Solar makes up tiny part of Kentucky’s utility generation – but takes the heat from

Republican state lawmakers have been wary of solar energy, claiming it’s pushing out coal and taking over prime farmland.

But the renewable energy source is barely used in Kentucky, even though advocates say the state could benefit from making it a bigger part of its energy portfolio.

In a recent legislative meeting, the director of state’s Office of Energy Policy Kenya Stump said that only 0.07% of Kentucky’s net utility electricity generation is solar. Only nine plants produce solar energy for Kentucky utilities, and none produce more than 10 megawatts, which is small compared to the overall energy capacity of Kentucky’s utilities.

“The utmost priority would be maintaining the reliability and the price competitiveness of our electricity, given our status as a manufacturing state,” Stump said. “I don’t give a preference to any particular type of generating technology.”

Utility companies’ use of solar energy is dwarfed by “merchant” solar projects, which includes production and storage facilities whose energy is sold wholesale, sometimes in collaboration with specific manufacturing plants or companies.

There are more than 200 such projects in-progress and awaiting approval from the Kentucky Electric Generation and Transmission Siting Board, Stump said. But these merchant solar energy providers aren’t allowed to sell directly to electric utility customers, they have to make purchasing agreements with utility companies themselves.

According to Stump, the potential for these solar facilities would be immense. Kentucky has about 18,000 megawatts of operating capacity across all fuels. If all solar projects in the queue were approved by state and federal authorities and were then built, they would have the capacity to generate an additional 25,000 megawatts of electricity; that’s more than Kentucky’s current electrical capacity.

“As a rule of thumb, only about 20% of the projects in a queue will actually move through successfully and come out and actually move into construction,” Stump said.

That could still potentially mean 5,000 megawatts of additional power.

Republican members of the legislature’s Interim Joint Committee on Natural Resources were highly skeptical of solar energy’s ability to reliably fulfill Kentucky’s energy needs.

Rep. Chris Fugate, a Republican from Chavies, said he was worried about rising utility costs, which he blamed on Kentucky’s waning dependence on coal power.

“[With] all the coal jobs that are gone now and have been replaced with natural gas and/or solar, if it’s true that [solar] costs less to upkeep and keep those solar generation plants going, then why in the world are the utilities asking for an 18% rate increase to the people in the mountains?” he asked.

Kentucky Power proposed an 18% rate hike this year, nearly double the increase residential customers saw in 2020. But eastern Kentucky’s largest utility said the hike was due to natural disasters in its service area — wind and ice storms and devastating floods. The company has also lost 11,400 ratepayers over the last 15 years, including large-scale industrial customers.

Rep. Tom Smith, a Republican from Corbin, theorized that a transition away from coal-fired power plants could cause rolling blackouts, one of which left 53,000 Kentuckians without power in the dead of winter. That was the first time in Louisville Gas and Electric and Kentucky Utilities history that they didn’t have enough energy. He questioned the decision to allow the closure of two LG&E coal-fired generation units ahead of a cold winter.

“Is it making sense that we’re forcing a quick reaction to green energy, that maybe it should be drawn out to a longer period so that we don’t make that mistake?” Smith asked. “Can you guarantee that we can meet that demand, that our families are not going to be put in the black in the cold in the winter?”

Officials testified that Louisville’s rolling blackouts were largely caused by natural gas disruptions, mechanical failures at coal generating units, frozen equipment at coal and gas generating units and challenges purchasing additional power. Solar power makes up an extremely small portion of the utility’s electricity needs.

Evan Vaughan, executive director of MAREC Action (the Mid-Atlantic Renewable Energy Coalition), said that solar energy could be a valuable addition to Kentucky’s power grid to create a more diversified system. But, Vaughan said, renewables are often blamed for any failures of the system.

“I empathize with the electricity cost concerns and the reliability concerns,” Vaughan said. “Just being fully frank, if the lights go off, often the renewables industry gets a lot of the heat for that.”

Coal still remains the state’s largest source of electricity generation, but lawmakers have voiced concerns that that’s changing after the Public Service Commission gave LG&E permission to close two coal-fired generating units — although, the commission simultaneously denied a request to retire two other larger coal-fired generating units.

The utility got permission to partially replace the energy lost from closing the units with around 1,000 megawatts of solar and battery storage. The decision will allow the utility to construct two 125-megawatt solar facilities and purchase solar power from other providers.

The commission found that solar proposals reduced costs for ratepayers in nearly every scenario they studied.

In 2022, Kentucky was one of the worst producers of wind and solar energy in the country, outranking only the District of Columbia. But renewable energy jobs are also outpacing coal ones — last year, the state added nearly 2,200 new clean energy jobs. All told, more than 37,000 Kentuckians work in the clean energy sector.

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