NO, net metering is not “anti-coal”


The biggest slice of baloney in the debate over net metering is that it’s hurting coal, and that the Kentucky Legislature’s bill to kill net metering is somehow pro-coal.

The controversy calls up plenty of facts and figures from both sides, but a recurring theme from the legislation’s supporters is that “we have to do whatever we can to boost the declining coal industry.”

Case in point: Rep. John Blanton’s scolding of a local solar energy vendor at a hearing last month, blaming solar panels for out-of-work miners.

Rep. Blanton spoke in support of House Bill 227, which undoes Kentucky’s 15-year old net metering law. That law was passed to encourage renewable energy by requiring utilities to buy excess electricity generated by rooftop solar homeowners, at the same kilowatt-hour rate those homeowners pay the utility for electricity.

That payment is too high, say the utilities. It’s not fair they have to pay for poles, wires, and line crews out of that rate, while the homeowner doesn’t have any of those infrastructure costs. Instead, the bill reverts to an older federal requirement that utilities pay solar homeowners only the “avoided costs”—just the coal or natural gas the utility doesn’t have to burn as a result of buying the solar power.

If enacted, the net metering bill would reduce payments to the solar homeowners by about two-thirds.

The solar-supporting opponents of the net metering bill don’t dispute that the utilities have fixed costs that homeowners don’t. Instead, they say that while solar and other renewable energy is growing rapidly, it’s still a tiny part of the mix of fuels that generate electricity—too small to threaten the financial stability of the utilities or shift costs to non-solar consumers in a meaningful way. They cite environmental benefits of renewable energy. And they argue that slashing payments to solar homeowners could kill a small but rapidly growing industry of home-grown solar installation entrepreneurs.

So what about coal, then?

If you’re having trouble figuring out how any of this either saves or kills coal mining, the answer is simple: it doesn’t. If coal advocates really wanted to bring back the industry, here’s what they would do: work to ban fracking. That new drilling technique, developed in only the past 15 years, glutted the market with natural gas, dropping its price 70 percent since 2008. Electric utilities followed the money, shifting from coal to natural gas. Coal jobs got cut in half, falling from 132,000 in 2011 to 73,000 in 2016.

But Rep. Blanton instead blames net metering for disrupting the free market and killing coal. Seriously? Solar energy may be growing fast, but it still only provides 1 percent of the nation’s electricity—and even less in Kentucky. And in case that huge growth someday threatens utility financing, the current net metering law caps the number of eligible homes.

So what’s the real reason they’re tying coal to solar?

If all that has you puzzling over why coal industry advocates would target solar, Tyler White helped clear that up in a column on the Courier-Journal editorial page on February 16.

White is president of the Kentucky Coal Association, and his column blasts the net metering payment system as unfair. Why is the representative of the state’s coal industry weighing in against solar? White’s column answers that question, and it has nothing to do with coal. Instead, he reveals the debate is really about polarizing right-wing politics.

White writes that policies supporting renewable energy “have been long supported by liberal elites and the Obama administration.”

There you have it. Supporters of the net metering bill are not after fairness for consumers, utilities, or even coal mining communities. Their interest is in fanning the flames of the divisive national culture wars, with big money industry on one side, environmentalists on the other.

So let’s review: how many coal mining jobs will the net metering bill save or restore? (Answer below.)






[tweet_box design=”default” float=”none”]The biggest slice of baloney in the debate over net metering is that it’s anti-coal.[/tweet_box]


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.