Op-Ed

Kentucky’s solar future undermined by utilities’ power grab

Gov. Matt Bevin, left, presented a bottle of bourbon in December to executives of Enerblu, a company that plans to build a battery-manufacturing plant in Pikeville and a headquarters facility in Lexington. At center is Michael Weber and Daniel Elliott, president and CEO.
Gov. Matt Bevin, left, presented a bottle of bourbon in December to executives of Enerblu, a company that plans to build a battery-manufacturing plant in Pikeville and a headquarters facility in Lexington. At center is Michael Weber and Daniel Elliott, president and CEO. bestep@herald-leader.com

Welcome to the solar age. As an architect who began his solar journey in the 1970s it has been a lonely quest to arrive here.

Today, the energy scene is rapidly changing. Announcements of ever more efficient, less expensive, solar photovoltaic cells appear nearly weekly and advances in battery storage have finally overcome the one big hurdle holding back the widespread adoption of renewable energy.

Because solar energy is only available when the sun is shining, for the sun to supply 100 percent of the demand for electricity, there must be some effective way of storing it for nighttime use or cloudy weather.

We have all witnessed the revolution in the battery technology that powers virtually all of our portable devices and permits cars to travel 300 miles without being recharged. Giant factories are being built around the world to produce these affordable batteries, which are continually becoming more efficient and less expensive.

Recently, South Australia, saddled with severe electrical capacity problems was unable to satisfy its peak electrical loads. So it accepted an offer from Elon Musk of Tesla fame, to build them the world’s largest battery in 100 days or the installation would be given free.

So successful was his project that Musk is now on track to provide electrical services to 50,000 homes in the region by installing rooftop solar and using his famous batteries in each home, tying these homes together, in a solar microgrid. Through their linkages such microgrids effectively create a virtual powerplant, producing clean, zero carbon power at a lower cost, without the need for a actual powerplant.

This unstoppable solar trajectory has the utilities deeply worried about losing their customers and being left behind by a new and better technology. Predictably, they are throwing everything they can behind House Bill 227, which was just passed in the Kentucky House and is going on to the Senate.

By forcing HB 227 through the legislature they will virtually kill residential solar and develop monopoly control over solar in the state — at least for a time. But in the longer term they are working against not only the interests of Kentucky and its citizens, but of their own interests as well.

If a utility’s customers had both solar photovoltaics panels, as well as battery storage in their homes, and the utility could control charging the batteries at off-peak times and tap the power stored in the batteries when the loads on the system were the greatest, the needed generating capacity to operate the system would be half what it is today.

Over time as more net zero, solar-plus-battery homes were added to their system, the oldest, most inefficient power plants would be retired until the grid was completely powered by solar renewables located in homes all around the grid.

It would be a symbiotic, partnership between the utilities who would manage the system, the local installers who would maintain the residential systems and the homeowners who could be new investors in their own systems or who would still benefit from the lower utility bills. Musk’s homeowner partners in Australia are paying 30 percent less as a result of their new smart, solar-powered microgrid.

Many companies are starting to follow in Musk’s footsteps — even here in Kentucky. With state incentives, a California company that operates globally is building a 1,000,000 square foot, $400,000,000 factory in Pikeville on a reclaimed strip-mine site that will provide almost 1,000 high-paying jobs.

This company, Ener Blu, will be producing in Eastern Kentucky the major components for smart microgrids — the inexpensive solar panels, the super efficient batteries and the smart grid control systems — that can operate with or without a conventional power grid. Ener Blu will put Kentucky on the map as a global leader in moving to a clean, 100-percent renewable energy future..

If, on the other hand, the foolish power grab by the utilities succeeds in the Kentucky Senate, HB 227 will likely peg Kentucky as a state taking a giant step backwards at a time when the commonwealth needs to innovate its energy and economic programs to align with the most innovative and entrepreneurial trendsetters globally.

Whether utility officials or legislators care to admit it, blocking HB 227 is essential for Kentucky’s future. It seems bizarre for the governor to provide tens of millions in incentives to support the wave of the future at the same time our state legislators may be about to pass a bill that will keep us firmly rooted in the unsustainable past.

Richard S. Levine is co-director of the Center for Sustainable Cities and was honored by the American Solar Energy Society’s “Passive Solar Pioneer,” lifetime achievement award.

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