Solar is a bright spot amid Kentucky’s fossil-driven energy portfolio
A pair of large scale solar announcements this week emphasized the growing demand for renewable energy in a state that’s depended on coal for centuries.
The Texas-based Ashwood Solar broke ground Thursday on Kentucky’s largest solar installation to date, covering some 250 acres in Lyon County with enough solar panels to generate electricity for tens of thousands of homes.
But that announcement paled in comparison to one made earlier in the week by the global renewable power company BrightNight, which announced plans to build a solar facility in eastern Kentucky that produces nearly 10 times as much electricity as the one in Lyon County.
These major announcements emphasize what’s possible in a state that’s long prided itself on its ability to export energy, but has lost its edge as coal fades from the electricity grid. Since 2020, solar companies have filed more than 40 applications with utility regulators to build new projects.
“It's exciting to me to think that there's corporations that are trying to get projects, not just anywhere, but trying to get those projects in places that they recognize have have a legacy and a history of people working to support the energy economy in this nation and to try to get some of that benefit back to .the region,” said Joshua Bills, commercial energy specialist for the Mountain Association, an eastern Kentucky community development nonprofit.
To date, coal remains the state’s largest source of electricity generation, but that’s changing as utilities retire older, more expensive coal-fired power plants. Right now though, the state’s still among the worst in the country for solar and wind production.
“Yeah, so solar is creeping into the high single digits nationwide in terms of percentage of power generation. But in Kentucky, still sub 1%,” said Kentucky Solar Industry Association President Matt Partymiller.
That’s because many of the state’s utilities are only now considering major expansions to their renewable energy portfolios. In the meantime, merchant generators have been applying to build their own solar facilities in the state. These merchant power generators are governed under different rules than regulated utilities that typically provide power to Kentuckians like Louisville Gas and Electric.
Some sell their power directly to utilities. Ashwood, for instance, is planning an 86 megawatt facility to open in 2024 and will sell all of its power to the Kentucky Municipal Energy agency, which provides electricity to more than a half-dozen smaller city utilities.
Other merchant generators have plans to sell their electricity directly to Kentucky companies hungry for clean energy, and directly to wholesale markets like PJM Interconnection and Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO).
BrightNight’s massive facility is set up to do both. The company is planning a $1 billion, 800-megawatt facility on the former site of what they describe as the largest coal mines in the state, according to a press release. That project will be developed in four phases across the former Starfire Mine site, which spans parts of Perry, Breathitt and Knott counties.
The first phase is set to begin in 2025 and will include at least enough capacity to provide the electric vehicle manufacturer Rivian with 100 megawatts of capacity. The Nature Conservancy has also agreed to buy 2.5 megawatts of renewable energy credits.
Partymiller, with the Kentucky Solar Industry Association, said BrightNight also plans on interconnecting with PJM, an independent grid operator that controls wholesale power markets for much of the East Coast.
Right now though, PJM is facing a confluence of problems. Last year, the nation’s largest grid operator was so overwhelmed with requests from energy developers that it proposed a “two-year transition” to work through its backlog of interconnection requests. At the same time, PJM is struggling to meet demand for electricity across its territory because of the heatwave affecting the country.
As the climate warms and heatwaves become more common, even more electricity will be necessary to keep air conditioners operating and people cool. Nature Conservancy State Director David Phemister says solar development in Kentucky is an opportunity to continue the state’s tradition as an energy exporter.
“This is an opportunity for Kentucky to remain an energy leader, but you're producing clean, green sustainable power,” Phemister said. “So we really see this as an opportunity for Appalachia to continue to be an energy leader.”
But there are limits to that economic comparison as well. While solar offers a future that is significantly better for the environment, these facilities often don’t provide the same numbers of jobs that the coal industry has.
“We recognize this, this is not a silver bullet to the economic challenges, and the economic diversification that's needed across Eastern Kentucky and across a lot of rural landscapes in America,” he said. “But it can and should be a part of that solution.”