there are thousands of people whose retirement is threatened and thousands of jobs lost because one of the richest men ever can’t compete in the free market.
Discuss and zenrupt
Jerry Mooney is co-founder and managing editor of Zenruption and the author of History Yoghurt and the Moon. He studied at the University of Munich and Lewis and Clark College where he received his BA in International Affairs and West European Studies. He has recently taught Language and Communications at a small, private college and owned various businesses, including an investment company that made him a millionaire before the age of 40. Jerry is committed to zenrupting the forces that block social, political and economic justice. He can also be found on Twitter@JerryMooney