Warren Buffett controls Nevada’s legacy utility. Elon Musk is behind the solar company that’s upending the market. Let the fun begin.
Outside the Public Utilities Commission office, which is on the second floor of a modern, three-story building about 7 miles from the Strip in Las Vegas, a chorus of women are shouting to the tune of a Beastie Boys classic: “We’re gonna fight ... for our right ... to go soooolar!”
It’s Jan. 13, a crisp desert morning with high, wispy clouds. Cars zoom by on a nearby freeway. Across the street, construction workers are leveling ground in front of a subdivision. Local TV news crews close in on the women as several hundred other protesters wave signs that read “Don’t hog the sun” and “Save our solar jobs.” Another poster takes a jab directly at the local power company: “Don’t be shady NV Energy.”
Featured in Bloomberg Businessweek, Feb. 1, 2016.
Many of the protesters are employees or customers of SolarCity. Started a decade ago by Tesla Motors Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk and two of his cousins, Lyndon and Peter Rive, SolarCity has brought renewable energy to the masses in more than a dozen states, generating about $350 million in annual revenue. The company designs, installs, and leases rooftop solar systems at prices that allow homeowners to save on their monthly power bills—and fight climate change along the way. For a 20-year commitment, SolarCity will set customers up with panels for no money down. After starting in California and expanding to Arizona and Oregon, SolarCity began selling in Nevada in 2014 and quickly became the state’s leading installer of rooftop panels.
SolarCity’s success is partly because the government provides subsidies and enables an arrangement called net metering, which allows homeowners with panels to sell back to the grid any solar energy they don’t use. This helps offset their cost of power when the sun’s not shining. Like more than 40 other U.S. states, Nevada forces utilities to buy the excess energy at rates set by regulators—usually the same rate utilities charge (hence, the net in net metering). In Nevada, it’s worked well. So well, in fact, that NV Energy, the state’s largest utility, is fighting it with everything it’s got.
First, NV Energy deployed its lobbyists to limit the total amount of energy homeowners and small businesses were allowed to generate to 3 percent of peak capacity for all utilities. Then it expertly argued its case before regulators, who rewrote the rules for net-metering customers. In December it scored a major win: Nevada’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) imposed rules that not only make it more expensive to go solar, but also make it uneconomical for those who’ve already signed up. Similar regulatory skirmishes are playing out in dozens of other states, but no other has gone as far as Nevada to undermine homeowners who’ve already installed solar arrays.
All this has enraged independent, free-market, and environmentally conscious Nevadans. All day on Jan. 13 people enter the hearing room to give the sole commissioner an earful. (Two more commissioners are piped in via video from Carson City, where the hearing is happening simultaneously.) The bureaucrats sit blankly behind their desks as employees from SolarCity and a competitor, Sunrun, explain that they’d been let go because the commission’s recent ruling killed their companies’ business in the state. Some of the roughly 18,000 customers who have already put solar panels on their roofs say the officials have rigged the game against the players. One homeowner threatens a $1 billion class-action lawsuit. Another compares NV Energy to King George III.
“Are you getting kickbacks?” demands one woman, who asks the commission for records proving it made its ruling in the public’s interest.
“Answer her,” shouts a man in the crowd.
“Resign!” yells another.
Actor Mark Ruffalo rallies solar supporters in front of the Public Utilities Commission office on Jan. 13.
At one point, Mark Ruffalo shows up. The actor has flown in for the rally and makes his way into the commission office flanked by two SolarCity employees. A half-dozen camera crews follow him to the mic, and he receives a standing ovation after he calls the commission the “anti-Robin Hood” for taking from the people and giving to a monopoly. “The utility has the whole pie,” Ruffalo adds. The citizens, he says, “just want a tiny, little slice.” A local TV reporter, realizing she just got the Hulk on film for her segment, pumps her fist.
None of it sways the commissioners, and at around 4:30 p.m. they make a show of cross-examining each other before voting unanimously to deny requests to delay the new rules. It’s another victory for NV Energy and its owner, Berkshire Hathaway, the investment company controlled by Warren Buffett. He didn’t respond to requests for comment.
“The outcome was horrendous” in Nevada, says SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive. Homeowners no longer have any financial incentive to put panels on their roofs, and those who already did may end up paying an additional $11,000 over the next two decades, he says. “We will fight this. We will fight it legally, and I’m highly confident we will win.”
Not that long ago, things were far more cordial between SolarCity and Nevada officials. “They sold themselves as being solar-friendly,” Rive says. “It was, ‘Hey, we are for solar. We want to make solar work.’ ” It probably didn’t hurt that SolarCity also had created scores of jobs wherever it went and that it was a no-brainer to tap the sun’s potential in a state that’s largely desert.
In 2004, Rive, his wife, and Musk were in an RV on their way to Burning Man. Rive was casting about for a business idea that could “have an impact on humanity,” and Musk suggested that his cousin look into solar power. “He didn’t say how or what, but just get into the industry,” Rive told the San Jose Mercury News in December. When Rive got back from the festival, he told his brother about the conversation. They founded SolarCity on July 4, 2006. The company’s mission: to help people leave fossil fuels behind. Musk, who had made a fortune on PayPal and was dreaming up rocket ships and electric cars, put up some capital and became chairman. Musk didn’t reply to an e-mail seeking comment.
SolarCity grew into one of the country’s largest solar operators in the years that followed. In the markets it entered, it hired hundreds of people to sell, maintain, and install its systems. But Rive didn’t enter Nevada. To make its contracts work, SolarCity needed the right policies in place. For years the state provided rebates for homeowners who wanted to go solar through a lottery system. The randomness turned potential customers off, he says.
Nevada’s legislature had been gradually changing incentives for solar customers for years and, in 2013, it did away with the lottery for rebates, so anyone could get one. The state also set a new cap on installations—3 percent of the utility’s peak demand. Such provisions usually appease utilities and give regulators a chance to study what it means to have more small solar systems on the grid.
SolarCity had begun a national search to figure out where to open a call center in late 2012 and considered Nevada. Governor Brian Sandoval’s office offered a sweetener, Rive says. Nevada had set up something called the Catalyst Fund to encourage companies to locate operations in the state. In the economic development trade, “it’s called ‘love money,’ ” says Ross Miller, a former secretary of state, who served on the board that doled out the funds. SolarCity’s grant was announced in March 2013. The company would get paid as much as $400,000 annually for three years if it met certain hiring targets. “You had me at Elon Musk,” Miller told Vegas Inc., a business news outlet, at the time.
In August of that year, SolarCity had an opening ceremony for its Vegas office, which was to serve as its main call center and handle sales and administrative functions nationally. Sandoval called the opening a “watershed moment” for the state and joined with Democratic U.S. Senator Harry Reid in cutting a green ribbon with a giant pair of scissors. “Nevada is going to be your home for a long time,” Reid said. “And we’re going to do everything we can to make it one that’s a happy, happy home.”
With the new net-metering and rebate policies in place, SolarCity began taking applications on May 1, 2014. Charlie Catania called that same day. Catania, who resembles Regis Philbin, came to Vegas in the 1970s and spent most of his career at Caesars Palace working in the baccarat pit. “I wanted to be a good steward of the environment,” but going solar was always too expensive, he says. By signing with SolarCity, he anticipated saving money over time, because his energy rates would be locked in for 20 years. That would help him minimize the impact of any increases NV Energy might make. “I’m 71,” he says. “If I live to 91, when my lease is up, hallelujah.”
Thousands more followed Catania, signing contracts with SolarCity, Sunrun, and other providers. They were retirees, computer programmers, bartenders, young, old, Democrat, Republican, Libertarian. Most were in southern Nevada. By and large, the homeowners who went solar cared about the environment. But the thought of saving a few bucks—and sticking it to NV Energy—didn’t bother some of them, either.
To meet the demand, Rive opened more operations centers in the state, where its crews of installers would grab panels and other supplies before going out on a job. The company had created something called the Chairman’s Cup—after Musk—to honor the most productive warehouse nationally. In 2015 its two locations in the Las Vegas area dominated the competition, winning almost every month.
The growth was good. But another problem was looming: Rive and his staff thought their industry was about to reach the 3 percent cap.
Buffett got into utilities in 1999. While many investors chased the latest Silicon Valley IPO, he bought a nice electric company in Des Moines. Building power plants and maintaining the grid offered almost endless opportunities to reinvest cash, which he had a lot of. And, as a monopoly providing an essential service, the local power company wasn’t going away anytime soon. Owning utilities isn’t “a way to get rich,” he later said. “It’s a way to stay rich.”
By 2013 the energy unit at Berkshire had expanded to include power companies serving parts of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah. It had also invested billions of dollars in wind farms in Iowa and giant solar arrays in California and Arizona. Two months after SolarCity got its love money from Nevada, Buffett offered $5.6 billion to buy NV Energy. Soon after Berkshire completed the purchase, NV Energy accounted for about a fifth of the company’s energy revenue.
Because power companies operate in a highly regulated industry, they stay close to elected officials. NV Energy’s ties in Nevada were particularly strong. Two of its lobbyists—Pete Ernaut and Greg Ferraro—have been friends with Sandoval for decades. Sandoval told the Reno Gazette-Journal that the lobbyists had first suggested he run for governor in 2010. Both ended up serving as advisers to his successful campaign and have continued to lobby him in office.
The governor has tried to avoid favoritism—and, at times, has promoted policies that helped the solar industry and vetoed legislation that the utility wanted. Even Robert List, SolarCity’s lobbyist in the state, says Sandoval is “a man of total integrity.” Still, it’s difficult for the governor to get away from the perception that “he’s being influenced by them,” says Jon Ralston, the host of a political affairs show on Las Vegas’s PBS station.
As the 2015 legislative session opened in Carson City last February, the rooftop solar industry was focused on lifting the 3 percent cap. Buffett’s utility was set against it. “We had numerous conversations with the NV Energy lobbyists, and they were swarming all over the building constantly,” List recalls. “Nobody could seem to find a middle ground.”
“Whoa. Hold on. Hold on. I’m here to talk about the solar future of the state. This is not us.”
On March 9, Ernaut sent a briefing document on net metering to two of Sandoval’s senior advisers, according to an e-mail that Sunrun obtained through a public records request. “Net metering is not about customer choice and competition,” it said. Rooftop solar customers, it went on, were already getting a subsidy, and it would only increase if the cap were lifted to 10 percent, as the solar industry wanted. All customers would have to pay higher rates if that were allowed, according to the document. Instead, the utility argued it would be more cost-effective to generate power from large-scale solar arrays.
A month later, Rive went to see the governor. Sandoval began the meeting by handing over a printout of his Wikipedia page, Rive recalls. Someone had just inserted information about NV Energy’s lobbying on net metering in the governor’s biography and wrote—erroneously—that he could lift the cap to prevent solar companies from cutting jobs.
“He was really upset, like fuming out of the ears,” Rive says. “He goes, ‘This is what you guys are doing. This is all you.’ … And I’m like, ‘Whoa. Hold on. Hold on. I’m here to talk about the solar future of the state. This is not us.’ ”
“The governor did not express frustration,” Mari St. Martin, a spokeswoman for Sandoval, says of the meeting. But he “did bring up the questionable, petty tactics of some members of the rooftop solar industry, which included misleading online postings about the governor’s authority on the issue.”
The debate dragged into May. SolarCity and the other installers needed a resolution. Only the state legislature could lift the cap, and the session was scheduled to end on June 1. After that, lawmakers wouldn’t convene for a regular session again until 2017. NV Energy, SolarCity, and other solar companies agreed to legislation that eliminated the cap. But it also required the utilities commission to study net-metering rates and eliminate any unreasonable shifting of costs to other customers. It set a Dec. 31 deadline for officials to review and approve new rates that the utility would submit. “We literally had a gun against our head to support it,” Rive says.
NV Energy made its case to the utilities commission in late July, kicking off a five-month process that culminated with the December decision. Staff spent hundreds of hours requesting data and reviewing information. There were four days of hearings. Nowhere in all this, Rive says, was there any hint of changing rates for people who had already gone solar.
Ultimately, the commission decided that everyone who put panels on their roofs should be treated the same. It also found that small commercial and residential net-metering customers were getting more than $16 million in subsidies a year from other people. To fix that, the commissioners agreed on New Year’s Eve to two rate increases and one decrease.
A residential solar customer in southern Nevada, for instance, would see her monthly service charge gradually step up in annual increments from $12.75 to $38.51 in 2020. The amount she got paid for the electricity she produced would plunge by about 75 percent during the same period. She’d also get a slightly cheaper rate on the energy she drew from the grid.
NV Energy tried to explain the changes by posting sample bills on its website. A southern Nevada homeowner called Jane Doe residing at (the wishfully named) 1234 Happy Dr. in Las Vegas, for instance, would end up paying $94.64 for her January bill vs. $84.66 under the old rates. NV Energy’s sample bills also account for only the first year of changes the commission approved. SolarCity’s pricing undercut NV Energy by just a little bit in Nevada before the new rates, Rive says. So he knew immediately that he could no longer do business in the state.
A day after the ruling, Rive announced that SolarCity would cease sales in Nevada. Later, he said the company would have to dismiss 550 workers in the state. Sunrun and other solar companies followed suit. SolarCity still employs more than a thousand people in Las Vegas at its call center, but they mostly serve other states.
Throughout the process, says Kevin Geraghty, NV Energy’s vice president for energy supply, he’d been frustrated by how the solar industry has tried “to influence what is a technical, financial analysis with emotion.” If you go solar, he adds, “you have to pay your fair share” for the grid. He says rooftop solar customers will continue to enjoy “substantial” savings on their utility bills. A homeowner’s payback on a rooftop system ultimately depends on the trajectory for NV Energy’s rates, he says. Recently, the utility has managed to cut them several times.
Geraghty blames SolarCity for confusing customers. “That’s what they did in Nevada,” he says. “They’ve done it everywhere they’ve been.” The commission came out with a ruling that the solar companies didn’t like because “they didn’t challenge the facts and figures,” Geraghty says. “They rolled out the same tired, generic, rooftop solar arguments. And in the face of facts and information, they failed.”
“NVE is wrong—their data was flawed, and everyone except the commission recognized this,” Rive fires back.
Protesters line the street during a rally in front of NV Energy on April 22, 2015, in Las Vegas.
The power struggle in Nevada is hardly unique. Solar is booming in the U.S., in part because of a stunning drop in the price of panels. Adjusting for inflation, it cost $96 per watt for a solar module in the mid-1970s. Process improvements and a huge boost in production have brought that figure down 99 percent, to 68¢ per watt today, according to data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Leasing from companies such as SolarCity has only sped up adoption. And a multiyear extension of the 30 percent federal solar tax credit in December has also helped.
In just a decade, solar has gone from an enviro’s dream to a serious lobby that will be fighting these kinds of battles nationwide for years. More than half of U.S. states were studying or changing their net-metering policies in the third quarter of 2015, according to the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center. Just about everywhere solar companies go, the industry has stirred up popular support, often with help from celebrities. On Jan. 24 a pro-solar group arranged for musicians Michael Franti, Bob Weir, and Sammy Hagar to play a free, acoustic concert in San Francisco.
Power companies may not be winning any popularity contests, but they’re developing their own renewable energy to keep up with changing attitudes and to meet state mandates. In North Carolina, Duke Energy is spending $900 million on solar. Buffett’s company had committed $15 billion across all its operations through 2014 to all types of renewable energy. Last year it pledged to double that as part of an Obama administration climate pledge. Much of this money has gone to its Iowa utility, MidAmerican Energy, which can generate about 30 percent of its power from wind turbines.
Buffett’s company has also bought renewable energy through long-term contracts. Last year, NV Energy signed up to purchase power from a giant First Solar installation outside Las Vegas for $38.70 per megawatt-hour. Analysts said at the time that it was one of the cheapest rates on record. Commissioners cited projects like that for why it made no sense to continue encouraging net metering in Nevada. If the goal is to put more solar on the grid, it’d be far cheaper for NV Energy to procure it.
This, of course, is of little consolation for the Nevadans who’ve already blanketed their roofs with solar panels. The public outcry seems to have registered with NV Energy. On Jan. 25 it said it would ask the commission to allow existing net-metering customers to stick with the old system for two decades in some instances. “A fair, stable, and predictable cost environment is important to all our customers,” Paul Caudill, the utility’s president, said in a statement. The commission will soon rehear that portion of the case.
Even if the utility’s proposal is accepted, it may not go far enough for the solar industry. The December decision could be challenged in court—or taken straight to voters. SolarCity and other groups are trying to get the issue on the November ballot.
Caught in limbo are people such as Dale Collier. The day after the commission hearing, he showed off a 56-panel system on his home in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson. It cost him about $48,000 to install in 2011. SolarCity hadn’t yet set up shop in Nevada, so he paid for it by refinancing his house. The system took his NV Energy bill down to about $80 a month from the $330 it used to average, he says. One year, he got a $1,355 check from NV Energy because his solar power was helping the utility meet its renewable energy requirements. “It was the smartest thing I’d ever done,” he says. “Now, it’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.”
Collier had planned to retire from his job flying small cargo planes. But he doesn’t want to stop working until he has a better handle on his monthly bills from Buffett’s utility. “If it goes totally haywire, I’m going to look at batteries,” he says. “I’d love to just go off the grid totally, and tell them to f--- off.”