Tom Eblen

Will GOP let utilities crush solar (and 1,200 jobs) in Kentucky? This could get ugly.

An array of solar panels on Lexington architect Richard Levine's home studio. House Bill 227 would cut by 70 percent the amount utilities would have to pay homeowners who sell small amounts of excess power into the grid.
An array of solar panels on Lexington architect Richard Levine's home studio. House Bill 227 would cut by 70 percent the amount utilities would have to pay homeowners who sell small amounts of excess power into the grid. teblen@herald-leader.com

You would think after the sexual harassment scandal involving former Speaker Jeff Hoover and three other colleagues, House Republicans would not want to bring more embarrassment upon themselves. But you would be wrong.

GOP leaders allowed Rep. Jim Gooch of Providence on Friday to add three members to the Natural Resources and Energy Committee he chairs. Gooch needs them to try to pass a bill he is sponsoring to let electric utility monopolies crush Kentucky’s residential solar power industry.

That’s right: Not only are committee Democrats against this bad bill, Gooch doesn’t think he has enough Republican support. So GOP leaders let him rig the committee. All eyes will be on the three new members — Reps. Myron Dossett, R-Hopkinsville; Robby Mills, R-Henderson; and Rick Nelson, D-Middlesboro — when Gooch finally brings his House Bill 227 to a vote.

But this bill’s fate in the Republican-controlled legislature could have significance beyond solar energy. If House and Senate Republicans vote to kill 1,200 jobs in small solar energy businesses across Kentucky in order to protect utility monopolies, they will have a lot of explaining to do to many average GOP voters come November.

Last year, the utilities got Sen. Jared Carpenter, R-Berea and chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, to introduce a milder version of this bill. But when opponents explained the bill’s implications, he dropped it like a hot rock.

The residential solar industry claims 1,200 jobs in Kentucky, mostly blue-collar installation workers, and has been growing in recent years as solar panel technology has become much cheaper.

The utilities came back this year with an even worse bill and a sponsor who has become the face of the General Assembly’s fealty to fossil fuels.

House Bill 227 would cut by 70 percent the rate utilities pay homeowners for excess solar power they pump into the grid. That means it would take far longer for home solar systems to pay for themselves, essentially killing the industry, solar advocates say.

Gooch, who served in the house for 20 years as a Democrat before becoming a Republican in 2015, is no stranger to shameful behavior. He made national news in 2007 by organizing a hearing on the science of climate change that didn’t include any scientists. Instead, he featured a “senior fellow” from the Exxon-backed Heartland Institute and a climate change-denying British viscount who designs puzzles.

The Jan. 31 committee meeting on Gooch’s solar bill was just as comical. After falsely claiming that other utility customers are subsidizing residential solar, he introduced a lobbyist for the Consumer Energy Alliance, a fossil fuel and utility front group that masquerades as a consumer advocacy organization.

When opponents of the bill were given a chance to speak, Tom Fitzgerald, longtime head of the Kentucky Resources Council, shredded their arguments. If lawmakers think residential solar is shifting costs to other customers, he said, they should ask the state Public Service Committee to study the issue and recommend changes. But utility monopolies should not be allowed to dictate Kentucky’s energy future, he said.

Jamie Clark, a Lexington Republican activist who owns a solar installation company, noted that Kentucky law already limits utilities’ obligation to pay home solar generators full value for their excess power to 1 percent of the total customer base, or 18,000 homes. Kentucky now has only 1,000 solar homes. When the benefits of home-generated solar power to the grid are factored in, there is no “subsidy” or cost-shifting, many independent studies have shown. The purpose of this bill, he said, is to hurt free-market competition.

“Don’t you think Time Warner Cable would like to go back 30 years and make it illegal to put a satellite dish on your roof?” he asked. “That’s effectively what this legislation is doing to residential solar.”

Then Clark made some Republican committee members squirm. He noted the presence of several utility lobbyists in the room, saying “they have their bosses.”

Then he explained that he is a Republican because he believes in supporting small business, promoting a free market and opposing government interference in business. If this bill passes, he said, his 24 employees will be out of work within a year.

“I cannot see how any member of the Republican party on this committee can vote for this bill,” Clark said. “But, as I said, we all have our bosses. Your vote will let the people of Kentucky know who you see as your boss. Will you vote no in support of the free market the way the citizens of your district elected you, or will you vote to increase the utilities’ monopoly to support out-of-state or even out-of- country businesses?”

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen

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