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How Money in Politics Is Killing Rooftop Solar in Nevada

You may have noticed that the influence of corporate money in politics has become a hot issue on the campaign trail. All the candidates are talking about it, from Bernie Sanders to Ted Cruz.

And Greenpeace has been chattering more than usual about it since we, along with more than 20 partners, launched a pledge asking all candidates to start fixing democracy by both rejecting campaign contributions from fossil fuel companies and protecting voting rights.

Fred Terranova assembles a solar array on the roof of the Eagle Learning center at Eastern University in St. Davids. Photo credit: Tim Shaffer / Greenpeace

With all that chatter, it may be easy to lose sight of what is actually wrong with big money in politics. What are the real-world consequences of politicians bought by corporate money and influence? How does a cozy relationship between a governor and a lobbyist impact you and me?

Let us go to Nevada.

What Happened to Nevada’s Solar Energy Boom?

The Silver State is not only the next stop for the upcoming Republican and Democratic caucuses, following on the heels of the New Hampshire primary, it is also the site of a fierce debate around solar energy that has everything to do with money in politics.

Most people’s descriptions of Nevada include sunshine and lots of it, making it a natural place for a thriving solar market. Nevada was well on its way to becoming a national hotspot for affordable rooftop solar until a few months ago, when the ramifications of corporate influence over politics had its day in the sun.

Prior to a December decision by Nevada’s Public Utilities Commission, homeowners could not only enroll in affordable solar investment for their homes, they could also sell back any energy they didn’t use to the utility NV Energy, like rollover minutes on a cell phone plan. This is called net metering and is a common practice across the country. Basically, that customer gets credit for the energy it sends back to the local grid. High fives all around!

Unfortunately, the Nevada’s Public Utilities Commission struck a big blow against rooftop solar passed in December. The commission passed a resolution that hiked up the fees for solar customers and significantly lowered the payout for the electricity solar customers contribute back to the grid. The real bummer here is that when customers signed up for a solar rebate by installing panels on their roofs, they expected the rates to stay the same for years to come. Now, the cost of installation and maintenance of rooftop solar just got significantly more expensive for customers, forcing them to pay for electricity they are producing themselves.

The solar installation industry now employs more people than oil and gas extractive industries and does so without harming human health or the health of our climate. So why would any state—particularly one as swamped with sunshine as Nevada—suddenly unleash an attack on renewable and affordable solar energy?

The cozy relationship between the governor of Nevada and the state’s utility company might have something to do with it.

And in case you’re starting to lose perspective here, affordable access to solar energy is really important right now. Those changes made such an impact that SolarCity, the major provider for the solar installations in Nevada, pulled their company out of Nevada along with 500 jobs that could have benefited the state.

If we’re going to avoid catastrophic climate change, the world needs to be done with fossil fuels by 2050. That means every state should establish easy and affordable access to rooftop solar and a place like Nevada, which enjoys nearly 300 days of sunshine, should lead the pack on solar energy.

So why the quick change?

Read page 1

A Governor and a Lobbyist

When following the bizarre solar attack in Nevada right now, the first question to ask is, "Who would not like booming solar in Nevada?"

The answer is a utility company and, in this case, energy monopoly NV Energy.

The rise of renewable and affordable energy is a direct threat to the utilities’ outdated business model, despite the unmistakable environmental and economic value of distributed solar energy. By putting a stop to rooftop solar, those utilities hope to protect their own bottom-line profits.

NV Energy needed to end this solar circus and thankfully the utility had a friend in the right place to help make that happen: Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval.

Gov. Sandoval’s ties to NV Energy are substantial. First, Sandoval’s two election campaigns have both received the maximum allowed donation under state law from NV Energy.

Next, two of NV Energy’s primary lobbyists, Pete Ernaut and Gregory W. Ferraro, are two of the Republican governor’s closest advisers. In addition to being an executive at NV Energy’s public relations firm, Ernaut managed Sandoval’s gubernatorial campaign.

Let me repeat that last part.

The same guy who led Gov. Sandoval into office is in charge of making NV Energy look good and make a lot of money.

As governor, Sandoval then had to appoint members of Nevada’s Public Utilities Commission, who are in charge of regulating the state utilities and really in charge of regulating NV Energy.

And those three people, on the commission and appointed by Sandoval, voted in December to hike up rates so much that rooftop solar was no longer feasible for most homeowners, meaning NV Energy could breathe easy with a protected revenue stream at the expense of citizens.

Installers work on a rooftop solar panel in Charlotte, North Carolina as part of the Solarize Charlotte initiative. Photo credit: Jason Miczek / Greenpeace

Presidential Promises of a Fixed Democracy in Sunny Nevada

As illustrated by the case in Nevada, the ripple effects of money in politics are everywhere in this country, from the Flint water crisis in Michigan to an attack on solar energy in Nevada.

Both Democratic presidential candidates, Sec. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, have made comments about the solar fight in Nevada.

Sanders called the rate hike "just about the dumbest thing I have ever heard. We should be making it easier, not harder for people to go solar" in a December speech in Las Vegas.

Last month, Clinton spoke about the job boom from solar energy, going on to say it is “a win-win to move us away from fossil fuels, to diversify the grid, to give homeowners a chance to be empowered to do something about their own energy usage and put people to work.”

The Republican candidates, however, have not included renewable energy support in their stump speeches and most even fail to acknowledge climate change as a serious issue.

Where the candidates generally seem to agree is that money in politics is a problem. Gov. Jeb Bush called for an overturn of Citizens United earlier this week and Sen. Ted Cruz even said that big money, lobbyists and corruption are a problem in Washington.

Of course, voters want more than rhetoric from any candidate.

Each candidate has an opportunity to prove to voters right now that they are committed to fixing this rampant problem of money in politics by taking the #FixDemocracy pledge, vowing to reject fossil fuel money and support voters rights.

Bernie Sanders is the only candidate who has officially pledged to fix democracy. Who will be next?

If you’re ready to see an end to corporate influence over politics, ask this year’s candidates to sign the pledge to fix democracy.

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