Politics & Government

Controversial solar energy bill passes Kentucky House after several false starts

An array of solar panels on Lexington architect Richard Levine's studio.
An array of solar panels on Lexington architect Richard Levine's studio. teblen@herald-leader.com

First it was discussed in committee. Then it was changed in committee. Then it passed committee. Then it received 29 amendments. Then it was sent back to committee. Then it was discussed in committee. Then it was changed in committee. Then it passed committee.

And after about two hours of debate Wednesday, a proposal that would decrease a financial incentive for people to install solar panels on their homes was narrowly approved by the House of Representatives.

House Bill 227 allows the Kentucky Public Service Commission to change the reimbursement rates utilities must pay homeowners with solar panels on their roofs when they put their surplus energy onto the electric grid, a practice known as “net metering.”

Currently, homeowners get paid the rate utility companies charge the public for electricity, but utility companies have pushed a proposal that would allow them to pay homeowners the wholesale rate for their energy.

With wavering support for the initial bill among members of his own caucus, state Rep. Jim Gooch, R-Providence, changed the bill to let the Public Service Commission, which is responsible for setting utility rates, decide the appropriate price. The three-member commission is appointed by Gov. Matt Bevin.

It typically costs an average of $20,000 for homeowners to install solar panels in Kentucky, and takes around nine years for those homeowners to make enough money selling excess energy to recoup the cost of their investment. Decreasing payments for excess electricity to the wholesale rate would extend that period to about 20 years.

The bill passed the House on a 49-45 vote, with Democrats and Republicans from opposite ends of the political spectrum joining to argue it would hurt Kentucky’s growing solar industry.

Kentucky had 1,202 solar jobs in 2018 and solar energy accounted for 0.06 percent of Kentucky’s energy, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Opponents argued the bill is unnecessary because of the size of the solar industry in Kentucky.

“The whole idea that there’s a sense of urgency on this bill is a little out of control,” said Rep. Phil Moffett, R-Louisville.

Gooch argued that the bill was about fairness and said it was possible the bill would lower electric rates for people without solar panels.

“This is really about fairness,” Gooch said. “None of us business owners out there have anyone guaranteeing us they’ll buy our excess property.”

Rep. Angie Hatton, D-Whitesburg, said she has talked to utility companies and they would not guarantee that any savings would be passed on to customers.

The debate has received a lot of attention in Frankfort, with packed committee rooms.

Rep. David Hale, R-Wellington, said he had received hundreds of emails on both his work and personal email that appeared to be from his constituents, but he believes they were actually sent by the power company using their names.

“I’m not against this bill that much,” Hale said. “But there’s no power company that’s going to intimidate me to vote yes.”

The proposal now goes to the Senate.

Daniel Desrochers: 502-875-3793, @drdesrochers, @BGPolitics