Tom Eblen

Anti-solar bill hurts Kentucky’s energy future. It’s also a case of dirty politics.

An array of solar panels on Lexington architect Richard Levine’s studio.
An array of solar panels on Lexington architect Richard Levine’s studio.

The anti-solar energy bill that was narrowly passed by the House and is awaiting action in the Senate illustrates two weaknesses in Kentucky’s civic character: We try to cling to the past, and we tolerate dirty politics.

House Bill 227 was written by electric utilities to protect their monopolies by discouraging Kentuckians from installing solar panels on their homes.

Under current law, homeowners with solar panels get full credit for excess power they feed into the utility grid on sunny days for when they need to draw it out at night or on cloudy days. This bill would significantly cut that credit, while making them pay full price for power they draw out.

Utilities claim the current system isn’t fair, because solar homeowners are using their grid like a battery without paying for its maintenance. The utility industry’s fake “grassroots” group, the Consumer Energy Alliance, has promoted the bill by falsely claiming that solar homeowners are shifting costs to other customers.

These arguments ignore the monthly service fee solar customers, like all customers, pay to help maintain the grid. They also ignore the environmental benefits of solar, and the fact that utilities are getting extra power into their grid on hot summer days when demand and their own generating costs are at peak.

Solar panel installers — mostly small businesses scattered around the state — say drastically cutting the so-called net metering rate would all but put them out of business, costing Kentucky hundreds of jobs. Fewer homeowners will install solar panels if low credit rates make it harder for them to recoup their investment.

What this bill is really about is protecting the utilities’ traditional business model and protecting their monopolies on generating electricity. It’s as if carriage makers a century ago had tried to ban automobiles from the road, claiming they were unfair to horses.

Utilities are right to be worried. But what they should be worried about is battery technology. Rather than trying to snuff out independent solar producers, they should be partnering with them so they won’t abandon the grid when battery technology makes it possible.

The broader issue is that this bill is bad for Kentucky’s future. It discourages innovation and clean, renewable energy. It limits the energy freedom and independence of families and small businesses. And it makes Kentucky less resilient in emergencies, from storms and other natural disasters to potential attacks. The Department of Homeland Security warned Thursday that Russian hackers have for the past three years been attacking utility power plants, electric grids and other critical infrastructure.

It is important to note that this is not a partisan issue. While most of House Bill 227s supporters are Republicans, many other Republicans oppose the bill. After two hours of heated debate on the House floor, it passed by only four votes.

This bill would have no chance were it not being pushed so aggressively by utilities, with support from politicians and business groups susceptible to their power, including chambers of commerce.

The story of how this bill even made it to the House floor is a case study in dirty politics.

It was the work of Rep. Jim Gooch of Providence, a Democrat-turned-Republican and longtime chairman of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee. Gooch, the coal industry’s best friend in Frankfort, is most famous for a 2007 legislative hearing he organized on the science of climate change that included no scientists, only climate-change deniers.

This session, when Gooch didn’t have enough votes to pass House Bill 227 after its first hearing did not go well, he added more members to the committee. Since then, he has called special meetings on short notice to keep the bill’s opponents from attending, prompting a boycott by Democratic committee members. The Kentucky Educational Television video from his next-to-last special meeting was so unflattering that he held his last meeting, in which the much-amended bill was sent back to the House floor, in a room with no KET cameras.

Senate leaders should let this bad bill die. The session is almost over, and they have a lot of important work to do.

House leaders should replace Gooch as committee chairman. After their other leadership scandals this session, the last thing the new GOP majority needs is more embarrassment.

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen