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Researchers Say Even In Kentucky, There’s A Path To A Carbon-Free Future

At least two coal-fired power plants are expected to close in Kentucky this year and another two are expected to close in 2020. With each retirement, residents will have to decide how they want to power the future. But in Kentucky, the battle over the future of electricity is a fight over the state’s identity.

President Donald Trump weighed in earlier this year when he tweeted in support of saving the remaining coal-fired generators at a plant in Paradise, Kentucky. For Trump, and Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, the aging coal-fired power plant is a symbol of prosperity, reliability and employment.

Against the politicians' advice, the Tennessee Valley Authority decided to shutter the remaining coal generators at Paradise by the end of 2020.  In the aftermath, Bevin doubled down on coal energy, saying it is the only way to meet the energy needs of the world.

“There literally isn’t the ability to produce the electricity the world needs without coal,” Bevin said, “In a vacuum it’s wonderful to imagine that on a sunny day, the sun is going to power our electricity and the wind is going to blow … but it’s not real, it’s not realistic.”

But progress has always come at a cost. Folk singer John Prine sang back in 1971 about the price that the town of Paradise paid for that coal power.

“Then the coal company came with the world's largest shovel

And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land

Well, they dug for their coal 'till the land was forsaken

Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.”

Continuing to burn coal presents another, larger risk. The greenhouse gases released from burning coal have contributed to a new milestone, the highest levels of carbon dioxide in all of human history.

To reverse course and prevent the worst impacts of climate change, humanity needs to decrease carbon emissions to basically zero by 2050 with any remaining emissions offset by reforestation or carbon capture.

There is however, a competing vision for the future of Kentucky: one illuminated by solar panels manufactured on printing presses, powered by wind and the state’s vast reserves of flowing streams; the excess stored, perhaps in hydrogen fuel cells, or by pumping water into reservoirs to act as giant natural batteries for when the wind stops blowing and the sun disappears over the horizon.

How long will it take?

“One generation. It’s the next generation that will be fully renewable here in Kentucky,” said Thad Druffel, a solar manufacturing researcher at University of Louisville.

Printing The Future Of Solar

Inside his office at the University of Louisville’s Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research, Druffel’s desk is made from an old solar panel.

It’s about six feet long, made of glass and aluminum, and weighs about 300 pounds. The solar panel makes for a sturdy desk, but when it comes to using it to generate electricity, Druffel has some ideas on how to improve its design.

In May, Druffel received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to research and develop a new method of printing solar panels.

Conn Center researchers have already developed a new technique to rapidly process solar cells. Now, Druffel wants to adapt roll-to-roll printing presses used in the newspaper industry to print the next generation of solar panels.

Druffel has already found he can print the solar cells on flexible materials, including plastics. That flexibility and affordability allows for solar panels that wrap and form-fit. Instead of putting panels on an existing roof, the solar panels themselves could be the roof, he said.

Now Druffel is working on scaling his technology. He calculated that if one modern printing press ran 24 hours a day for a year, it would produce enough solar panels to power 10 percent of the world’s energy needs.

“So if you had 10 or so printing presses moving at the speed these new presses are moving at, you could basically power the whole world,” Druffel said.

Historically, the coal extracted from and burned in Kentucky has kept energy prices low and attracted manufacturing to the state.  With this technology, Kentucky could continue to be a manufacturing hub and help produce clean energy for the rest of the world, he said.

But in order to get there and reach the goals of zero-carbon, Kentucky will have to reduce, if not eliminate, its dependence on coal.

A Bright Future

Kentucky still receives about 92 percent of its energy from fossil fuels, said Mahendra Sunkara, the Conn Center’s director.  Most of that energy is still coming from coal, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

But Sunkara said it doesn’t have to be that way. He thinks solar, combined with other renewables and bridge strategies will power Kentucky in the future.

“You can easily power Kentucky through Kentucky land,” he said.  “I think we are seeing actually that the prosperity of Kentucky and the future of economic development is going to depend more and more on renewable technologies.”

Sunkara foresees solar as providing the largest amount of that electricity. Kentucky receives, on average, four to six hours of generating capacity from the sun every day, he said.

Soon enough, technologies like hydrogen fuel cells will store that energy, not only to power homes, but also to power vehicles, he said. In the interim, the state could rely on some power generated through natural gas and biomass — which releases significantly less greenhouses gases than burning coal — matched with carbon capture technology.

Sunkara doesn’t see much potential for wind energy in Kentucky, but not everyone agrees.

Hydro And Wind Power

Engineer and President of Appalachian Hydro Associates David Brown Kinloch said that when you start looking at maps of wind speeds at 100 meters and higher, the prospects begin looking better for Kentucky.

“As you know Kentucky is full of trees, and until you get above the tree line, you don’t sense the real wind potential,” he said. 

The largest potential for wind power in the state is around Lexington and Paris, Kentucky, Brown Kinloch said.

And while the wind speeds don’t compare to neighboring states like Indiana, Kentucky’s got another thing going for it: transmission lines. Utilities can spend a fortune building the transmission lines to plug that power into the grid. But in Kentucky, there are transmission and distribution lines snaking all through the state, he said.

“You can put in renewable just about anywhere and be near transmission in Kentucky,” Brown Kinloch said.

To a lesser degree, Brown Kinloch said hydropower will play a role. Kentucky has more navigable streams than any other state in the U.S. other than Alaska, and it has hundreds of existing dams.

Brown Kinloch said at least 50 of these dams could be re-purposed to generate electricity. And renewable energy can pump water uphill where it can be stored and used to generate hydroelectricity when it’s needed, just like a giant battery, he said.

But it’s not enough to just build new sources of renewable energy. Brown Kinloch said it has to be paired with efficiency. He said there’s a lot of room for improvement in Kentucky because of its historically cheap energy prices.

“Because energy rates have been cheap, we have not built the most efficient buildings. We have not got the most efficient appliances as other places in the country, in the world, have,” he said.

Energy Independence and Efficiency

Efficiency is low-hanging fruit: if you don’t need the electricity, you don’t have to make the electricity, said Sarah Lynn Cunningham, engineer and executive director of the Louisville Climate Action Network.

Weatherizing homes and businesses combined with energy efficient appliances can significantly reduce power consumption, and electricity bills, she said. In her own home, Cunningham has added insulation derived from castor bean oil, sealed her duct work and added solar panels, among other improvements.

“My own home here was so drafty when I got it, I did some very basic things and dropped my energy consumption by about a third,” she said. “And then I did some fancy pants stuff… and I dropped it down even more, to below half.”

Cunningham sees efficiency as a way not only to decrease electricity consumption, but to add jobs in the parts of Kentucky where they are needed. Even if a fraction of homeowners decided to make their homes more energy efficient, those are good, local jobs for those communities, she said.

Cunningham sees a parable for Kentucky’s future in its past. Back in the 1940s, coal smoke shrouded the city’s skyline. The coal that heated homes and businesses also covered them with soot, polluting the inside and outside of their homes.

“Spring cleaning used to mean when you finished heating in the spring, you literally washed down your ceilings and your walls,” she said.

But by 1960, coal warmed only 10 percent of homes in the city, replaced by natural gas, oil and propane. That change was driven by advancements in technology. Today, we are at another turning point.

People are always looking for the silver bullet, but Cunningham thinks what Kentucky really needs is silver buckshot. Energy efficiency and renewable power are just part of the answer to Kentucky adapting economically and environmentally, she said.

“I think a lot of this is just societal inertia. This is what we’ve always done and we just need more people to do the progressive environmentally friendly thing, and to talk about it, and to show it to others, then I think other people will follow suit,” Cunningham said.

About this project: This story is part of a multi-newsroom collaborative project called Middle America's Low-Hanging Carbon: The Search for Greenhouse Gas Cuts from the Grid, Agriculture and Transportation. The effort, led by the nonprofit news organization InsideClimate News, includes 14 Midwest newsrooms and aims to give readers local and regional perspectives on climate change. For more, go to the project page.

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

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