Nevada court rejects rooftop solar power rate ballot measure

By Ken Ritter, Associated Press

There won't be a voter measure about rooftop solar electricity rates on the statewide ballot in Nevada in November, following a ruling Thursday from the state Supreme Court.

In this April 22, 2015, file photo, Chandler Gray, left, and Michelle Balistreri attend a rally in front of NV Energy in Las Vegas. Hundreds of activists gathered outside NV Energy headquarters in Las Vegas to protest a state cap affecting rooftop solar installations and urge the Legislature to lift it. The Nevada Supreme Court has decided not to allow a measure on the statewide ballot in November about rooftop solar electricity rates. Justices ruled Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016, that a referendum by opponents of a 2015 state law was fundamentally flawed. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

LAS VEGAS (AP) — There won't be a voter measure about rooftop solar electricity rates on the statewide ballot in Nevada in November, following a ruling Thursday from the state Supreme Court.

The seven-member court bluntly rejected proposed Question 5 as fundamentally flawed, ruling unanimously that a description of the referendum that backers provided for voters was "inaccurate," ''misleading" and "argumentative."

The decision dealt a blow to solar industry supporters, primarily rooftop panel installation company SolarCity, in an ongoing fight over solar power buy-back rates with the state's dominant electric utility, NV Energy.

The justices faulted the ballot description for "using terms that are not in the statutory language, such as 'green energy,'" claiming that rooftop solar rates and charges set by the Nevada Public Utilities Commission were "unaffordable and cost-prohibitive," and saying that passage of the measure would allow for "reasonable" rates.

Attorneys who argued the case before the court last Friday in Las Vegas didn't immediately respond Thursday to requests for comment.

Berkshire Hathaway owns NV Energy, which operates in the Las Vegas area as Nevada Power. The electric company backed No Solar Tax PAC, a political action committee that argued the measure aimed to force customers who don't have rooftop electric systems to subsidize customers who have them.

"We support solar energy. We don't support an unfair subsidy for people who have a solar array on their home," said Danny Thompson, a plaintiff in a case that led a lower court judge to determine that the measure didn't clearly state what people were voting for. Thompson is also union executive secretary of the Nevada state AFL-CIO.

The lower court judge also called the referendum improperly filed. Thompson said it should have been an initiative petition.

Referendum proponents, led by the Citizens for Solar and Energy Fairness political committee, argued that a law passed by the state Legislature last year allowing the Nevada Public Utilities Commission to raise charges for rooftop solar customers killed a growing clean-energy industry in a state with abundant sunshine.

The Legislature let the state utilities commission approve new rates effective Jan. 1 that raised base charges for solar customers and reduced reimbursements for their excess power over the course of 12 years.

The sell-back program, called net metering, had become so popular that NV Energy complained it was reaching a statutory cap in the number of participants.

Solar installation companies, including SolarCity, responded to the January rate hikes by curbing sales and laying off workers.

Following the outcry about solar power policies, NV Energy last month asked the utilities regulatory commission to "grandfather" existing customers and restore more favorable buy-back rates for people who had systems or valid applications before the new rates went into effect.

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