Public Utilities Commission of Nevada to tackle low-income access to solar power

by Brian Bahouth

Banks of solar panels at the Desert Research Institute(DRI) in Reno. DRI installed 96 solar panels in 2009 with 20 Kilowatts of electrical generation capacity, and today 4,216 solar panels generate more than a megawatt of electricity and provide 18 percent of DRI’s electrical power. Solar saves the institute more than $150,000 annually in electrical costs - image - Brian Bahouth, Nevada Capital News.

Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak signed Assembly Bill 465 into law on June 4 of 2019. The measure requires electric utilities in Nevada to offer an expanded solar access program for low-income Nevadans, disadvantaged businesses and nonprofit organizations. The Public Utility Commission of Nevada (PUCN) issued a notice of rulemaking on August 9. Nine responses to the notice were received, and a rulemaking workshop is scheduled for October 1.

AB465 mandates that utility-scale and smaller solar facilities be sited in areas where low income and minority customers live to encourage job creation, economic growth, reduced utility rates, and cleaner air. The law further instructs utilities to ensure that eligible customers are able to participate in the program regardless of whether they own, rent or lease their homes. The PUCN and stakeholders are tasked with establishing the parameters of eligibility and all other provisions of the law, which are numerous and potentially difficult to implement and administer.

The new solar farm operators must also provide for workforce training, apprenticeships and other job opportunities for qualified individuals. Rudy Zamora is program director for Chispa Nevada and the lead signatory of nine groups represented in a comment letter sent in response to the PUCN’s notice of rulemaking.

“We see that oftentimes communities of color and low income families are left behind when it comes to renewable energy,” Zamora said in a phone interview. “A lot of the time when we’re talking about solar for example, a lot of our families rent their homes so they don’t have access to the rooftop (solar), or simply sometimes the solar access is just out of the price range for some of our community.

“With this bill, AB465, we are seeing our families and community to be able to not only participate in renewable energy but also see a cost reduction in their bills and a healthier environment for the state of Nevada,” Zamora said.

The less a person or family earns, the more likely they are to rent rather than own. According to US Census Bureau data, home ownership rates for families at or above the national median household income level approach 80 percent; but the rate of home ownership drops to just below 50 percent for households with family incomes less than the median family income of $57,652. According to US Census Bureau data, Hispanic home ownership nationwide has risen since 2015 from 45.6 percent to 47.1 percent.

Data from the US Census Bureau – graph – Nevada Capital News

Typical explanations of the gap between white and Hispanic home ownership are attributed to factors such as immigration status, length of time in the US, nation of origin and facility with English among many. For Las Vegas Assemblywoman Danielle Monroe-Moreno, the problem is defined by low income and immigrant communities being largely unable to participate in the manifold benefits of renewable energy sources such as solar power.

Danielle Monroe-Moreno is chair of the Assembly Growth and Infrastructure Committee, the primary sponsor of AB465. Monroe-Moreno sent comments in response to the PUCN’s notice of rulemaking that, according to her letter, make the intent of the legislation clear.

She reiterates the desire for there to be a mix of utility-scale and community-based solar programs. She writes that utility-scale systems have a capacity of at least 50 megawatts and defines a community-based system as not having more than 1 megawatt capacity.

The Assemblywoman writes that she wants to see utilities establish “a process for identifying non-contiguous geographic locations for community-based solar resources, which to the extent practicable, must be located in communities with higher levels of low income eligible customers.”

Monroe-Moreno further emphasized the importance of community participation when siting the solar farms, large and small. She also highlighted the provision that mandates 50 percent of the employees of these facilities must be Nevada residents.

The threshold of what constitutes “low-income” has yet to be determined, though Monroe-Moreno went on in her letter to point out that the bill reserves 25 percent of the capacity  for low-income eligible customers. Twenty-five percent of the capacity is set aside for disadvantaged businesses and nonprofit organizations. The remaining fifty percent of capacity is reserved for eligible customers who are fully bundled residential customers who own, rent or lease their residence and who certify in a statement they cannot install solar resources on their premises.

In their response to the notice of rulemaking, NV Energy did not venture any rules or regulations but instead proposes a “focused stakeholder engagement process in the course of preparing these regulations.”

The complexity of administering a program that would meet the requirements of AB465 are reflected in the bill’s language and areas of concern in NV Energy’s letter. The utility says that due to the comprehensive nature of the regulations needed to fulfill AB465, it is not proposing any regulations at this time but instead is recommending a broadly inclusive rulemaking process.

“An effective stakeholder process fosters constructive working relationships among stakeholders, regulators, and utilities and builds common ground on key issues and vocabulary, bridging different positions early in the regulatory proceeding. This enables buy-in from the different stakeholder groups,” NV Energy writes in their response to a notice of rulemaking on AB465.

The state’s largest utility requests that the PUCN and stakeholders work to adopt regulations that provide specific guidance within each of the following areas:

Project siting, verification of customer eligibility, customer enrollment priority and disenrollment process, rate calculation, community participation, program marketing and expansion, program cost recovery.

The utility further recommends that these specifics be developed through “both informal and formal workshops to ensure all aspects of AB465 are fully implemented.”

The Sierra Club and Western Resource Advocates filed a letter in response to the proposed rulemaking. They recommend timely implementation of a plan that includes a published timeline and clearly stated goals for the Expanded Solar Access Program. The groups also call for administrators to clearly define how eligible participants will be selected for the program.

The law sets capacity caps for participation, so the Sierra Club and Western Resource Advocates recommend a high degree of transparency in the selection rules and process. The groups also suggest the Commission create a working group “to facilitate ongoing community input regarding workforce development and project siting.”

For Rudy Zamora, AB465 does more than just enable low income citizens to help grow green power generation and its associated environmental and economic benefits. Zamora said Latinos and low income individuals are disproportionately exposed to toxic substances and polluted environments at home and in the workplace.

“We absolutely know that we cannot cover the sun with the width of one finger. But this is one of the first steps that we need to take in order to ensure that the air and the pollution is reduced not only for a certain population of the community, but for all Nevadans across the state.

“As we know, dirty air doesn’t discriminate and say we’re only going to stick to one side of town or stick to one part of the state. At the end of the day, communities of color oftentimes are disproportionately affected, so we hope that this is a first step in many to come that will help combat that pollution in certain areas of our community.”

A study released earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences details the disproportionate burden black and Hispanic minorities bear from pollution created mainly by non-Hispanic whites. Zamora gave specific examples of where low income communities in Las Vegas are near hazardous sources of pollution.

“We see that oftentimes, the communities that are impacted the most by the pollution are the communities that are located closer to the highway, that are located closer to bigger intersections. A lot of those times the communities that live in those areas are low income families and communities of color.

“If we’re looking at say Nevada and Las Vegas in particular, we see that over on the east side of Las Vegas we have a large strip of a highway running right through the middle of the community, where in one corner in particular, we have two schools, a Boys and Girls Club and then a community center that the community uses day-to-day … not to mention the park that’s a couple of blocks away from that.”

There is a concern among several of the stakeholders that the rulemaking process will carry on for years. Zamora said he and others want to see the timely implementation of the law.

“We’re urging the Commission to establish the planning framework as quickly as possible. Like I said, this is something that can take anywhere from months to years. But we’re working with the Commission and urging them to take a quick step towards making the rulemaking.”