Power Switch: Solar Is Heating Up In The Ohio Valley
St. Vincent’s Mission has been doing the work of feeding, clothing and sheltering the people of Floyd County, Kentucky, since 1968.
“We believe that all persons have a God-ordained right to the basic needs of life in order to meet their full potential,” the mission states on its website.
Recently, the mission looked for a little help from above to reduce overhead costs and focus on community service in a county with a poverty rate of 27%, well above the state and national average. The mission installed an array of solar panels.
Erin Bottomlee directs St. Vincent’s Mission. On a recent visit, she pointed out the 27 panels on the rooftop.
“And that runs the volunteer house, the home repair garage, woodworking shop and our RV pad,” she said.
St. Vincent’s paid for the $25,000 installation cost with grants and donations. The system should pay for itself in 10 to 12 years. With solar, St. Vincent’s Mission saw its bills drop from $250 per month to $15. Bottomlee looks forward to using freed-up funds to bolster their community programs.
“We want to do services that help people come out of poverty,” she said, “not just support people while they're in poverty.”
The mission’s cost savings are possible thanks to a system called net metering credits, which also help make solar affordable for an organization like St. Vincent’s. Selling clean energy back into the grid pays for the installation costs.
However, that may change with a proposal before the state’s Public Service Commission that would reduce net metering payments, cutting the value of new solar installations by up to 80%.
Under the proposal, existing net metering customers would keep their cost savings for the next 25 years. Others would lose out, said Cara Cooper of the Kentucky Solar Advocacy Network.
“We find tons of small businesses, we find tons of nonprofits, we find a lot of people who are on fixed incomes, who are choosing rooftop solar,” Cooper said.
Solar energy may have a future in the Ohio Valley, but what that future looks like is in flux.
Some utilities in the Ohio Valley are pushing against rooftop solar while others support larger, or more business-oriented, solar ventures. Meanwhile, solar advocates argue that a decentralized grid could make electricity more democratic.
Solar accounts for only a fraction of electric power in the Ohio Valley. The region remains a heavy user of coal to generate electricity. However, the rapidly changing economics of energy, combined with federal policies that favor carbon-free power could change the balance in the coming years.
In Ohio, solar is booming — at least in some forms. Policy makers there are encouraging some large-scale solar, but not rooftop solar, which Ohio utilities have attempted to fight in the past.
“They're a little more OK with renewables if they own and operate those systems, right?” said Gilbert Michaud, an energy policy analyst at Ohio University.
Michaud said most utilities prefer large-scale clean energy. Large solar farms directly feed the grid without loss of revenue. In some cases, those installations are owned by corporations that have renewable energy goals, like Amazon.
That business imperative is even helping solar grow in coal-heavy West Virginia, where some lawmakers see all scales of solar as linked to economic growth.
“I think providing a diversified energy portfolio is certainly an attractive item for companies that are looking to invest in a state,” said Del. Moore Capito, a Republican who co-sponsored a bill that enables solar power-purchasing agreements. Capito is the son of West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and the grandson of the late West Virginia Gov. Arch Moore.
West Virginia, which ranks near the bottom among states in solar energy development, has recently taken new steps to encourage it.
“There's nothing inherently different about our environment here or the resources we have available to deploy a lot more solar energy in West Virginia,” said Autumn Long, regional field director for Solar United Neighbors. “We just haven't had the support of policy drivers to incentivize that industry and move it forward in the same way that's happened in our surrounding states.”
The state legislature passed the bill enabling solar power-purchasing agreements in April.
Such agreements allow homeowners, business owners, schools and churches to install rooftop panels and share the cost. That helps make solar more accessible for those lacking the capital to pay for it.
“Unless you're a highly capitalized company,” Capito said, “you weren't really able to participate in any sort of solar generation, because you would have had to purchase it on your own.”
West Virginia ranks nearly last among states in installed solar capacity, with 11 megawatts at the end of 2020. That’s enough to power slightly more than 1,000 homes. Kentucky ranks slightly higher, with about 60 megawatts. Ohio, with about 500 megawatts, ranks in the middle.
By comparison, the region’s larger coal-fired power plants generate 1,000 megawatts or more.
Nationwide, solar accounts for 3% of electricity generation, but that is expected to grow dramatically in the years to come. In 2020, 43% of all new capacity added to the grid was solar, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group. The industry employs a workforce of 250,000, more than four times the number of coal workers nationwide.
In the next five years, the group projects that solar will account for an even larger share. A decline in the economics of coal and recent federal regulations on power plants could cause more coal-burning facilities to close by the end of the decade, opening up even more opportunities for solar.
Renewable energy advocates say that the conversation has shifted in coal-heavy West Virginia. Coal still generates about 91% of the state’s electric power, but lawmakers have become more open to solar development.
“I have seen a huge shift in the narrative in the conversations that are coming out of Charleston and the Capitol,” Long said.
West Virginia’s legislature has now voted to expand funding and protection for solar two years in a row, supported by key Republicans, including Capito, who say clean energy is good business.
“It's really just an economic argument at this point, that makes sense,” Long said.
In Kentucky, solar advocate Cooper has been organizing opposition to the move to reduce net metering payments, which was proposed by investor-backed utility Kentucky Power. In January, Kentucky Power asked the commission to approve this change, along with a rate increase of roughly 11%.
A 2019 bill had made this possible, allowing Kentucky utilities and the Commission to set net metering rates. Mountain Association, Kentucky Solar Energy Society, Metropolitan Housing Coalition, and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth intervened in the case, leading the Commission to hold hearings on the issue throughout April.
The Commission is set to make a decision on the case by mid-May.
Kentucky Power did not respond to a request for comment.
For Cooper, decentralized solar power means political power for utility customers. Cooper sees solar as part of a bigger strategy, what she calls “energy democracy,” the idea that ratepayers should have more say in the affairs of public utilities.
“How can we engage with the Public Service Commission? How can we educate people about the role that we can play in that process? And how can we give everyday folks more of a voice,” she said.
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