In 2007, when the Nevada state legislature established the SolarGenerations rebate program for customers of NV Energy, the state’s largest utility, entrepreneurs Tom Price and Richard Scott saw an opportunity. SolarGenerations provided upfront rebates for installations on public buildings, including nonprofits, churches, schools, and tribal offices.
The duo devised a plan to provide free or low-cost PV systems through the rebates and other public funding. They founded the Reno-based nonprofit Black Rock Solar (BRS, blackrocksolar.org), assembled a crew of volunteers, and began knocking on doors and cold-calling prospective clients. Six years later, BRS’s 25-person crew has installed more than 3 megawatts of PV throughout the state—including 201 kW at Western Nevada College in Carson City; 45 kW at the Children’s Cabinet Youth Center in Reno; and 91 kW for buildings operated by the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe.
“Many schools, nonprofits, and tribes don’t consider solar because they think they cannot afford the upfront costs. We help them take advantage of all the available incentives and raise additional funds through donations,” says Patrick McCully, BRS executive director. “In the end, our clients pay very little, if anything, for the installation, and they save hundreds, even thousands, in electricity costs each year. That’s money they can use to support their missions.”
Once funding is in place, BRS’s crew installs the system. In return, clients sign over all or a portion of the rebates they receive. This amount is typically equal to one to three years of the estimated electricity savings from the system output, says McCully.
In the past, the majority of BRS’s funding to pay its staff and support its administrative operations came from the SolarGenerations rebates collected from clients. Funded through a small surcharge on NV Energy’s customers, the rebates paid as much as $5 per watt at one point for PV systems installed on public buildings. Since government agencies, nonprofits, and schools are tax-exempt and unable to take the federal tax credit, the NV Energy rebates have been especially important for promoting Nevada’s solar growth in this sector, McCully says.
But as the price of PV has dropped, so have the rebates. In 2013, the state’s public utility commission approved NV Energy’s proposal to reduce the solar rebates for public buildings to $1 per watt, down from $2.80 per watt during the previous phase. Now, NV Energy is proposing that rebates be cut even more, down to $0.1724 per watt for public buildings. The utility had plans to reopen the program for applications starting November 1, 2013. Though this release is scheduled to be the utility’s last round of upfront incentives, McCully doubts that such low-level incentives will be enough to make the initial costs of a new solar project affordable for nonprofits and schools already facing budget challenges.
With the proposed cuts, BRS’s time in Nevada may be coming to an end. The nonprofit is exploring several options, including moving its operations across state lines to California, where incentives are still available. However, the group remains hopeful that this summer’s acquisition of NV Energy by Warren Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy may be a game-changer in the long run, given that MidAmerican is a major owner and developer of solar projects.
In the meantime, BRS is wrapping up what may be its last SolarGenerations rebate-funded installation—a 31 kW rooftop PV system for Friends In Service Helping (FISH), one of northern Nevada’s biggest charities, which serves more than 200,000 free meals a year. Rebates covered most of the system cost, and BRS partnered with the Las Vegas-based charity Green Our Planet to raise $12,000 via an online crowd-funding campaign. The system, due to be operational by early 2014, will be installed on the roof of FISH’s thrift store in downtown Carson City.
For now, BRS is sustaining its operations by relying more heavily on donations and grants for its education work, which includes a field-trip program where grade-school students learn about renewable energy and energy conservation while visiting BRS project sites. Funding from clients, as well as in-kind and subsidized donations of solar goods from the industry, has grown in importance as the incentives have declined.