Tom Eblen

A solar power grab. An obsolete coal plant. Here’s why politicians hold Kentucky back.

It is Kentucky’s recurring tragedy. So often, when this state had the opportunity to move forward, politicians fought to cling to the past because they were beholden to powerful economic interests of the present.

This week, we are seeing two great examples of this. In both cases, Republican leaders want to block the kind of energy innovation taking place elsewhere and drag Kentucky back to the 20th century.

In the first example, Gov. Matt Bevin and Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul are pressuring the Tennessee Valley Authority not to close the last coal-fired power plant at Paradise in Muhlenberg County.

TVA has decided this 49-year-old plant is unneeded and too expensive to operate. Like other utilities in Kentucky and elsewhere, they are abandoning coal for cheaper and cleaner natural gas and rushing to develop the renewable energy sources of the future.

Paradise vote
The Tennessee Valley Authority’s Paradise power plant in Muhlenberg County was once the biggest coal-fired plant in the world, but by December 2018 only one of its three burners was still in use. Bill Estep

The irony is rich, because TVA is a most unlikely target for the “war on coal” crowd. As John Prine explained in his famous song “Paradise”, it was at TVA’s behest that large tracts of the Western Kentucky landscape was strip-mined to feed that power plant. And for decades, TVA’s insatiable demand for cheap coal contributed to some of the worst strip-mining abuses in Eastern Kentucky.

Even TVA now realizes that coal is the past, not the future. Yet these Kentucky politicians and President Donald Trump are screaming. To listen to them, you would think the coal industry is still a major employer in Kentucky instead of a rapidly disappearing dinosaur with fewer than 6,400 workers. (That number has continued to fall despite Trump’s empty promises about putting thousands of unemployed miners back to work.)

Why are politicians still fighting the “war on coal”? Because coal executives, who pour lots of money into their campaigns, want to squeeze every dollar out of Kentucky’s landscape while they can. Never mind the damage to public health, the environment, economic innovation and Kentucky’s future.

Paradise coal
Coal produced at an underground mine in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky poured from the end of a conveyor onto a pile being used to load trucks that delivered the coal TVA’s Paradise power plant in December 2018. Bill Estep

The second example this week is Senate Bill 100, which should have been titled the Electric Utility Monopoly Preservation Act. This is the utility industry’s third annual attempt to dominate the emerging solar power market, and its political minions are bending every rule to rush it through the General Assembly.

This bill would severely limit how much utilities must pay people who install solar panels on their homes and businesses for the excess power they generate for the grid. Entrepreneurs in the rapidly growing solar industry claim this bill would essentially put them out of business, killing hundreds of jobs in small companies across the state.

The utilities claim the current “net metering” law is unfair to them and other ratepayers, which is hogwash. There are only about 1,000 solar installations across Kentucky, and the benefits they provide to the utilities and the power grid offset any costs.

Solar panels on a Lexington residence feed excess energy into the grid. Tom Eblen

What this fight is really about is who will control solar power in the future. Utilities are rushing to build big solar farms, and they don’t want any competition.

While this year’s utility-sponsored bill has been watered down some from previous versions in response to public outcry, it is hardly the compromise sponsors claim. The solar industry and environmental groups oppose this bill for two big reasons: it limits the state Public Service Commission’s ability to consider solar power’s benefits as well as its costs in setting rates; and it keeps the amount of electricity individuals generating their own solar power can get credit back from utilities at levels far lower than in other states.

This is a bad bill, and, as opponents in the Senate complained Wednesday, GOP leadership is arrogantly trying to rush it into law. Like last year’s sewer-pension bill, SB 100 is an example of how special interests rule and the public gets the shaft when one party — either Republicans or Democrats — have complete control of government.

SB100 is nothing more than a power grab by the utilities. The fight over TVA’s Paradise plant is nothing more than a last-gasp attempt by the coal industry to stay relevant. The fact that so many Kentucky politicians are waging these fights for them underscores the truth behind an old joke: When the world ends, I want to be in Kentucky, because everything is at least a decade or two behind the times.

Tom Eblen, the Lexington Herald-Leader’s metro/state columnist since 2008, writes opinion and feature columns. A seventh-generation Kentuckian, he was the Herald-Leader’s managing editor from 1998-2008. Eblen previously worked for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Associated Press. He is a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.
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