A Frankfort Plant Board consultant’s thorough dismantling of a plan for local governments and schools to buy their electricity from a new solar farm might seem to be the last word on the project.
It won’t be.
Expect political fallout to reverberate for months, perhaps even into the 2022 city commission election and beyond.
A cynical view is that the solar proposal was a political setup from the beginning given the involvement of a former FPB vice chairman still smarting from former Mayor Bill May’s 2019 decision to replace him on the utility’s board. Walt Baldwin, the theory goes, knows the project won’t fly but surely would enjoy seeing his former colleagues on the hot seat. And that seat would be sizzling if FPB dismissed out of hand a plan wildly popular among environmental advocates.
This pundit takes a more favorable view of the motives of Baldwin and Andy McDonald, who are nothing if not sincere about renewable energy and a desire for their community to reduce its carbon footprint.
McDonald and Baldwin have been the public faces of the proposed solar farm, which would pump significant electricity into the FPB grid; city and county governments and public school districts would then buy their power for considerably less than they pay now.
I’ve read the project summary and find it compelling. I’ve also read the FPB consultant’s takedown of the plan and share some of his concerns. So did all five plant board directors, who were candid in their pessimism about a way forward for the solar project, even as they agreed to discuss it at a future meeting.
The board’s newest director, Kathryn Dutton-Mitchell, who had looked favorably on the project prior to the consultant's analysis, made the best case for its rejection: Any plan that would cause FPB to be sued isn’t in the best interest of ratepayers. The municipal utility just got out of one expensive lawsuit — over the Tanglewood water reservoir — and wants no part of another.
FPB’s legal vulnerability under the plan would come from favoring one class of ratepayers — governmental entities — over others, according to its consultant and its in-house counsel. Expect McDonald and Baldwin to produce legal opinions to the contrary.
It says here that FPB will ultimately reject the plan formally and that the city commission, fiscal court and school boards will use the utility’s rejection as their cover for declining to participate. But not before they get an earful from environmentalists, who carry significant political clout.
The issue will still be hot when new Mayor Layne Wilkerson makes his first plant board appointment in September. Assuming she wants to continue serving, FPB Director and former Baldwin nemesis Dawn Hale, whose first term is expiring, will be a target of solar advocates’ ire.
Steve Stewart is publisher of The State Journal. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.