Rooftop solar a key topic at 8th annual clean energy conference in Vegas

Energy Associated Press

Battles over rooftop solar electricity in Western states emerged as a key topic during an annual green power conference hosted Monday by U.S. Sen. Harry Reid.

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President Barack Obama was expected to keynote the close of the eighth National Clean Energy Summit at the Mandalay Bay resort. Obama is using an event that Reid has nurtured during his time as Democratic leader of the Senate to announce new executive actions and other efforts aimed at making it easier for homeowners and businesses to invest in green energy improvements.

Reid opened the conference on Monday highlighting a local utility's plan to build a 15 megawatt solar generation project on 80 acres in the Nye County community of Pahrump, about 60 miles west of Las Vegas. It will serve the Valley Electric Association, and company chief Tom Husted said it could help lower electricity prices for about 25,000 customers in six rural counties in Nevada and California.

The debate about costs for consumers who install home rooftop solar panels and utilities that control the electric grid in sunny states like Nevada, Arizona, California, New Mexico and Utah provided a point-counterpoint discussion between Charles Cicchetti of the Pacific Economics Group, speaking for consumers, and Lisa Wood of the Edison Foundation, representing utilities.

The question hits home in Nevada, where the dominant utility, publicly-traded NV Energy, reported last week that it hit a preset statewide cap of 235 megawatts on the amount of rooftop solar power it will buy back from customers.

Solar power advocates complain that the utility rate structure threatens to kill their fledgling industry. One rooftop solar company that had begun expanding into Nevada pulled back several weeks ago, citing uncertainty about net metering,

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"It's a misconception that rooftop solar users don't need the grid," Wood said. She called it only fair that customers continue to pay to maintain the transmission system from which they draw electricity during peak use times and at night. She also acknowledged that net-metering policies needed to be updated.

The misconception, Cicchetti said, is that consumers are required to buy power from the utilities. The bigger danger to the companies, he said, would be for rooftop solar users to become so alienated that they find ways to store electricity collected during the day and withdraw from the grid altogether.

"Pushback is slowing the progress we've made," he said.

Reid, who has made clean and green energy one of his touchstone issues, noted in opening remarks that the key challenge today is "properly valuing rooftop solar, properly valuing energy efficiency and properly valuing other distributed sources of clean energy."

One leader of a utility company said she welcomed the trend.

Almost one-third of the energy used by California utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric comes from what the company president, Geisha Williams, called a renewable portfolio standard. Williams said 55 percent of the company's electricity is produced without greenhouse emissions.

PG&E serves an area with about 16 million people in northern and central California, and Williams said it now has some 175,000 customers with home solar generation.

Williams said her company gets as many as 5,000 applications per month for rooftop solar, and it has streamlined approvals so they usually take about five days.

"The customers want it," Williams said. "Our goal is to make it easy. We don't want to be a roadblock."

During a panel with Williams and others focusing on energy developments in the U.S., former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter talked about overcoming initial opposition to changing policies. He recalled opposition in 2010 to a Clean Air-Clean Jobs campaign in his state that aimed to replace coal with gas-fired electricity.

"Now you look at it, it's a no-brainer," said Ritter, no relation to AP writer Ken Ritter.