KY Solar Power - still expensive but use is on the increase

Benefits of solar power shared with state lawmakers

FRANKFORT—Kentucky has more sunny days than you might think, say the state's solar power advocates.  Arizona—ranked as the sunniest state in the nation by the National Weather Service—only has 44 percent more solar radiation than the Bluegrass State, according to Denis Oudard of Kentucky based Solar Energy Solutions. Even places like Germany that are not typically considered sunny use solar as a hot water and electric energy source.

In short, solar energy appears to work almost anywhere, Oudard said.

"You don't have to be a Mark Spitz to swim," Oudard said before the Interim Joint Committee on Local Government today.

With billions of tons of coal reserves in the ground, Kentucky is known for being primarily a coal state. The state also has large natural gas reserves. But Oudard and his colleague, Andy McDonald of the Kentucky Solar Partnership, said solar is already at work at some Kentucky schools, homes and businesses, and is worth the investment—despite Kentucky's somewhat unpredictable weather.

Solar panels for thermal or electric use can be found on roofs of Kentucky homes, on hybrid buses run by public transportation systems, on some public buildings – including the new Capitol Education Center – and atop a handful of public schools, like Richardsville Elementary in Bowling Green.

McDonald said the 72,000 square foot school, which opened in 2010, is designed to use 75 percent less energy than a typical school in the state. "This is the first net-zero energy school in the U.S.," he said, "and it was built at less cost than a conventional school."

Kentucky now has solar product manufacturers and distributors contributing to the state's economy, said Committee Co-Chair Rep. Steve Riggs, D-Jeffersontown. Nationally, employment in the solar energy industry has increased 6.8 percent since Aug. 2010, said Oudard, and more growth is expected over the next year. In fact, Oudard said "solar electric investment creates jobs at a faster rate than any other type of energy."

An article in the Oct. 17 issue of U.S. News & World Report says almost 50 percent of the nation's 2,100 solar firms expect to add jobs in the next 12 months.

Solar energy, at a cost of about 20 cents a kilowatt hour, is more costly than the current 5.5 cents to 10 cents per kilowatt hour that Kentuckians now pay on average for electricity, McDonald said. Still, investment in solar energy may become more popular as Kentucky's power plants age, he said.

"Solar may be more expensive than current power, but may be on par with—or cheaper than—building new plants in the future," he said.

In response to a question by Sen. Dan Seum, R-Louisville, Oudard said it is more economical for solar to be installed on a new structure than an existing structure since retrofitting is required on existing buildings.

Rep. Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, said more investment in solar energy like that in place at Richardsville Elementary will improve affordability.

"As more schools and public buildings come on board, that will come down," he said. Just last summer, Richards said that Richardsville Elementary actually sold solar power back to the Tennessee Valley Authority because it was not able to use the energy it had harnessed with school out of session.

Committee Co-Chair Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said he supports alternative forms of energy. But he also pointed out that the U.S. has 200 years of coal reserves and a lot of oil reserves at our disposal, "…if we were just allowed to go get it; and I think you know the places we are talking about."

The committee also received testimony from Kentucky League of Cities' officials who presented the organization's legislative platform for the upcoming 2012 Regular Session of the Kentucky General Assembly. Issues presented by Lyndon Mayor Susan Barton and Midway Mayor Tom Bozarth on behalf of the organization included retirement reform for city governments, addressing the cost of drug abuse in cities and towns, revenue issues and elimination of most city classifications, and a 9-1-1 funding shortfall.

--provided by the Kentucky Legislative Research Committee