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Toyota to purchase solar power from eastern Kentucky facility

More than 1,400 solar panels are on the on Mall St. Matthews in Louisville.
Ryan Van Velzer
More than 1,400 solar panels are on the on Mall St. Matthews in Louisville.

Car manufacturer Toyota will purchase power from an eastern Kentucky solar project – an announcement proponents say is a milestone in efforts to transition away from the state’s declining coal industry, and towards renewable energy.

The Martin County Solar Project, spearheaded by Kentucky-based solar development firm Edelen Renewables and national developer Savion, is part of a broader regional push towards a green energy economy. The project is located on the abandoned Martiki mine site, which was a giant surface coal mine until it shut down in the 1990s.

The Martin County facility is one of the first coal-to-solar projects in the United States – and its new contract with Toyota, announced Wednesday, is among the first solar procurement contracts in Kentucky.

Toyota has agreed to purchase 100 megawatts of the energy generated by the Appalachian solar project. Commercial operation is slated to begin in 2024.

Adam Edelen, CEO of Edelen Renewables and former Kentucky state auditor, called the contract with Toyota a “historic announcement,” especially in a state that ranks poorly in renewable energy production.

“We can reimagine coal country as a green energy producer,” Edelen said. “The announcement today means that dream is going to become a reality.”

Edelen said his firm, in collaboration with Savion, had been discussing this contract with Toyota for years.

Edelen Renewables, he added, is in conversations with other companies that are interested in following Toyota’s lead. Edelen said he expects more contracts to be announced this year, though he declined to name the companies involved.

David Absher, senior manager of environmental sustainability at Toyota Motor North America, said the Martin County contract is part of the car maker’s strategy to reach carbon neutrality.

Absher said Toyota is investing in both on-site and off-site solar energy projects in multiple states, including Kentucky, Texas, West Virginia and Alabama. But he said the Martin County Solar Project is unique in its coal-to-solar approach.

“I think it does represent a good opportunity for us to get involved in something that is sort of groundbreaking,” Absher said, adding that he hopes it will benefit communities in eastern Kentucky.

Appalachia’s transition away from coal

The Martin County Solar Project originated in 2019, when Edelen Renewables partnered with Savion to install an up-to-200 megawatt network of solar panels across 1,200 acres of the shuttered Martiki coal mine.

Proponents of the project say it will provide hundreds of jobs for out-of-work coal miners and others who have been displaced by the disappearance of the coal economy.

“We’re going to hire, train, and credential these employees locally,” Edelen said.

Colby Hall, executive director of Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR, said the Martin County Solar Project could support eastern Kentucky communities as they navigate the economic challenges that come with transitioning away from the coal industry. SOAR aims to help eastern Kentucky think economically about what comes next after coal.

Hall said Toyota’s investment in the Martin County project could be a model for other reclaimed mine land in Kentucky that’s been “struggling to find that second life.”

“It’s exciting to see another type of development go on this mine land,” Hall said. “We’re willing to assist in any way that we can to try to make sure that the community in Martin County reaps the maximum economic benefit from this project.”

According to previous LPM News reporting, Martin County residents are underscoring the importance of community engagement as the solar project moves forward, to gain community trust and avoid falling into the same damaging patterns perpetuated by the coal industry.

Kentucky still relies heavily on coal-generated energy. According to the U.S. Energy information Administration, about 71% of all electricity generated in Kentucky came from coal as of 2021. That’s the fourth largest share of any state.

But a recent study from the nonpartisan climate policy think tank Energy Innovation Policy and Technology found it is now cheaper to build local solar farms than to continue operating Kentucky’s remaining coal-fired power plants.

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