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Power to the people

Can rooftop solar open the door to personal energy independence in Nevada? Some sunny-minded pioneers hope to lead the way 

It’s 3 p.m. and 100 degrees on Michael Feder’s roof, where he makes a “Voila!” gesture indicating the large, flat expanse that will soon contain his own personal power plant. Ironically, the glare and heat prevent us from staying up on the exposed white surface for more than a minute before retreating back into his air-conditioned home, but it’s long enough to confirm Feder’s description of the spot as perfect for a rooftop solar array.

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The neighbors are pretty pumped about it, too. A group of Feder’s fellow Stone Canyon community residents, and some in sister community 22 Parkside, have banded together on a neighborhood solar project, encouraged by new leasing options that are making rooftop installations more accessible. They went with contractor SolarCity because they liked its offer — no money down, free installation, equipment insurance, lower energy bills and an option to buy the system back after five years — but the Solar Energy Industries Association counts more than two dozen installers doing business in Southern Nevada. These includes stalwarts, such as Bombard Renewable and Cooper Roofing, along with newcomers who, like San Mateo, California-based SolarCity, set up shop here following the passage of 2013 legislation designed to expand and accelerate distributed generation in the state.

“The fact that SolarCity did everything, rather than subcontracting some services, and would take absolute responsibility for it was really attractive,” Feder says. “And then, of course, the fact that Tesla and Elon Musk (chairman of SolarCity) are doing great things with battery technology assured me that, when we put the battery array in the garage (to store excess energy produced), it’s not going to blow up or burn my house down.”

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Working with the two homeowner associations, Feder got 10 households to join him. SolarCity gave each one a promo code for the group discount, and gave Feder $3,000 in referral fees, which he then split evenly among participants. Their installations are scheduled for mid- through late-September.

The Stone Canyon-22 Parkside project symbolizes a fundamental shift in Nevadans’ relationship with their electricity. In 2013, the state’s homeowners installed 1.1 megawatts of solar capacity, more than twice the amount of the previous year. Increasingly affordable technology — and companies selling that technology — are putting the solar revolution within reach of the rest of us. The question is: Will the would-be revolution sizzle or fizzle?

 

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Here comes the sun

Converting to rooftop solar has many pros and few cons. The pros: It uses a renewable, locally abundant resource (Las Vegas is the third sunniest city in the U.S., according to one federal agency). It’s clean, silent and pollution-free. According to NV Energy, in one month, a 1-kilowatt system prevents 170 pounds of coal being burned, 300 pounds of CO2 being released and 105 gallons of water being consumed. These dovetail with the economic benefits: The rising solar energy industry is also expected to create jobs, from scientists and business owners to installers and administrators.

But how would it benefit you? A lot of it depends on how you get your system and what the rules are. You can buy a system or lease one, like Feder and Cloud did. According to online consultancy SolarPowerRocks.com, the average cost for a Nevada homeowner to have a 5-kilowatt system installed is around $16,000, including deductions for incentives and tax credits. Based on our abundant sunshine, the website estimates, such a system would generate enough electricity to cut $78 from an average monthly power bill. At that rate, it would take 10 years to pay for itself. The homeowner gets a boost in property value, although he may also have to pay more for homeowner’s insurance. For people who can’t get past that huge price tag, there are many leasing options, in which the third-party owner such as SolarCity keeps the incentives and tax credits.

But the greatest unknown is whether Big Energy will play nice. Perceiving a threat to their bottom lines, investor-owned utilities in several states have begun raising rates, rolling back incentives and lobbying to repeal laws encouraging rooftop solar.

“The potential of this technology, this energy, is tremendous,” SolarCity spokesperson Jonathan Bass told “KNPR’s State of Nevada” in May. “It does pose a challenge to the polluting power sources of the past, and you’re starting to see them fight back.”

If such a fight was brewing in Nevada, it got doused with cold water in July, when the Public Utilities Commission published the results of a study concluding that distributed generation does not give rooftop solar customers a free ride on the utility’s infrastructure at other ratepayers’ expense, as investor-owned utilities argue. But there’s still plenty of time for a solar scrap. The PUC, which releases its own report this month, is considering creating a separate rate class for customers with rooftop solar, and benefits such as installation incentives and net metering remain vulnerable to challenge in the 2015 legislative session.

But solar advocates are prepared. “Nevadans want to harness more of Nevada’s plentiful sunshine, and thousands have asked their leaders to protect their successful net metering program,” said Jessica Scott, interior west manager for the Vote Solar initiative, which says more than 4,300 citizens sent petitions to the state PUC last month urging support for the program. “We urge policymakers to keep the way clear for Nevadans to choose solar power.”

 

Sunny side up, a solar glossary

Distributed generation.

Electricity creation on the customer’s side of the meter. Unlike centralized generation at a power plant, distributed generation is scattered among homes, businesses and other sites.

Federal solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC).

Thirty percent of the installation cost for residential and commercial properties that convert to solar energy by the end of 2016.

Net metering.

A billing method that allows customers to export excess energy from their site to the grid, with the utility that manages the grid giving them credit for what they produce. NV Energy currently gives customers a 1:1 credit. According to state law, up to 3 percent of NV Energy’s peak power can be made from net metering.

Rooftop solar.

A common example of distributed generation that involves placing solar photovoltaic panels on top of a structure to collect sunlight and convert it to electricity that is then used within that structure.

SolarGenerations.

NV Energy’s program for net metering credts and solar-installation incentives.

Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022.