Opinion

First, the legislature sank a solar compromise. Now the PSC will have to fix it.

How to slash your power bill by using solar panels

Retired engineer Bruce Duckett shares his experience with the simplicity of having solar panels. He financed them with no money down, federal tax credits and a manufacturer's rebate. (Karen Nelson/The Sun Herald)
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Retired engineer Bruce Duckett shares his experience with the simplicity of having solar panels. He financed them with no money down, federal tax credits and a manufacturer's rebate. (Karen Nelson/The Sun Herald)

At the very end of the last session, Kentucky lawmakers slipped through a bill that caused a lot of consternation among solar energy advocates around the state. Not that they were given much time to debate it, of course.

Senate Bill 100 affected people who install solar panels on their houses and businesses. Under the previous law, “net metering” allowed people who made extra energy with their solar panels to basically sell it back to the utility at the same rate the utilities charge. This made solar installation more financially feasible for many.

The new law will require the Public Service Commission to set different rates per utility company or cooperatives. The utility companies that backed the bill said it would stop subsidizing solar customers who were not paying for the costs of maintaining the electric grid that they are still use.

Advocates said it would end net metering and allow the utility companies, already in the midst of building their own solar farms, to effectively kill the fledgling solar industry. Like water companies, they’ll be able to charge customers for the costs of building solar farms.

“This bill ends net-metering as we know it,” Tom FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, said last year.

“I don’t for the life of me understand why the utilities have engaged in this multi-year effort to stifle rooftop solar other than — assuming that they have higher costs from their own solar arrays — they want to push the independent solar producers out of the market so they can corner the market on the sun,” FitzGerald said.

Chris Whelan, a spokeswoman for LGE-KU, the biggest utility in the state, said that because the bill grandfathers in the current roughly 1,000 net meter customers, “it was never about squashing solar. It’s about a more fair price for buying back the energy.”

Now the whole mess lands in the lap of the PSC. It will be taking public comment through Oct. 15. A public hearing will be at 9 a.m. on Nov. 13 at the PSC offices in Frankfort.

“The PSC role is not to determine what the policy ought to be,” said PSC spokesman Andrew Melnykovych. “The legislation said that the rates are to be based on some measure of the costs of providing service, and utilities have to justify that rate.”

The PSC won’t make a ruling on Nov. 13. It is trying to gather information to use a guide when all the utility companies come to make their argument for different rates after the bill goes into effect in January 2020.

“The PSC is trying to get everybody who has a stake in this, solar panel providers, anyone who wants to weigh in on this,” Melnykovych said.

At the same time, Rep. Jim DuPlessis, R-Elizabethtown, is still trying to find some kind of compromise. He had crafted one for the bill, but it was jettisoned when it returned to the Senate. He has drafted another compromise, but said he wanted to wait to see what the PSC decides.

“We have to make sure we don’t put these solar companies out of business and we don’t hurt the ratepayers that don’t have solar,” he said recently. “There has to be a compromise between the two. I feel like the PSC can do this, but I have to be ready if they don’t.”

I understand that arguments about why we should be expanding solar as much has possible won’t go far with the numerous climate deniers who run our statehouse these days. The real question is why more of DuPlessis’ fellow Republican legislators — who are always talking about their support for small businesses — aren’t doing more. It could, of course, have something to do with the hundreds of thousands of dollars the state utility companies have paid to elected officials in the past, including about $100,000 from the PAC run by LG&E and Kentucky Utilities alone, according to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance.

Matt Partymiller, head of the Kentucky Solar Industries Association said it’s clear to his group that the bill was aimed at killing the solar industry in Kentucky.

“The bill imposes new bureaucracy and red tape for private individuals, farms, and businesses seeking to invest in solar while also capping the total amount of solar that can easily connect to Kentucky’s grid,” he said. “In 2020, when SB100 takes effect, the monopoly utilities will ask the Public Service Commission to create as much uncertainty and confusion for solar customers as possible by creating a new, solar-specific rate class that eliminates savings from self-generation.

“The PSC still has the opportunity to support the businesses, homeowners, farmers and churches who want to choose solar power. It can accomplish this through setting a fair rate based on the true value of solar energy to Kentuckians.”

In other words, the legislature tanked on compromise, and now it’s up the PSC to find one.

Linda Blackford writes columns and commentary for the Herald-Leader.

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