Op-Ed

Utilities spending big to snuff rooftop solar. Will consumers get stuck with the tab?

I work for a small conservation nonprofit that helps citizens navigate the confusing world of the state legislature. We offer legislative support and advice at no cost. This year we have been inundated with citizens who are trying to protect the ability to invest in rooftop solar, an investment that has become much more affordable to average households.

House Bill 227, which would devalue what a customer is credited for rooftop solar, is being heavily lobbied for by utilities. HB 227 is not simply an anti-solar bill. It is an anti-free market bill that disadvantages independent solar businesses for the benefit of the monopoly utilities.

Utility advocates are using powerful and misleading marketing to sell this flawed bill. According to a pro-HB 227 video (depicting a rich, fat-cat homeowner with a three-story mansion), homeowners who invest in rooftop solar are committing “rooftop robbery.” Not only is this “robbery” premise false, it is also not the reality of the average solar homeowner. The homeowners I have met are people of average means who have invested in solar as a hedge against future rate increases or are preparing for life on fixed incomes. I have met so many of these owners, I am now exploring an installation for my small bungalow home in my modest neighborhood.

It was no surprise to read that lobbyists began the 2018 session by spending 20 percent more than they spent in the same period of last year’s session. The Legislative Ethics Commission’s report for February states that lobbying spending has been driven by the cigarette tax and solar policy, and contributed to “an all-time high of $2.6 million on lobbying in the first portion of the 2018 General Assembly session.”

One of the top spenders was the Consumer Energy Alliance ($25,051), a Houston-based lobbying group whose funders include Big Rivers Electric, East Kentucky Power Cooperative, Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives, Kentucky Oil & Gas Association, and Louisville Gas and Electric and Kentucky Utilities, specifically lobbying on HB 227.

But the targeting of HB 227 was not the only expense utilities spent on lobbying. The top 10 spenders, according to LRC, additionally included the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives ($22,251); and Big Rivers Electric ($19,149). That means a total of $66,451 was spent on utility-sourced lobbying in just the first few weeks of the session as part of that top 10 list. (And what about the spending below the top 10?).

What have they purchased with all that money? Well, I have only witnessed a fraction of the expenditures, but I am constantly running into flocks of utility contract lobbyists in the Capitol Annex. I have seen utility company’s “advertorials” and display ads in all of the major Kentucky newspapers. I know that KU/LG&E has sent a mailing to all of their net-metered customers claiming HB 227 will not affect them. I have been alerted to many reports of robo-call campaigns in select legislative districts promoting the utilities’ positions. I have been sent a series of online utility ads with headlines that provocatively ask: “Are You Picking Up the Tab for a Stranger’s Private Solar?”

I would ask readers, “Are you picking up the tab so that your utility can maintain a monopoly market and put small companies out of business?”

It is remarkable to see how much utility advocates are spending to suppress rooftop solar, considering that there are fewer than 1,000 homes using net metering in Kentucky. And current law already protects the utility if market penetration of rooftop solar reaches 1 percent of the market (and at 0.06 percent penetration we are many years from reaching that level).

I would think the new jobs being created by independent firms would be a good thing (one solar firm is employing former miners in coal country).

So with all of this spending going on at ratepayer expense, I have to ask, who are the utilities actually trying to protect?

Lane Boldman is executive director of the Kentucky Conservation Committee, a nonprofit legislative advocacy group serving Kentucky citizens since 1975.

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