A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Lyn Hacker: HB 227 would end ‘net metering’ for solar customers; committee is debating

Kentucky HB 227, designed to effectively end net metering for solar customers in Kentucky, has once again been re-scheduled for later consideration due to lack of support by committee members. The bill, which was introduced by Kentucky state Rep. Jim Gooch, R-Providence, will severely decrease the amount that solar customers receive back from electric companies for the use of the energy that is produced by the customers’ panels.

It will also impact resale and inheritance value of solar homes, rendering the arrangement with the electric not viable to transfer. The bill will be heard Wednesday, February 8, at 9 am.

When the bill didn’t pass at the last meeting, the response was to add three new committee members thought to be added for the purpose of pushing the bill through. The new members of the committee are two Republicans from Western Kentucky, which at this point in time has much better quality coal to be mined as much of Eastern Kentucky’s good coal has been mined out. They are Robby Mills of Henderson and Myron Dossett of Pembroke. Also added is a Democrat from Eastern Kentucky, Rick Nelson of Middlesboro.

Recent developments include a sudden special session meeting for the purpose of passing the bill after the bill did not fare well in the first reading. The second special session also resulted in not passing the bill due to lack of support. Some representatives protested they had not had time to study the bill to their satisfaction or that they didn’t understand certain aspects of it. Pro bill representatives, though, made the surprise move to draft three more pro votes into the committee. In a story in the Courier Journal, Tom FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council said it was troubling that the membership was altered.

Net metering is the practice where solar customers, those who have installed solar panels on their houses, tie into the electrical grid, and feed energy back to the electrical companies. Those companies then credit the solar customer for a portion of that energy, roughly about 70%, and use the leftover power for other customers. In times when there are long hours of daylight, a solar customer’s monthly electric bill can amount to as little as $15/month, which is the basic usage fee that the electric companies charge for service. Moreover, the difference is applied to future bills so that it also substantially decreases winter bills, where daylight hours are shorter, and heat producing appliances requiring more electricity are more often used in homes.

Net metering is important in the evolution of the solar power industry in Kentucky because it provides incentives for people to incorporate solar power into their houses and their daily living. Without net metering, and some government incentives to use solar which are now decreasing, the cost of buying and installing the equipment would become prohibitive, especially if the only benefit is the altruistic concern for the environment. The way it is structured now, solar customers who have solar installations realize a return on their investment in about ten years, and years after that provide much needed cost savings, especially as the customer ages, retires, and might have to live on decreased income. When the solar customer turns the home over to a new buyer or an heir, the panels are considered a asset in the sales price. The panels themselves, although they have expiration dates, more or less, generally just become a little less powerful over time. Since they have no moving parts, unless they are actually damaged, little can go wrong with them.

Although this bill would grandfather in existing customers for 25 years, it would change the fact that the panels would bring savings to a new owner of the solar home, thus decreasing the value of the home substantially.

Several solar companies feel attacking net metering is being used as a way to disrupt the future of solar power in Kentucky. It’s a shame because solar power and its value-added boost to Kentucky’s economy through the production of solar and wind equipment and installation jobs has been making a strong headway into the economy. That some of these jobs could be moved to areas of Eastern Kentucky that have been devastated by the loss of coal employment is very possible.

One major problem with off-grid solar living (not tied in to the electric company) is the storage of the power that the panels generate. Deep cell batteries are used, which are expensive, and have a relatively short life span of about 7 to 10 years, depending on the brand. They also require a significant amount of maintenance, including adding distilled water, which can cost more than the $15/month the electric companies charge for their usage fee. By switching to a grid-tie system, the solar customer is basically using the electric company as their batteries, and the electric company is assured of extra solar electricity for their use for other customers who want to use solar power, but don’t want to buy and install panels, such as renters. At least one electrical company advertising on local TV offers solar produced power as an option for its customers. The arrangement has been a win/win for both solar customers and electric companies.

Concerns have surfaced from the utility companies that this puts other customers, who can’t afford the panels, at a disadvantage since part of their bills are used to maintain the grid. However, electric companies use several energy sources, and those sources do not pay into the upkeep of the grid. Since the electric companies are essentially “farming” solar energy from their solar customers it is not unlike the fact that they purchase power from other providers, such as coal, natural gas and other sources. Given that solar customers are not paid tit for tat for every kw the electric company harvests (roughly about 70%), solar customers do contribute to maintain the grid, in that the credit they receive is less than what they contribute, plus they pay a usage fee every month. Solar producing customers are subject to the same interruptions in service, such as downed power lines, winter outages, etc.

Despite Kentucky’s affinity to fossil fuels, and the fact that our economy has, to a large part, been based on its usage for all these years, it is a fact that these sources are not renewable, and not sustainable. There are also health concerns with the mining and digging for these resources, and the health effect that arises in the populations co-existing with their production.

For instance, according to the Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, “in eastern Kentucky our water, land and air are contaminated by mountain top removal (a quick and easy way to get to coal). Volumes (of) people living near mountaintop mining have cancer rates of 14.4% compared to 9.4% for people elsewhere in Appalachia. The rate of children born with birth defects was 42% higher in areas near mountaintop removal mining.”

Due to mountaintop removal and strip mines, Eastern Kentucky now has lots of clear space where solar farming could provide ample electricity and much needed production factories for work for the population. Coupled with vacant land and farm structures, such as tobacco and horse barns which could easily be pushed into service for solar collectors in Central Kentucky, solar power is at the edge of becoming a leading power producer in Kentucky. And the fact that Kentucky was number one in the country during World War II in hemp production, and that hemp seeds produce excellent fuel, and it requires no fertilization, no pesticides, no herbicides, re-seeds itself and can grow anywhere (including in the Eastern Kentucky mountains where marijuana production has historically placed second only to Hawaii), it’s understandable those invested in fossil fuels could be concerned about their future. Hemp, of course, can be used for multiple purposes, including nutrition, health, clothing, car parts, and as a bio-fuel that deserves consideration from the energy moguls in our state. Frederick Diesel, a German inventor and engineer, first developed the diesel engine in the 1890s to run on vegetable and hemp oils so that farmers could grown their own hemp, process their own seeds into oil, and use it to fuel their tractors.

Kentucky House Bill 227, will be brought up for consideration again on February 8th at 8 am. To weigh in on the considerations, the phone number for the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission, which is a switchboard for Kentucky legislators, is 502-564-8100. People will take your information and your opinions and pass them on to the representatives you designate. Always a good idea to have that number available. Public advocacy is not dead, at least in Kentucky. Several times in the past, public outcry has had a positive effect on several bills, such as passing the anti-dog fighting bill, and a mine safety bill several years ago. And public outcry postponed, at least, a projected oil pipeline that would have run through Central Kentucky. To find your representatives, go to this website and follow the directions there. This site can also be used to learn about impeding legislation and its progress through the committees and chambers.

To read further on HB 227, go to this website for a summary, and click on the highlighted link HB 227 in the top left area to click on the actual bill and read it all the way through. This process, of course, can be used to look at any bill that is pending in legislation.

Lyn Hacker is a Lexington native raised by Appalachian parents to be not only educated but proficient in the living arts – working very hard, playing music, growing gardens, orchard management and beekeeping. The UK graduate has been a newspaper staff writer and production manager, a photography lab manager, a Thoroughbred statistics manager, a Bluegrass singer and songwriter, a registered respiratory therapist, a farmer, a Standardbred horsewoman, and a beekeeper. She lives on a farm in Sadieville.

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