Eye doc can see clearly: Net metering bill is a bad bill

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The guy installing solar panels on Dr. Larry Tenkmen’s roof told him about a net metering bill in the legislature that would make it harder for homeowners to afford adding solar energy to their house.

“First I just tried to make sense of it,” says Tenkman. “Why in God’s name would anyone do that? It’s crazy.”

Then the eye surgeon got to work. He wrote a flyer, he posted on Facebook a video of his electric meter “blazing backward” as electricity from his solar panels fed back onto the power lines. He leafleted his Norton Commons neighborhood outside of Louisville, recruiting his wife and three boys, ages 12, 9, and 5, to go door-to-door.

Tenkmen’s activism is part of a statewide “final push” by solar energy advocates, to oppose a so-called “net metering bill” that would reduce what utilities pay to homeowners for their excess solar electricity.

On Tuesday the Kentucky Solar Energy Society asked its members to urge legislators to oppose House Bill 227 as the session enters its final two days Friday and Saturday.

Wallace McMullen, chair of the Kentucky Solar Energy Society, says solar supporters “should definitely try to speak to everyone who’s in the legislature and encourage them to oppose this bill that will create an adverse future for us. We are better off if it doesn’t pass.”

The net metering bill has been one of the most controversial in a legislative session dominated by high-profile battles over budgets, taxes, and public employee pensions. Those issues will be the main focus as this year’s session wraps up, but the legislature can take up any pending legislation during the next two days, and the House-approved net metering bill is in line for possible action by the Senate.

The contentious bill pits environmental interests and rooftop solar installers against electric utilities in Kentucky and national conservative groups that oppose renewable energy. The bill would end the practice of net metering that calls for utilities to buy excess electricity generated by rooftop solar owners at the same retail price the utility charges its customers. Instead, utilities would pay for rooftop solar at the wholesale electric rate, a reduction of about 70 percent.

That’s only fair, say the utilities, since they have to finance the power plants and transmission lines that make electricity available all the time, including at night when there’s no solar power. Opponents say the reduced payment would kill a budding rooftop solar installation industry, that it ignores the investment in generation made by rooftop solar homeowners, and hurts development of green energy.

The bill took a long and tortured path to its place of waiting in the wings of the Senate during these two closing days. The House committee couldn’t get enough votes for approval, until it added three new members. When the bill reached the Senate committee, it was amended so that instead of just using the wholesale rate to pay solar homeowners, the rate would be determined through hearings at the state Public Service Commission.

While supporters of the bill called the PSC the appropriate place to determine what utilities should pay rooftop solar owners, opponents saw a complex process that gave no criteria for how the PSC should determine the value of solar energy.

The Solar Energy Society’s McMullen calls the latest version of the net metering bill “as clear as molasses with dirt thrown in it” and says it will “squash the solar industry.”

McMullen says he’s been telling legislators that the rooftop solar industry can mean new energy jobs in a state affected by the declining use of Kentucky-mined coal.

“Legislators are impressed by the fact that the small but growing solar installer industry means jobs,” McMullen says. “Installing solar systems is a great job for Appalachia where coal miners pretty much have the skills that are needed.”

In calling for solar supporters to contact legislators before Friday, the Kentucky Solar Energy Society credited a range of interests with drawing attention to the bill. Their alert this week read, “The grassroots campaign to oppose HB 227 has been an impressive, collaborative effort. Solar businesses and advocates, business leaders, local elected leaders, low-income housing providers, environmental organizations, social justice groups, faith groups, and a huge number of individual Kentuckians have made our voices heard, again and again.”

Among those voices is Dr. Tenkmen, who brings his medical background to his activism, saying, “I hope that someday people will care about their carbon footprint much like they would their own blood sugar levels. It’s less self-focused, it’s world-focused. It’s a vital sign. It affects the entire frigging planet.”

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Paul Wesslund
Paul Wesslund retired in 2015 after 20 years as editor of Kentucky Living magazine, and is now a freelance writer focusing on energy issues, doing business as Highway 61 Communications, LLC.