Commentary: Berkshire Hathaway’s Compromise on Nevada Solar Panel Fees is Just Round One

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Berkshire Hathaway has become a world-leader in renewable energy power generation based on its huge and varied solar and wind farms, but it has been on the other side of the renewable energy fence as it comes to rooftop solar panels purchased by consumers.

At issue is who pays for the electric transmission grid when solar panel owners pay little or nothing for power, and sell back their excess power to utilities through the grid.

Ground zero is Nevada, where Berkshire Hathaway Energy’s lobbying produced a host of new fees for existing solar panel owners, and a prohibitive cost structure that caused rooftop solar supplier SolarCity to announce that it would lay-off 2,000 workers and leave the state.

The fees caused an uproar from solar panel owners that watched their expensive capital intensive investments, which had been promoted as bringing many years of savings, lose all economic benefit.

Now, Berkshire is backing off at least a bit.

On February 1, Berkshire’s utility NV Energy will submit a proposal to the State of Nevada Public Utilities Commission proposing to grandfather in the existing 30,000 solar panel owners to the old rate structure for a period of up to twenty years. The move may quell homeowner anger, but it still doesn’t address the viability of the home solar panel industry.

According to reports, Berkshire’s proposed rate changes still do not make new rooftop solar panels viable in terms of cost savings for the homeowner.

Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval has supported NV Energy’s position that additional fees are necessary in order to not leave non-rooftop solar panel homes with the burden for paying for both the transmission grid and the retirement costs of decommissioning old fossil fuel plants, which are primarily highly polluting coal-fired plants.

While it’s probably not a winning long-term strategy for energy producers, such as Berkshire Hathaway Energy, to rely on legislation and rate structures that make home solar panel ownership uneconomical, they are right that they do need to find a way for solar panel owners to pay a share of the maintenance of the transmission grid. However, they must do this without killing what has become a clean power source for hundreds of thousands of consumers.

The Importance of the Transmission Grid

Sometimes lost in the debate is that even rooftop solar panel owners benefit from the grid. The grid supplies power to solar-panel owners at night, on cloudy days, and maintains fleets of repair trucks that not only do regular maintenance, but also respond quickly to natural disasters. The robust ability that utilities have to restore the grid after natural disasters should not be taken lightly, as their collaboration across large geographic areas often means that crews quickly come from hundreds or thousands of miles away to help restore service after hurricanes, blizzards, and other disasters.

For utilities, rooftop solar either represents competition for their centrally generated energy model, or a growing replacement for antiquated power sources.

As a replacement for other power sources, it’s unreasonable to expect utilities to buy back power at retail rates. That’s like asking a clothing store to buy clothes from you at retail and sell it at retail.

The real battle needs to be fought in the marketplace, where the true cost of cleaner forms of energy generation will determine the winners and losers. The cost of solar panels for both residential and utility scale generation has dropped dramatically, and as it continues to drop, it will determine which part of the economic model is most cost effective for consumers.

Another factor that should not be forgotten is that utilities have to cover the cost of retiring old fossil fuel burning plants. These costs must be shared by everyone, as everyone benefitted from the power they produced. Those costs cannot be left for just the consumers that are relying solely on the grid for their electricity needs.

In the end, both sides need a deal where both can prosper. After all, there are many customers that will never have solar panels and will continue to rely on utilities due to their location, cost, or the amount of time they will be living in a given home or apartment. And utilities will not only be needed to provide power to homes, but also factories, hospitals, schools, street lights, and a host of other settings that can’t afford to be left with a disproportionate share of the cost of the transmission grid.

What is also clear, is that Berkshire’s proposal is just the next round in a battle over who pays for the electric grid, and how much.

© 2016 David Mazor

Disclosure: David Mazor is a freelance writer focusing on Berkshire Hathaway. The author is long in Berkshire Hathaway, and this article is not a recommendation on whether to buy or sell the stock. The information contained in this article should not be construed as personalized or individualized investment advice. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.