Setbacks Aside, Nevada Still Ranks High For Solar Installations

Despite a sharp decrease in applications for new rooftop solar projects, Nevada remains among the top five states for the deployment of solar resources. When Nevada was compared to other states, it ranked fifth for solar installations during the first half of 2016, a trade group said in a study released Monday.

One reason for the result: large-scale solar projects. According to the study from GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association, Nevada continues to break ground on large-scale projects, even as sales for rooftop solar systems in the state remain a fraction of what they were during 2015.

"The cumulative rankings are pretty heavily driven by utility-scale development because those projects are bigger," said Sean Gallagher, vice president of state affairs for SEIA, a national industry group.

As of June, about 81 megawatts of large-scale solar resources had been installed in Nevada (for reference, one megawatt can power about 600 homes). Several projects became operational at the end of 2015, including a solar operation at Nellis Air Force Base and one near Tonopah. NV Energy began construction on two additional large-scale projects this summer, both expected to operate next year.

In December, Nevada became a battleground in a nationwide debate over how to value rooftop solar, after the Public Utilities Commission increased bills for most customers. While commissioners said the new rates better reflected the cost of serving solar customers, the decision had an immediate impact on the rooftop solar industry in Nevada and was criticized by solar advocates, who said it was one-sided.

SolarCity and Sunrun halted their Nevada operations in January, when applications for new rooftop solar systems also began to slow. NV Energy has received about 400 applications this year compared to the thousands it received last year. SEIA is one of several parties challenging the PUC decision in court.

The drop-off in applications was not fully reflected in the study because, Gallagher said, the report focused on installations. During the first two quarters of the year, NV Energy continued adding rooftop solar panels to the grid for homeowners who had applied prior to the rule change in December. The report shows that about 20 megawatts of residential solar capacity had been installed through June.

"It appears to (reflect) projects that were planned before the commission's decision," he said.

Across the U.S., solar comprised about a quarter of new energy installed in the first half of 2016. The amount of solar installed during that period increased 43 percent compared to the same time last year.

Thousands of experts from the solar industry are in Las Vegas this week for Solar Power International, a conference that is featuring speakers from SolarCity and Sunrun. Many attendees will be watching the utilities commission, which could vote as early as this Friday on a request to exempt pre-2016 solar customers from the rate change. Doing so would allow them to keep the more favorable prior rate.