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SolarCity hires former top regulator as policy officer

SolarCity has brought in a heavy hitter to help it stay on the good side of regulators, which in the solar energy business is almost as important as finding customers.

While the industry dodged a bullet last year with the extension of the 30 percent federal investment tax credit for new solar energy systems, it continues to fight battles in dozens of states over policies that have such a significant impact on costs that they can make or break projects.

In many states, those fights now center around how much consumers with solar energy systems should be paid for the excess power generated by their rooftop arrays. The solar industry argues that states should continue long-standing policies to pay the retail price for the extra power they generate. But utilities say solar power producers should be paid the same, lower, price that they pay for electricity on the wholesale market. Forcing them to pay the higher price amounts to a subsidy for solar power producers paid by all of the utility’s customers, they contend.

It’s such a contentious – and important – issue that SolarCity, which will occupy North America’s biggest solar panel factory in South Buffalo, pulled out of Nevada, one of the top states for solar energy, after regulators there reduced the price that consumers would be paid for their excess power.

To combat those regulatory challenges, SolarCity is bringing in Jon Wellinghoff, the former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, to be its chief policy officer. In that role, Wellinghoff, who was FERC’s chairman from 2009 to 2013, will advise the company on federal and state policy and oversee both regulatory and legislative affairs for the company.