Kentucky lawmaker borrows analogy from Koch-funded group to gain support for anti-solar bill

Legislator's bill would jeopardize solar's future in Bluegrass State.

A worker installs solar panels on a homeowner's roof. CREDIT: Melanie Conner/Getty Images
A worker installs solar panels on a homeowner's roof. CREDIT: Melanie Conner/Getty Images

A Kentucky state lawmaker borrowed from a Koch-funded group’s playbook in a recent speech arguing against renewable energy.

Delivering a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives last week Kentucky Rep. Jim Gooch (R) hoped to garner support for legislation, backed by the state’s large electric utility monopolies, that would drastically slow growth in the state’s fledgling rooftop solar sector.

In the speech, Gooch, who introduced the legislation in late January, used an unusual analogy that he borrowed from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing group described as a “corporate bill mill” by its critics. The Koch-funded ALEC drafts model legislation that is primarily aimed at maximizing corporate profits and abridging the rights and freedom of ordinary Americans.

A Louisville (KY) Courier Journal reporter discovered that the lawmaker’s story — an odd reference to a grocer named Bob being forced to buy tomatoes he doesn’t need — can be found in the preface of a legislative playbook published by ALEC on the use of net metering for rooftop solar and distributed generation.

“Imagine you have a home vegetable garden and you have a very good year and a bumper crop of tomatoes,” ALEC wrote in its “Reforming Net Metering” report. Net metering wrongly forces the grocer — or an electric utility — to buy a wholesale product at retail prices. Gooch found the analogy compelling enough to use in his speech on the House floor.

Net metering is industry jargon for a simple concept. Sometimes homeowners with rooftop solar don’t generate enough electricity, so they buy power from the utility company like everyone else. At other times, rooftop solar owners generate more electricity than they use in their homes, so electric utility companies buy the excess power at the full retail rate.

In other words, utilities pay more for electricity from customers who sell the electrons back to them under net metering programs than they do for electricity they purchase from power plants at wholesale rates. One of the goals of net metering is to encourage the growth of renewable energy.

Renewable energy resources are a small part of Kentucky’s energy mix, and the state has no renewable energy standard that requires the state’s utilities to purchase a percentage of their supplies from renewables. Kentucky law provides for net metering of distributed generation from solar, wind, hydro, biomass, and biogas facilities of 30 kilowatts or less. Homeowners with rooftop solar sell surplus electricity back to utility companies at the retail rate.

If Gooch’s legislation passes, it could more than double the time it would take residents to break even on their investment in rooftop solar — when the amount they receive for selling power back to the grid balances out what they paid initially for their home renewable energy systems. Currently, the payback period for a household installing rooftop solar is about nine years. Under Gooch’s bill, payback periods for new rooftop solar installations may grow to more than 20 years. Far fewer households would choose to install rooftop solar, given that the average life a rooftop solar system is typically estimated at 25 years, according to the bill’s opponents.

For years, ALEC has been driving bills in dozens of states that would slow the progress of clean energy. Based on ALEC’s controversial stances on climate change and other issues, more than 100 hundred companies and nonprofit organizations, including Microsoft, Google, General Motors, and Ford Motor Co., have cut ties with the organization. Some companies have canceled their memberships over the group’s mission to fight policies that cut greenhouse gas emissions and promote renewable energy.

Gooch’s bill, House Bill 227, is one of the latest to use ALEC’s draft legislation as a model. The bill would end retail net metering for new customers on July 15. As a result, the credits utilities must provide to future rooftop solar owners for any extra electricity they produce would be cut by about 70 percent, potentially putting an end to the fledgling rooftop solar industry in Kentucky.

The state House of Representatives’ Standing Committee on Natural Resources and Energy voted last week to move the anti-net metering bill to the floor for debate by the entire House of Representatives. Last year, the Kentucky Legislature defeated a similar bill that would have imposed demand and fixed charges on solar customers. No floor vote for this year’s bill has been scheduled yet.

Louisville Gas and Electric and Kentucky Utilities, the two dominant electric utilities in the state, support Gooch’s bill. Utilities see a threat from rooftop solar because it lets customers buy less power from the grid. Utilities counter that net metering is unfair to ratepayers who don’t own solar panels. Rooftop solar owners get to sell their surplus power to the grid without paying for transmission lines or other infrastructure needed to deliver that power to homes and businesses in the community.

But proponents of rooftop solar say it’s a net win for the grid. Homeowners pay for the infrastructure cost of generation, through the panels and installation, and they deliver their surplus power to customers nearby, minimizing the volume of electricity lost in transmission.

Aside from using ALEC as a guide for writing legislation, Gooch is a strong supporter of the state’s coal industry. In 2015, he switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, explaining he could no longer be a member of a party that supports President Barack Obama’s “radical agenda” on coal. At the time, Gooch complained that Obama would belittle Kentuckians “for not understanding the ‘true science’ behind climate change. We will be told that ‘climate change’ is the biggest threat to our nation and our planet.”

The Kentucky Coal Association named Gooch as its 2014 Coal Miner of the Year for his work in the state legislature in support of the state’s coal industry.

North of the border, in Indiana, Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) signed a bill in 2017 that removed incentives for rooftop solar, delivering a blow to solar installers and their customers. Under the new law, the utility buys the excess power at a little more than the wholesale rate . Indiana legislators had been trying to stifle the growth of solar for years. A 2015 bill would have radically scaled back net metering, but advocates defeated the legislation. But anti-solar lawmakers were able to declare victory in 2017.

An Indianapolis Star investigation found that as state lawmakers were considering the net metering law, utilities and their political action committees poured millions into the general assembly in the form of gifts, entertainment, campaign contributions, and lobbying. Like in Kentucky, opponents of the Indiana bill also easily noticed ALEC’s influence.

“Pretty much a cut-and-paste ALEC bill with cut-and-paste ALEC arguments going on across the country, and Indiana was happy to play along,” Indiana state Sen. Mark Stoops told the newspaper.