If Kentucky Can Green Up, So Can Every State

Kentucky is finally seeing the light, deploying increasingly more renewable energy projects — an attempt to emerge from a coal-based economy. A handful of clean energy projects are springing up in the state.

Make no mistake: the state is rooted in coal, which still has its teeth firmly implanted there — a fuel that attracted legacy manufacturing companies such as steel. However, things are evolving due to changing times and cheaper fuels. For example, Nucor
Corp. said it would buy 250 megawatts of solar energy from NextEra Energy
Resources for a steel plant it is building in Kentucky.

“Nucor’s success in Kentucky has grown significantly in recent years, with major new investments and jobs helping to expand the reach of its steel products,” said Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear. “Whether it’s electric vehicles or cutting-edge metals manufacturing, Kentucky is emerging as a national leader in creating the jobs of the future.”

It’s a two-phase solar project, expected to produce 400 MW ultimately. Phase one starts this fall. NextEra’s unit, Sebree Solar, is building the solar farm.

Change is urgent, according to a book released last week: “The Injustice of Place.” The authors started with the premise that poverty permeates urban America, but found that the nation’s hardest-hit places are in rural regions — ones with inferior schools and decaying social infrastructures. That includes bowling alleys, hair salons, and eating establishments.

“Place is hugely determinative — it determines to a large extent how things turned out for us. And I think as an individualistic culture, we really strain to believe that,” Kathryn Edin told 19th News.

Edin, a professor of sociology at Princeton University, is one of three authors who emphasized that the rural communities they studied included places of color. The book looks beyond Appalachia, concluding the regions in question had been exploited by single industries and white elites, paying poor wages with equally penurious working conditions.

People despair, resulting in runaway opioid usage to ease the pain. After World War II, Kentucky’s coal mining industry employed 75,000 miners. Today, that number is 4,000. And politicians have preyed on their anxieties, telling them that the industry’s return is near. Even the most disheartened now understand that they must find new opportunities with long-lasting prospects.

A New Era for Appalachia?

Welcome solar, booming in the southwest and finding homes in Texas, Florida, and New York. Other Appalachian states like West Virginia are also exploring the option.

Duke Energy is building one of Kentucky’s most extensive solar arrays — 5,600 photovoltaic panels on the 800,000-square-foot Amazon Air Hub rooftop. It is adjacent to the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. This facility will feed up to 2 megawatts of solar power directly onto the electric distribution grid, energizing roughly 400 homes and businesses in the area.

The catalyst is Amazon, which aims to run all of its global operations on renewable energy by 2040.

And last month, the Kentucky Municipal Energy Agency and RWE Clean Energy broke ground on a facility that will generate 86 MW with 226,000 solar panels. The energy agency will buy the output from RWE in a 20-year power purchase agreement. It will power 15,000 homes and provide about 15% of the area’s electricity needs by June 2024.

Meantime, PPL
Corp.’s Louisville Gas & Electric and Kentucky Utilities Co. are closing coal plants. By 2050, the Allentown-Pa.-based utility says it will reduce its CO2 emissions by 45%-90%. That will come by switching to natural gas and renewable power supported by battery storage, which the utility predicts will be 80% of its fleet.

Perhaps the most illustrative example of Kentucky’s enlightenment is converting the state’s biggest coal mine into a solar energy center. In July, BrightNight, Rivian Automotive, and the Nature Conservancy said the Starfire Mine would become the BrightNight Starfire Renewable Energy Center — set to produce 800 MW of electricity and power 170,000 homes.

Rivian will buy the output to power electric transportation. Construction will start in 2025 and take place over four phases. During the first phase, Rivian will buy 100 MW from BrightNight, which will power up to 450 million miles of renewable driving annually. The Nature Conservancy will purchase 2.5 MW to complement its onsite solar arrays. When developers complete the $1 billion plant, it will be Kentucky’s largest renewable power project.

“Shifting our energy system to carbon neutrality goes beyond electrifying the roughly 1.5 billion vehicles in the global fleet,” said Rivian Founder and Chief Executive RJ Scaringe. “We must also support the decarbonization of our energy infrastructure through the responsible deployment of renewable energy.”

Joining the National Trend

Kentucky’s moves are part of a national trend. The U.S. Energy Information Administration said the country added 16,800 MW during the first half of 2023. Solar provided 5,900 MW of that, while natural gas supplied 5,700 MW. Wind energy made up 3,200 NW, and battery storage comprised 1,800 MW.

The same agency says that Kentucky finishes last among the states for wind and solar generation — something that might change once the developing projects come online. Like other coal-producing states, Kentucky has come kicking and screaming into the new energy era, brought on by the climate change phenomenon, falling wind and solar prices, and plummeting coal sales.

But Appalachia needs to evolve faster. Indeed, the time to have ditched the horse and buggy was 15 years ago.

“The absence of a renewable portfolio standard has been a major factor in our backwardness,” said Andy McDonald, a clean energy advocate, in an Inside Climate News story. “The coal industry has had such a grip on the (Kentucky) legislature and the governorship, and the culture, it’s really held back policies that would have supported renewables.”

However, economies can move forward. And Kentucky could become an example not just to others in Appalachia but to the rest of the country — if the most recent renewable projects are a precursor of what will come.

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