Public Utilities Commission (PUC) Commissioner Noble Will Need Time Management Skills for the Upcoming NV Energy General Rate Cases
By: Angel De Fazio
PUC Commissioner David Noble has been presiding over the temporary and permanent net metering dockets determining compensation to those with rooftop solar electricity generation systems and NV Energy (NVE).
Thus far, the relatively few Nevadans with solar panels have been compensated at artificially subsidized rates for the electricity they generate but do not use themselves. These subsidies are continuing to be borne by other ratepayers.
Various proposals for future pricing have been submitted by the solar industry, NVE, PUC staff and the state Bureau of Consumer Protection.
Given the PUC's unwillingness to address the issue in August on a temporary basis, it is conceivable that Noble's soon-to-be-released draft order would transfer this docket into the upcoming general rate cases (GRC) for Sierra Pacific (2016) and Nevada Power (2017). Such an approach would further 'kick the can down the road,' and brings into question Noble's leadership, management capabilities and credibility in serving the public interest.
A highly-placed source in the PUC has stated on numerous occasions to this reporter and others that the PUC "doesn't have the time to review 'normal' GRC submissions, and many items are ignored because of statutory time constraints." Layering on another complicated subject could easily lead to no adequate review or analysis of the net metering controversy. Noble has not publicly stated how he would plan to address this controversy later with insufficient time already a problem in processing GRCs.
Potentially burying net metering in the GRC means that non-solar customers will subsidize solar customers. Nevada ratepayers have already paid for the solar industry's local incubation with $250 million of ratepayer seed money at the state level and considerably more from Federal taxpayers with the 30% tax credit for installed solar generating systems. The Washoe County School District received a $17.6 million payout from other ratepayers to install solar generating systems at their schools.
As a 17-year PUC employee, Noble knows that if NVE does not cover their fixed costs, the PUC will increase power bills. In the last GRCs Noble oversaw, he advocated for substantially higher increases in the monthly basic service charge than were finally approved to cover a portion of fixed costs. The approved increases were considerably beyond inflation (27.5% for NV Power and 64.9% for Sierra Pacific) and impact the poor, elderly and light users of electricity the hardest.
When the PUC approved $300 million of digital replacement electric meters in 2010, a small group of ratepayers concerned with unresolved health, safety and privacy issues successfully appealed to the PUC for retention of the analog meters. An upper limit was imposed on the number who could opt-out of the new meters. Opt-out participants were required by the PUC to pay both a change-out fee for another analog meter and a monthly, in-person meter reading charge when the readings could have been reported by phone, internet or post card at considerably less cost. In that moment, both Noble and recently-departed Commissioner Rebecca Wagner stated that if the opt-out was chosen, other ratepayers should not have to pay for that choice. Now, solar proponents insist their customers need not fully pay for their choices, a contradiction in previously-stated PUC policy offering only non-subsidized utility service for residential and business customers alike.
The solar advocates want to be paid retail rates for their electricity overproduction when NVE can purchase electricity from large-scale producers at approximately half the retail rate. NV Energy's electricity grid and administrative overhead, plus the PUC-approved profit margin for NVE of 9.75%, must be covered by other ratepayers. Solar companies assert that their customers should have rate guarantees and subsidies into an indefinite future; non-solar ratepayers have no such guarantees and subsidies.
The solar industry presently has no regulatory oversight by the PUC or any other state agency. Thus, they are running rampant with false statements of “everyone who wants solar should have it’. When in fact, this is pure deceptive marketing, as they are choosing the ‘cream of the crop’ to consent to have solar installed. While the ‘unacceptables’ are being forced to shoulder the burden of inflated buy back costs.
Paul Thomsen, formerly a paid lobbyist with Ormat Technology, a Reno-based geothermal company, recently replaced Wagner, another renewable energy advocate, as one of the three Commissioners. Thomsen is the new PUC Chairman. The PUC Commissioners are appointed by the governor to four-year terms with no legislative approval of the appointments. Thomsen may not be able to vote on the net metering issue because of the conflict of interest from his prior Ormat employment triggering a self-imposed recusal. This situation leaves just two voting Commissioners when the matter again comes before the Commission on December 22nd for deliberations.
After Thomsen’s lack of understanding of a most elementary comment made by Noble during the December 2nd agenda meeting, on the casino’s exiting dockets, one has to be seriously concerned of his ability to comprehend the complexity of this docket. Therefore, this reporter and numerous other ratepayers throughout the state are calling for him to recues himself from voting.
Personal note to Noble: You better be prepared to show how an overburdened staff is going to be able to fully address the net metering issue, if you recommend that it gets transferred into the GRC, in your upcoming draft order.