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Louisville activists call on utilities, regulators to act on climate change

coal miner in the hands of coal background
Getty Images/iStockphoto
coal miner in the hands of coal background

Louisville Metro passed a resolution in 2020 to make city government operations 100% renewable by 2035. But the city’s utility, Louisville Gas & Electric, has other plans.

While the investor-owned utility does plan to add more renewable energy to its portfolio, Louisville Gas and Electric has also told state regulators it intends to burn fossil fuels for the foreseeable future, including coal and natural gas. 

Now Louisville environmentalists behind the city’s resolution are calling on state utility regulators and LG&E to do more to curb the use of planet-warming greenhouse gasses. 

“What we’re seeing here is a worldwide existential crisis for all people everywhere, colliding with a local business plan. And if we don’t care where our electricity comes from, we’re part of the business plan,” said Sam Avery, a member of the 100% Renewable Energy Alliance of Louisville, or 100% REAL.

Over the next 15 years, LG&E plans to retire nearly 2,000 megawatts of coal generation, but even then it will still have more than 2,700 megawatts left, not to mention natural gas.

The kind of power that LG&E chooses to replace it with depends on fuel prices and how much energy LG&E needs to produce, among other factors, but it will likely be some combination of solar, wind, storage and natural gas, according to the plan. 

Both LG&E and its parent company PPL say they want to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, though PPL’s climate assessment states its goals are simply “aspirational” and are not promised or guaranteed.  

LG&E Vice President of Energy Supply and Analysis David Sinclair said the next decade and a half will be about transitioning away from coal in a way that makes financial sense for LG&E. 

“All of our resource plans are based on looking at the economics of operating existing equipment versus retiring those plants and replacing them with different technologies,” Sinclair said. 

Calculating the costs of coal

In addition to appeals to utilities, 100% REAL and other advocates are hoping regulators will step in. 

LG&E and KU submitted its 15 year forecast, known as an integrated resource plan, to state regulators at the Public Service Commission in October. 

Typically, the PSC doesn’t consider the environmental costs of burning fossil fuels. 

The state’s three commissioners and their already-stretched thin staff review and approve these plans to ensure utilities examine “all reasonable options for the future supply of electricity,” according to PSC records. Regulators’ mandate is to provide ratepayers a reliable supply of electricity at reasonable rates while also making sure utilities turn a profit. 

Environmental advocates say that’s no longer enough. 

“When the PSC asks LG&E and KU to regulate in the public interest, the public interest is changing. And the reason it is, is we are in the midst of a climate crisis,” said Kentucky Interfaith Power and Light Director Elisa Owen, a group that mobilizes communities of faith on climate change and environmental justice.  

Fossil fuels are heating the planet. Kentucky is already becoming warmer and wetter, and will continue to do so in the coming years, increasing the frequency of extreme weather events like floods, droughts and an eastward shift of tornado alley

But environmental advocates say the costs of continuing to burn coal are not limited to climate change. 

Mountaintop removal coal mines scar Appalachia’s vistas, coal ash ponds full of toxic contaminants threaten groundwater resources and coal plant emissions cause significant health risks to those who live and work nearby. 

Emissions from the Mill Creek coal-fired power plant in Louisville, for example, significantly contribute to the city’s air pollution. Just last year, LG&E agreed to pay a $750,000 dollar penalty for emitting high levels of sulfuric acid mist into communities surrounding Mill Creek.

For these reasons and others, environmental advocates say the state regulators at the PSC need to consider the social costs of allowing utilities to burn fossil fuels.  

“Now because of the climate crisis we have a whole lot more to take into consideration. First, we have to take into consideration the planet. Second, we have to take into consideration the health of the people on the planet,” Owen said.

Activists’ goals

Louisville activists say they want utilities to partner with the community. To them, that means making it easier and cheaper for people to put solar on their homes. It means hastening the adoption of renewable technologies, and preparing for a world of electric vehicles. It also means holding community discussions about climate change. 

“We really need to get together and speak with one another to try and reach this goal,” said Owen, with Kentucky Interfaith Power and Light.

Graeme Donovan with the 100% REAL said utilities need to consider how continued reliance on fossil fuels affects Kentucky.   

“The bottom line for me is that these companies touch the lives of more people in Kentucky than any other entity because they are going into every single household that uses energy,” he said. “They don’t seem to have any sense of community responsibility or participation.”

LG&E funded anti-solar lobbying and fought to credit rooftop solar owners less for the electricity they put back on the grid. The utility has also filed an appeal in the Franklin Circuit Court against the PSC claiming the commission exceeded its powers in drafting the current net metering rates for LG&E customers. 

When WFPL News spoke to Sinclair, the vice president of energy supply and analysis at LG&E in November, he was reluctant to acknowledge utilities’ role in global warming. 

“Certainly the climate changes… there’s no doubt about that so I’m not sure what you are trying to drive at there,” Sinclair said when asked if he believed in climate change.

That worries 100% REAL member Margaret Stewart, who said Kentuckians have to deal with the consequences of climate change regardless of their beliefs. Reflecting on Louisville’s renewable energy goals in light of LG&E’s plans, Stewart said there is more work to be done. 

“Passing the resolution is just words on paper. Now we need to make them real,” she said.

The PSC is accepting written comments from the public on LG&E’s integrated resource plan through May 15. You can email them at psc.info@ky.gov.

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

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