Politics & Government

Bill that would make home solar energy more costly in Kentucky appears dead

Richard Levine, a University of Kentucky architecture professor, outfitted his studio with solar panels to provide much of the electricity for it and his home. He uses net-metering to feed excess power he generates into the Kentucky Utilities grid and draw power when he needs it.
Richard Levine, a University of Kentucky architecture professor, outfitted his studio with solar panels to provide much of the electricity for it and his home. He uses net-metering to feed excess power he generates into the Kentucky Utilities grid and draw power when he needs it. Tom Eblen

A controversial bill that would make residential solar panels less economically viable in Kentucky might be dead for the 2017 legislative session.

Facing a hearing room packed with solar power supporters, Senate Natural Resources and Energy Chairman Jared Carpenter, R-Berea, pulled his Senate Bill 214 from Wednesday’s meeting agenda.

Carpenter said he worked until late Tuesday trying to reach a compromise that would satisfy solar power advocates, who prefer the current arrangement for selling their surplus power to utilities, and the utility industry, which says it needs more money from solar customers to maintain the power grid.

Finally, it just seemed wisest to postpone any action for now, the senator said.

“My job is not to push a bill that I’m not comfortable with,” Carpenter said. “Time is getting close. There was some language that I could have corrected this morning. But I didn’t think it was fair to the members of this committee or to anyone who is interested in this issue to push something through on short notice. It’s too big of an issue for that.”

Speaking to reporters later, Carpenter declined to say that his bill is definitely dead. But he said that Wednesday was the 21st day of the 30-day legislative session and suggested that his bill probably will be studied by lawmakers in the interim later this year, with another bill attempted in 2018.

Carpenter’s bill addresses net-metering, which lets homes and businesses with solar panels feed the excess power they generate into their local utility’s grid and receive, in exchange, a one-for-one credit toward power they need to buy when the sun isn’t shining.

Utility companies are lobbying the General Assembly for a less generous arrangement, arguing that a one-for-one credit doesn’t cover the costs they incur in maintaining the power grid. Carpenter’s bill would have allowed more than two dozen utilities around the state to appear separately before the Public Service Commission to call for their own net-metering rates and related charges.

“Net-metering customers in Kentucky are being effectively subsidized by non-solar customers in Kentucky. So it’s not a dispute against solar. It’s a dispute against the way the law was written 15 years ago in an antiquated fashion. Now there’s a chance for us to reform that law and to do it right for the future,” Joe Arnold, vice president of the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives, said after Wednesday’s hearing.

Several companies that install solar panels organized on social media against the bill over the past two weeks.

The PSC might need to make some changes to net-metering, solar advocates said, but holding two dozen hearings to set a range of less attractive exchange rates could result in a chaotic market that discourages future homeowners from installing solar panels and cripples the state’s nascent solar power industry.

“There were people trying to rush the legislation through, and I think Senator Carpenter did exactly the right thing,” said Jamie Clark, owner of Synergy Home in Lexington.

“This isn’t necessarily about a one-to-one swap,” said Matt Partymiller, general manager at Solar Energy Solutions in Lexington. “We’re open to discussing with the utilities any perceived subsidy and finding a fair, neutral way to resolve that perceived subsidy. We’re not sure one exists. But we’re certainly open to having those discussions with a fair and neutral party.”

At present, only about 600 homes in Kentucky are solar powered out of 1.8 million homes total, Clark said.

“We’re not the big, bad wolf knocking on anybody’s door here,” Clark said. “But five, six years from now, when our (electric) rates start climbing as we know they’re going to, solar is a very viable market.”

John Cheves: 859-231-3266, @BGPolitics

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