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State solar industry fears for the future

By James Bruggers The Courier-Journal

LOUISVILLE -- A fledgling but growing solar in­stallation industry in Kentucky fears a bill carried by a state senator from Berea could clip its wings before be­ing allowed to soar.

They and their allies have taken to social media to warn that SB 214 would destabilize a Kentucky busi­ness sector that's been based on uni­form, statewide Kentucky Public Ser­vice Commission rules over how peo­ple who buy solar panels are compen­sated for the energy they produce, and how quickly they can expect to recover the cost of that invest­ment through lower electricity bills. By allowing each of more than 20 utilities to argue separately before the PSC for different so-called "net-metering" rates and charges every couple of years, the bill would make pay-back calcula­tions for their solar customers much more speculative, said Matt Party­miller, general manager and owner of Solar Energy Solutions, which oper­ates in Louisville, Lexington and northern Kentucky.

"It takes all certainty off the ta­ble," he said Tuesday. It also could make it more difficult for the PSC to factor in benefits of so­lar, such as cleaner air, and providing power during peak periods, during its financial analyses, critics said.

The state senator, Republican Ja­red Carpenter, said he's trying to al­low solar to grow while addressing utilities' concerns expressed to him about costs and worries that utilities' customers who install their own solar panels are getting subsidized by those who don't.

He said he planned to meet with solar installers to see if a compromise can be worked out.

LG&E and KU Energy spokeswoman Chris Whelan said her company supports the legislation because "it promotes the growth of solar and other renewable energy sources in Kentucky in a fair and equitable manner." She said the company has been looking for a "solution that establishes a fair allocation of costs between net metering customers and traditional customers."

She said that as part of those discussions, the utility offered to increase the size of solar projects that could participate in net metering -- something solar advocates have requested. The bill, if passed, would allow the PSC "to work with the regulated utilities to design and approve tariffs that fairly distribute fixed system costs among net metering and non-participating customers," Whelan said.

The Louisville Climate Action Network argued in a position paper provided by environmental engineer Sarah Lynn Cunningham, one of its leaders, that the bill is a job killer, anti-free market, and would stifle the growth of renewable energy in Kentucky.

They said that in 2016, Kentucky solar jobs totaled 1,202, a 20 percent increase from the previous year.

Nationally, solar power has been on a roll as the cost of solar panels has dropped and as they have become more efficient. Electricity produced from the kind of solar that people put on their roofs increased 35 percent from September 2015 to September 2016, while adding many new jobs, according to a recent federal study.

At the same time, there has been tension between solar advocates and utilities, with utilities fighting to make sure all their fixed administration and power line maintenance costs are shared among all their customers, even as many customers seek to lower their bills -- and heat-trapping emissions blamed for global warming -- by generating solar power.

That tension has played out in rate proposals in Kentucky, and now, with the new legislation. The bill also seeks to grandfather current utility customers with solar panels into the existing rules, but solar industry officials said they have doubts about the bill's language in that regard.

The Courier-Journal in late 2015 reported that while solar power is still a tiny fraction of the region's energy mix, solar panels on rooftops are no longer an extreme rarity. More recently, utilities in Kentucky including LG&E and KU, have begun offering solar options for their customers.

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