Environment

Kentucky’s largest utility company has unveiled the commonwealth’s largest solar plant.

The 10-megawatt solar array is located at Louisville Gas and Electric/Kentucky Utilities’ E.W. Brown power plant in Mercer County. When it’s fully operational in June, it will cover 50 acres, consist of more than 44,600 solar panels and provide enough energy for up to 1,500 homes.

“This is great for Kentucky,” said Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton at the plant on Tuesday. “I’m hoping that this will move this technology forward to proving it, to add to the energy requirements that the area needs.”

But at the Brown power plant, the narrative is as much about fossil fuels as it is about solar energy — and how both can potentially complement each other in Kentucky.

Brown is now the most diverse power plant in LG&E and KU’s fleet; it uses coal, natural gas, hydroelectric and solar. And as coal’s share of Kentucky’s electricity generation slowly shrinks, utilities and policymakers are touting diverse portfolios as a way to maintain reliability and help blunt price fluctuations.

“Our Brown Generating Station with coal, hydro, natural gas and now solar will stand as a symbol of our evolving and more balanced generation portfolio, as well as our continued commitment to developing the kinds of offerings our customers are requesting,” said LG&E/KU Chief Operating Officer Paul Thompson.

There are already large solar arrays at Fort Knox and Fort Campbell — 2 megawatts and 5 megawatts, respectively — and a community-shared small system in Berea. But until now, most of solar’s small presence in Kentucky has been through individual homes and businesses installing rooftop panels.

The numbers are still tiny, but they’re growing exponentially. LG&E has the most customers hooked up to rooftop solar in the state. In 2014, it had 159 solar residential and commercial customers. Back in 2010, just 43 customers had solar panels.

Some of that surge is due to the increased competitiveness of solar since the a tax credit was implemented in 2006 to support it. LG&E and KU’s solar plant at the Brown Station was estimated to cost $36 million when it was approved in 2014; even in the short amount of time since then, the utilities said the cost of solar had dropped and the project’s final cost would likely be lower.

At the Brown solar plant’s unveiling, Kentucky Energy and Environment Secretary Charles Snavely said the technology could play a bigger role in the commonwealth’s energy mix. But Snavely, who spent most of his career in the coal industry, said he could not predict the future.

“The energy markets are certainly very volatile,” he said. “They mentioned I came from the energy industry and that industry has changed a lot in the last 10 years, and it’s continuing to change. So I think it’s important that our electric utilities know about all the different forms of producing electricity and how we can keep that affordable for our citizens, and how we can make it reliable and how we can serve new markets.”

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Assignment Editor.