Energy, solar debates in Frankfort leave citizens in the cold and dark

Charles Bertram

For most of us, the first thing we consider when buying something is the price. If it’s too high, we keep searching, or we do without.

That process works well for most things – from groceries to our houses and vehicles – but it breaks down when only one company has a product everyone needs. In those cases, it is vital that we have rules in place so that the monopoly does not take unfair advantage of its customers.

An ideal example of what can go wrong can be found in my region of Eastern Kentucky, which is suffering under the weight of electric bills that for many families rival house payments. The rate increases we’ve endured in recent years show that the rules now in place are not enough.

That’s why state Rep. Chris Harris, Attorney General Andy Beshear and many others have joined with me to try to make needed changes. All we want is to add just one more word to the list of things the Public Service Commission considers when deciding whether to approve a rate increase: Affordability.

Based on the debate in the Kentucky House of Representatives earlier this month, you would think we were asking for the moon. Some argued that “affordability” is too abstract to define legally, even though current law already calls for the PSC to make sure rate increases are “just” and “reasonable,” two other discretionary terms..

To those rejecting my amendment, it didn’t seem to matter that our region’s electrical rates are much higher than the rest of the state, or that American Electric Power’s stock price has risen more than 60 percent during the past five years alone.

We proudly say coal keeps the lights on, but if this situation doesn’t improve soon, far too many of us are going to be left in the cold and dark. What made the Kentucky House’s lack of action on this important issue even worse is that, only a day later, it couldn’t wait to pass another bill that will give electric companies much more authority over who benefits from solar energy.

Assuming this becomes law, what has been a quite-literal bright spot for many trying to lower their electric bills will become a lot dimmer.

This “net metering” bill, as it’s called, did away with a compromise the House had voted for earlier in the legislative session. Because of that, future residential customers will now face much longer times to recoup what they pay for their rooftop panels. Instead of getting full credit for their excess energy, they will now get much less, meaning fewer people will buy the panels in the first place.

There is something fundamentally wrong with the way these two pieces of legislation were handled, but the outcome isn’t surprising: In Frankfort, corporate shareholders and corporations like American Electric Power that donate heavily to political campaigns take precedence, as we’ve seen in this case and with other laws that undermine the worker, the retiree, the educator and the injured.

My allies and I may not have won these rounds, but we will be back. We also have our “shareholders,” the people of Kentucky, and they’re counting on us more than ever.

Rep. Angie Hatton represents the 94th House District in Eastern Kentucky.