Warren Buffett is an outspoken advocate of renewable energy development, and his Berkshire Hathaway Inc. holding company has invested billions in wind farms and solar power projects. But in Nevada, a Berkshire-owned utility is fighting a plan to boost installations of rooftop solar panels in the desert state, with its abundant sunshine.
Buffett’s mixed messaging can be explained by a simple reason: money, Bloomberg News reported Monday. The Nevada proposal would raise the limit on the amount of clean energy that solar panel owners can sell back to the grid. With a higher cap on “net metering,” as the program is called, residents could cut their reliance on power from NV Energy Inc., eating into the utility's revenue.
“It’s legal to lobby and it’s legal to push your agenda, so [Buffett] is going to push his agenda even if it looks kind of hypocritical,” Jeff Matthews, an investor and author of books about Berkshire, told Bloomberg.
Buffett's solar fight in Nevada is part of a broader policy battle between utilities and solar-power proponents playing out across the country. Advocates say utilities are using regulation and legislation to maintain their market share against rooftop solar producers. But the utilities say their only interest is keeping electricity affordable and reliable for all of their customers.
The debate is intensifying as solar adoption climbs across the U.S. Nearly 200,000 homes and businesses added rooftop or on-site solar installations in 2014, bringing the nation’s total count to more than 600,000 projects, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research.
Under a net-metering program, when solar panel owners produce more energy than they use, they get a credit on their utility bill for the power they supply to the grid. Utilities say this forces them to raise their rates and pass costs on to everyone else.
NV Energy is lobbying to keep Nevada’s cap on solar net-metering at 3 percent of the utility’s peak energy load. “It’s a system created to make sure that customers without solar will not be paying for customers who have solar,” Stacy Kusters, NV Energy’s vice president of renewable energy, recently told the Reno Gazette-Journal. “It’s about protecting customers.”
Proponents of a higher net-metering cap are pushing legislation to raise it to 10 percent of peak load, which would let customers sell even more solar electricity to the utility. “Caps are generally arbitrary limits on industry growth,” Will Craven, a spokesman for the Alliance for Solar Choice, told the Reno newspaper. “They are an artificial market force.”