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Musk, DiCaprio and Rive Talk the Future of Solar at Tesla Gigafactory

As the battle over Nevada's solar-killing fees wages on, state lawmakers, government officials and prominent renewable energy advocates descended upon Tesla's Gigafactory near Reno this week to discuss the future of clean energy in the Silver State.

At Wednesday's event, attendees were given a tour of the still-in-construction Gigafactory. Once complete, the massive $5 billion battery plant will be 100 percent powered by renewable energy sources, with the goal of achieving net zero energy.

The Associated Press reported that actor and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio was also at Gigafactory the same day to film a documentary he is directing on green energy. He was not part of the program but reportedly interviewed Tesla CEO Elon Musk for the film and met with some organizers and attendees, including Nevada Senate Minority Leader Aaron Ford (D-Las Vegas).

The event was organized by Musk and SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive to advance the development of solar energy in Nevada and to discuss how Tesla’s suite of in-home batteries works in tandem with a residential array. As Vegas Inc reported:

[Rive's presentation focused] on how energy storage batteries and rooftop solar can work to reduce strain on the grid and help utilities operate more efficiently. The batteries, which are already being produced at the Tesla Gigafactory, can store solar-generated power so that it can be used at night or during times of peak power usage.

According to a copy of his presentation, Rive will encourage the lawmakers to look differently at the grid and embrace disruptive technologies, such as rooftop solar and home energy storage.

“Nevada is at the forefront of the future of energy,” the text of Rive's presentation said. “But the future of energy will need leadership to enable change.”

Though it wasn't explicitly said, Rive's comment takes aim at Nevada's Public Utilities Commission (PUC), which voted in December to increase a fixed monthly fee for solar customers by about 40 percent while simultaneously reducing the amount customers get paid for excess power they sell to the grid.

A fierce net metering battle has since ensued and is framed by media as a showdown between Warren Buffett—whose Berkshire Hathaway Energy owns NV Energy, the state’s largest utility—versus Musk, the chairman and largest shareholder in SolarCity.

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The rate hikes, which took effect Jan. 1, was decried by Rive as a move that would “destroy the rooftop solar industry in one of the states with the most sunshine.” The order caused SolarCity to fire 550 field and support staff in Nevada as the company ceased installing and selling panels in the state.

Solar supplier Sunrun Inc. also ceased all operations in Nevada, saying: "The retroactive decision is also expected broadly to undermine future investment in the state, as retroactive changes impair the business community’s trust in Nevada government."

Actor and environmental activist Mark Ruffalo protested the fees and demanded the PUC change course and for Gov. Brian Sandoval to take a stand against the new rates.

Buffett explained his company's position on net metering in Nevada to CNBC earlier this month:

We do not want our million-plus customers that do not have solar to be buying solar at 10 and a half cents when we can turn it out for them at 4 and a half cents or buy it at 4 and a half cents. So, we do not want the non-solar customers, of whom there are over a million, to be subsidizing the 17,000 solar customers. Now, solar customers are subsidized through the Federal Government—as we are, with our wind and solar operations ourselves.

In Nevada, [SolarCity] had an arrangement for a very limited number of people—and the public utility commission decides this—they had an arrangement where the utility had to pay way above market for solar produced by these 17,000 homes.

The public utility commission decided that was unfair to the million-plus people who didn’t have solar, and they said ‘It’s fine to sell it back, but sell it back at market price.’

The solar industry as well as many of its customers in Nevada are fighting the PUC's decision. Solar customers initiated a class action lawsuit against NV Energy in January. Plaintiffs John Bamforth and Stanley Schone seek restitution from the utility, citing its decision to raise fees for solar customers from its prior rate of $12.75 to $38.51 by January 2028.

The solar industry coalition, No Solar Tax PAC, has filed a referendum petition to reverse the rule and will be put in front of voters in November.

The PAC claims on its website:

The rules eliminated Nevadans’ choice to go solar, imposed massive new fees on existing customers, and has already cost the state hundreds of jobs, with thousands more Nevadans facing layoffs in the coming months. Moreover, they undermine state policies and incentives that encouraged customers to go solar, created thousands of jobs, and made Nevada a national leader in clean energy. The PUC’s rules are unfair, they have damaged Nevada’s business-friendly reputation, and they only benefit the State’s monopoly utility, NV Energy.

The PUC’s new rules allow NV Energy to take clean electricity from solar customers and sell it to their neighbors at a 300 percent markup. They also force solar customers to pay monthly fees 200 percent higher than other customers. That’s just wrong. NV Energy should not be allowed to take our electricity without fair compensation.

According to the Las Vegas Review Journal, the referendum petition is currently being contested in Carson City District Court. NV Energy is fighting the referendum.

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