Advocates are urging Kentucky to develop solar energy projects on farms and abandoned coal mines as the state considers expanding its renewable energy portfolio.
Developers have been planning and building large-scale solar projects around the state—some more successfully than others—as the technology becomes more affordable and pressure increases to develop renewable energy.
During a joint hearing of the legislature’s Natural Resources and Agriculture committees on Wednesday, Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet Secretary Rebecca Goodman said the state has the land and energy markets necessary for solar.
“There’s a corporate demand for renewable electricity. Economic development and that corporate demand will continue to be primary movers toward encouraging solar development in Kentucky,” Goodman said.
Solar farms owned by Kentucky’s electric utilities only account for about .07% of the state’s total electricity generation, according to the cabinet. The main sources are coal and natural gas.
There are at least 87 solar projects currently planned in Kentucky, according to PJM, a regional electricity transmission organization.
Decisions about whether to build solar farms come down to landowners, local governments and the state’s Electric Generation and Transmission Siting Board, which is part of the utility-regulating Public Service Commission.
The state’s largest industrial-scale solar farm is a 44,000-panel facility at the E.W. Brown power station in Mercer County, which came online in 2016.
Sen. Paul Hornback, a Republican from Shelbyville and chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the legislature needs to weigh in on industrial solar this year.
“It’s something that’s going to be a part of Kentucky’s future too. We need to come to a resolution for what works for Kentucky because a lot of other states have done this,” Hornback said.
Will Mayer, executive director of the Clark Coalition, which opposed the project, said the current landscape of the solar industry encourages out-of-state developers to try and change local zoning laws.
“The result of those ordinances is that the benefits of these projects accrue to the developers and outside interests, most of them are owned by out of state interests and foreign interests, while the costs are borne by Kentuckians,” Mayer said.
Mark Walter, with solar developer Savion, said the industry can “operate harmoniously” with local communities.
“We don’t see ourselves in any way as a threat to the ag community, but as an accent to the existing landscape,” Walter said.
Some legislators on the committee said federal subsidies allow solar projects to unfairly compete with the state’s dominant energy sources.
Sen. Phillip Wheeler, a Republican from Pikeville, said solar projects aren’t playing on an even ground.
“To what extent are we subsidizing these industries to compete with our traditional energy sources that employ folks in Kentucky?” Wheeler asked.
Kenya Stump, who works for the Energy and Environment Cabinet, said subsidies aren’t the main reason solar has become more viable.
“The only reason we’re seeing solar develop, one reason, is that costs have declined enough to be price-competitive with our coal and natural gas resources,” Stump said.