Politics & Government

Kentucky House passes solar power bill, with changes that could lead to showdown

The Kentucky House on Friday passed a controversial bill that could make residential rooftop solar panels less lucrative in the state, but only after adding new language that might lead to a battle with the Senate.

Senate Bill 100, sponsored by state Sen. Brandon Smith, R-Hazard, would require the Kentucky Public Service Commission to determine how much solar customers would be compensated by utilities for selling their excess power back to the grid.

The bill is backed by the state’s major electric utilities, including LG&E and Kentucky Utilities, who are currently required by state law to pay as much for accepting excess power onto the grid as they charge residential customers for taking power off the grid.

The House voted 71-to-24 to approve the bill.

But first, the House added an amendment, sponsored by state Rep. Jim DuPlessis, R-Elizabethtown, that made several changes sought by the solar industry and opposed by the utility companies. Among them: the PSC would have to consider the benefits of solar power as well as the costs when setting rates, and the solar industry would be allowed to intervene in rate cases.

State Rep. Jim DuPlessis LRC Public Information office

DuPlessis said utility companies have “legitimate concerns” about how existing law requires them to purchase excess power from solar customers. The utilities complain that they subsidize solar customers because they must cover the cost of maintaining the grid, a point the solar industry contests, noting that their customers pay their own fees toward grid maintenance.

However, DuPlessis said, a promising network of small solar panel businesses in Kentucky is relying on the law as written, and throwing the entire rate-making process into PSC negotiations as the Senate bill originally called for threatens to wreck their business model.

In floor speeches, several House members said they only voted for the bill Friday because it had been tempered with DuPlessis’ amendment.

Still, state Rep. Angie Hatton, D-Whitesburg, said she feared even the amended bill would make rooftop solar panels less financially attractive, cutting the legs out from under an emerging industry that has started to bring cheaper power and innovative jobs to her struggling region of Kentucky.

“We do not need another heavy boot on our heads as we try to climb out of our economic distress,” Hatton said.

The bill now returns to the Senate, which must decide whether to concur with the House’s changes. If the Senate does not, the bill goes to a conference committee with members drawn from both chambers, where a compromise might be reached.

John Cheves is a government accountability reporter at the Lexington Herald-Leader. He joined the newspaper in 1997 and previously worked in its Washington and Frankfort bureaus and covered the courthouse beat.
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