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Kentucky groups go after federal dollars to pay for more residential solar panels

Solar array on the roof of the St. Vincent's Mission volunteer house.
Brittany Patterson
Solar panels now help power the Kahly farm.

Kentucky’s state government and some of the state’s largest cities are both applying for hundreds of millions of dollars to support the growth of solar for low-income and disadvantaged communities.

Most of Kentucky still runs on power made from coal. But state and local governments are looking for funding to increase access to rooftop and ground-mounted solar power for residents who could use some help paying their energy bills.

Solar for All is a $7 billion grant competition funded through the Inflation Reduction Act to increase access to solar, lower energy costs, advance environmental justice, reduce carbon emissions and create jobs.

Kentucky’s got at least two separate applications in the works: one from the Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet (EEC), and a second from a team consisting of the state’s three largest cities working with a cohort of Appalachian counties.

Louisville, Lexington and Bowling Green joined with 54 counties in eastern Kentucky to win one of the 60 grants available to expand low-income solar programs.

Louisville Sustainability Director Sumedha Rao said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has received so much interest in the program, they asked groups within the same state to collaborate. That’s how they ended up working with so many communities across the state.

Rao said their group is asking for a $150 million Solar for All grant to support the growth of solar for low-income and disadvantaged communities. The joint application focused on what’s called “distributed solar generation” like rooftop and ground-mounted installations on residential properties. Their goals are to reduce overall emissions, save on utility costs and create additional disposable income for low-income residents.

It would also have the co-benefit of increasing grid resilience, allowing residents continued access to electricity even during system wide blackouts.

“There's just so much excitement about this. And honestly a really heavy lift and I think we are punching above our weight in some ways going after this massive grant. And it gave us an opportunity to work with a lot of stakeholders,” Rao said.

The state’s Energy and Environment Cabinet (EEC) declined an interview, but issued a statement. The Cabinet wants to use $100 million in funding to lower bills for low-income households, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve air quality and demonstrate that solar can help low-income households.

“It looks to add energy resilience to those areas hardest hit by disasters and to reduce the energy burden for target low-income households by an average of 20-70%,” John Mura, EEC spokesperson, said via email.

Currently, less than 1% of Kentucky households have rooftop or ground-mounted solar panels. For many Kentuckians, residential solar is prohibitively expensive. That’s why the Solar for All funding is such an important opportunity for the state, Rao said.

“There are market barriers to people in these communities because of the high upfront costs,” she said. “The purpose of this grant is to reduce those barriers and make it more financially viable.”

Both groups submitted applications in mid-October, but won’t hear back until July of next year.

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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