Tim Darst, executive director of Kentucky Interfaith Power & Light

Tim Darst, executive director of Kentucky Interfaith Power & Light | Photo by Joe Sonka

Local government officials, environmental activists and business owners convened for the Louisville Solar Summit at the Green Building this week, discussing potential legislation and projects that could boost the city’s solar energy economy.

Tim Darst, executive director of Kentucky Interfaith Power & Light – the religious environmental organization that sponsored the event – told the audience that solar power is a progressive and practical way to fight climate change, improve air quality and create jobs — “and the time for solar power is now.”

Nicholas Johnson, a board member of the Kentucky Solar Energy Society, said that while Kentucky ranks low nationally in solar panel installations and energy production – noting the cultural and political power of the coal industry – there is much potential for progress due to the passage of Environmental Project Assessment District (EPAD) legislation by the state General Assembly this year.

How Kentucky's new Environmental Project Assessment District programs works, via the Kentucky Conservation Committee

How Kentucky’s new Environmental Project Assessment District programs works, via the Kentucky Conservation Committee

The EPAD law allows local governments to create a program in which commercial and industrial solar energy projects can be financed with an up-front loan by the private sector, and then paid off by property tax assessments being routed back to the project’s lender. Bowling Green is the first Kentucky city to pass such a law locally – in addition to their new 2 megawatt solar farm — and Johnson urged Louisville’s Metro Council to play catch up.

“Bowling Green is really ahead of us, it seems, with the solar farm and the EPAD legislation, so those are some of the areas that I think we should be focusing on,” said Johnson. “We really want people to talk to their lawmakers, and we’d love to have council members on board with getting this EPAD legislation implemented in the city.”

State Rep. Denny Butler, D-Louisville, told the audience that he “was kind of disheartened” to hear that Metro Council had not yet passed this legislation locally, saying it was vital for local communities to pioneer such projects and show that they can save money and work effectively.

While Metro Council has not yet introduced an EPAD ordinance, Councilman Rick Blackwell, D-12, told attendees he expected a solar energy resolution (of which he is a sponsor) to pass at Thursday night’s council meeting. While essentially just a symbolic statement of goals, the resolution refers to the potential of Louisville to be a national leader in solar energy, which would improve the city’s air quality, reduce carbon pollution from coal-burning power plants and create jobs. The resolution also sets a goal of creating new solar installations with the capacity of 2 million watts by the end of next year, urges Metro Government to expand solar installations on government property, and further support the city’s Solar Over Louisville education program.

Maria Koetter, Metro’s director of sustainability, says her department has a goal of decreasing Louisville’s energy use per capita 25 percent by 2025, directing their efforts toward researching options for renewable energy incentives and outside funding, including grants, public private partnerships and pilot projects.

Metro Councilman Rick Blackwell, D-12

Metro Councilman Rick Blackwell, D-12

Blackwell indicated he is a big proponent of one such project in his district that would not only be groundbreaking in Louisville, but improve pedestrian safety on the notoriously dangerous Dixie Highway. The Dixie Highway Improvement Project initially called for 215 new lights along the road that would be powered by solar panels in a grassy area along the Watterson Expressway interchange, with each light fixture to have an annual energy usage of 230 kilowatt hours per year.

Blackwell told IL the state Transportation Cabinet recently cut funding for the solar panels, and Metro Public Works is hesitant to commit to its ongoing maintenance.

“We know that the lighting would decrease fatalities by about 70 percent,” said Blackwell. “In my opinion, all of those things can be solved by having enough solar panels. And we have lots of room to build them. This is the kind of area that you hear people complaining about because the grass only gets cut three times a year. So it’s the perfect opportunity, I think, to use that area in a more constructive way.”

“Hopefully we’ll then see what a wonderful idea it is, fill in all of those, and have something moving in the direction of Bowling Green.”

Johnson of the Kentucky Solar Energy Society added that a separate $500 state tax credit for residential solar panel installations is expiring at the end of this year, and the federal 30 percent tax credit is expiring at the end of next year. He also advocated for the passage of the Clean Energy Opportunity Act in Frankfort – which has failed to pass out of committee in recent years – that would diversify Kentucky’s energy portfolio standard, aiming to have 12.5 percent of the state’s electricity come from renewables by 2020.

Rep. Butler noted that he is the chair of a budget subcommittee covering prisons, law enforcement and the court system, and wants to look at how solar installations in such facilities could drive down costs – all part of a larger conversation about solar energy that the state and localities need to take seriously.

“I think solar has the potential to save money and help all of us leave a smaller footprint on the earth,” said Butler.