Environment

Duke Energy is the latest major utility to begin experimenting with solar power in Kentucky.

It was just two years ago that Louisville Gas and Electric opened the largest utility-scale solar array in the state.

Now, Duke Energy is testing solar power in Northern Kentucky. The utility unveiled two solar farms this week that combined, use approximately 29,000 solar panels.

The two facilities in Kenton and Grant counties are already creating enough energy to power about 1,500 homes, said Lee Freedman, Duke Energy spokesman.

Lower production costs and federal tax credits influenced Duke’s decision to build the solar farms, he said.  

“Solar energy has really become cost-competitive and that’s why we chose to build about seven megawatts of solar in Kentucky,” Freedman said.

Courtesy Duke Energy

Walton Solar Power Plants 1 & 2 in Kenton County, Ky

Solar power still only makes up a very small part of the state’s energy mix. But utilities are seeing the benefit in diversifying from coal and natural gas.

“What we really liked about solar is that you could add six, ten megawatts of solar in 2017 and a little more in 2019, so you are doing incremental additions,” Freedman said.

Duke began supplying solar electricity to power Northern Kentucky homes in December. Not long after, the utility supported legislation that makes it less feasible for homeowners to put solar on their own rooftops.

That measure – House Bill 227 – would have made it harder for homeowners with solar panels to get a return on their investment. It failed to pass last session.

Duke has spent nearly $40,000 lobbying for its interests over the last two years. It’s not clear how much of that was spent on their support for the measure.

Courtesy Duke Energy

Crittenden Solar Power Plant in Grant County, Ky.

Freedman said Duke Energy supported the bill because it wants to credit residential solar customers the same wholesale rates the utility pays for power.

“The energy market values the solar energy produced by utility-scale solar, solar farms, at the wholesale rate,” he said. “While current net-metering laws enable customers to receive a retail rate for private solar they install.”

But opponents of the legislation, which failed to pass this session, said the measure allowed major utilities to corner the market on solar electricity.

Kentucky Conservation Committee President Sarah Lynn Cunningham said she wants utilities to embrace solar, but doesn’t want to see it become a monopoly.

“I would say it’s both greedy and cynical,” she said. “I expect that after they do this, the next time they try to take private solar away from us, they will say ‘Hey look we are doing solar, too.'”

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment reporter.