Elon Musk and Warren Buffett Squabble Over Solar In Nevada

Warren Buffet

Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway owns NV Energy, the largest utility company in Nevada. NV Energy has recently pressured the Nevada PUC to slash the amount it must pay residential solar customers for electricity from rooftop solar arrays. Elon Musk is not happy.

Warren Buffet

Warren Buffett’s company Berkshire Hathaway owns NV Energy, Nevada’s largest electric utility. Part of Tesla Motors’ agreement with the State of Nevada regarding the Gigafactory is a provision that guarantees the factory to receive discounted electricity rates for 8 years. However that discount will result in a $1.50 per year increase to existing NV Energy customers, according to the Las Vegas Sun.

Elon Musk has a major role in SolarCity, the rooftop solar company that specializes in helping residential customers obtain rooftop solar systems for their homes. In Nevada, those homeowners were able to sell any excess electricity back to NV Energy through a process known as net metering. The reimbursement rate was set at 11 cents per kilowatt. That extra money helped fuel a boom in residential rooftop solar with SolarCity leading the way.

But recently, under heavy pressure from NV Energy, the Nevada Public Utilities commission slashed the rate to just 2.6 cents per kilowatt. The rooftop solar companies screamed that the move would eviscerate the residential solar industry in the state. SolarCity shut down its operation in Nevada and laid off hundreds of employees.

Warren Buffett told CNBC on Monday that it is ridiculous for NV Energy to pay rooftop solar customers 11 cents per kilowatt when the company’s base cost of electricity from conventional operations is just 5 cents per kilowatt. He says it is unfair for 1,000,000 customers who don’t have rooftop solar to subsidize the 17,000 or so who do. He says Elon Musk has called and spoken to him about the situation.

“He was unhappy,” Buffett said of Musk. Then he added, “He’s being subsidized with his battery plant big time.” Is that really true? The battery factory Buffett is referring to is the Tesla Gigafactory, which has been designed from the start to be net zero. That means it will generate more electricity every year than it uses. Net zero does not mean it will never draw power from the electrical grid. It means it will put more back into the grid than it uses over the course of a year. There is no information available on how the new rules from the Nevada Public Utilities commission may impact Tesla.

Elon Musk is highly sensitive to charges that Tesla is getting a huge subsidy from the State of Nevada. Yes, it amounts to $1.3 billion in total, but all those incentives are tied to Tesla doing certain things to benefit the economy of Nevada. Let’s not forget that Nevada was one of the states hit hardest by the collapse of the housing bubble in 2008. Since then, it has had one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation.

In order to qualify for the subsidies, Tesla must prove it is hiring a certain percentage of Nevada natives to build and operate the Gigafactory. Tesla has agreed to provide money and other resources to expand schools, police, and fire services in the area. It is also acting as a magnet for other industries to move to what was previously an undeveloped desert.

Musk always likes to remind people that the $1.3 billion Tesla is receiving in incentives amount to only a small discount compared to the size of the economic benefits the project is conferring on the area. “It makes sense that if something is the biggest thing on Earth, it’s probably going to have incentives that are big in the absolute, but small in relative terms,” Musk says

Warren Buffett likes to say that Berkshire Hathaway is strongly committed to reducing global carbon emissions. But he, like the Koch Brothers, is heavily invested in fossil fuels. According to ThinkProgress, he wrote in his annual letter to investors recently,  “Last year, BHE [Berkshire Hathaway Energy] made major commitments to the future development of renewables in support of the Paris Climate Change Conference.”

That may be true, but last year it also nearly doubled its position in Phillips 66 and boosted its investment in Suncor position by nearly seven million shares to 30 million shares, an investment now worth approximately $1.1 billion. Suncor is the Canadian company that seeks to develop the Alberta tar sands, the dirtiest source of petroleum on the planet.

Buffett may be one of the smartest investors in the history of the planet, but he is no leader on climate change issues the way Musk is. His letter to investors had this paragraph: “As a citizen, you may understandably find climate change keeping you up nights. As a homeowner in a low-lying area, you may wish to consider moving. But when you are thinking only as a shareholder of a major insurer, climate change should not be on your list of worries.”

ThinkProgress labels coastal flooding as a potential trillion dollar liability. Berkshire Hathaway is one of the largest companies in flood insurance and therefore has a huge potential risk from rising sea levels.

Photo credit: CNBC

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