Environment

Judith Humble, a self-described lifelong resident of Kentucky, thinks the state should be transitioning to renewable energy as fast as possible given the role that fossil fuels play in climate change. 

“I hope to see our cities and our state transition to 100% renewable energy within the next decade, with rapid progress being made in the next 5 years,” she wrote.

That was one of more than a hundred pages worth of comments Kentucky utility regulators received about a 15-year forecast from the state’s largest utility on the future of power generation in the state. 

Attorneys for Louisville Gas and Electric and Kentucky Utilities say they have received an unusually high number of comments on the integrated resource plan.  Many of them petition the company to take notice of the scientific consensus on climate change and to act swiftly to avoid its worst impacts. 

In response, attorneys for Louisville Gas and Electric and Kentucky Utilities say their plan offers ratepayers reliable, least-cost service that makes historic investments in renewable energy. They say many of the public’s comments fall outside their obligations under state law. 

“Therefore, the companies believe that many of the intervenors’ comments are not constructive,” according to a response filed with Kentucky utility regulators. 

The public will have an opportunity to comment on the plan in-person at a hearing held on Tuesday July 12, 2022, at the Public Service Commission headquarters in Frankfort. The hearing will also be streamed live on the PSC website. 

Plans for the future

Last October, LG&E and KU filed their integrated resource plan (IRP) with the Kentucky Public Service Commission. It outlines how the utility intends to meet demand while providing low-cost power at reasonable rates — its primary purpose under state law. 

This planning process is happening at a pivotal moment in human history, according to climate scientists. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that humankind must reduce global carbon emissions by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, and achieve net-zero by 2050 to avoid the worst impacts of climate change and limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Ignoring the realities of climate changes will have devastating impacts. In Kentucky, that includes more extreme heat waves, droughts and floods. It even appears to be shifting tornado alley further into western Kentucky.

To that end, Kentuckians sent an unusually high number of public comments over LG&E’s plans, like this one from Roxanne Sturtevant, a retired public school teacher from Louisville:

“Please consider the needs of the planet, our infrastructure and the health of our citizens when weighing ‘least cost’ alternatives. Repairing the damage caused by extreme storms, pollution and deteriorating public health is extremely expensive and is not considered in the cost benefit calculation,” she wrote. 

As part of integrated resource planning, the Public Service Commission will consider Sturtevant comments’ alongside more formal parties who intervene in the case on behalf of ratepayers. Those include Attorney General Daniel Cameron, the Sierra Club, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and the Mountain Association.  

Climate action

LG&E told WFPL News that it is committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and has accelerated its interim goals to reduce carbon emissions by 70% of 2010 levels by 2035. 

But in the integrated resource plan provided to state regulators, LG&E said it would continue burning coal and natural gas in Kentucky for another three decades, retiring the remaining 11 coal-fired generating units over time until it finally closes the last one in 2066. 

When WFPL News asked for clarification, LG&E spokesperson Chris Whelan said the utility is  committed to not burn unabated coal by 2050.

“We mean that unless it can be mitigated with carbon dioxide removal technologies, we will stop burning coal by that date,” Whelan said. 

Many utilities are considering using carbon capture technology to strip greenhouse gases from the air as they are emitted, but so far it hasn’t proven to be economically viable

Even LG&E has pivoted away from researching carbon capture at coal-fired power plants. Instead, Whelan said the utility is shifting focus to research removing carbon from a natural gas plant in Louisville. 

Attorneys argue plans are ‘transformative’

LG&E attorneys argue their 15-year plan is both consistent with the state’s best practices and “entirely transformative.”

Right now, LG&E and KU generate about 97% of their electricity from fossil fuels and about 3% from renewable sources including solar and hydro. By 2034, the plan would serve ratepayers with 18% utility-scale solar, based on favorable assumptions about solar pricing and battery storage, attorneys’ wrote. 

They largely dismissed both expert opinions and public comments that called for LG&E to do more to meet the UN’s climate goals. 

LG&E said it will be costly to replace renewable resources with fossil fuel power generation. They argue that because the state doesn’t have favorable conditions for wind and solar, it will actually be cheaper to use fossil fuels. 

For example, the utility estimates it will require around 20 megawatts of solar and six megawatts of battery storage to replace one megawatt of fossil generation. 

“A portfolio of solar, wind, and battery storage is less expensive than just solar and battery storage, but the cost of either renewable portfolio is significantly more expensive than new fossil resources,” attorneys wrote in comments to the PSC.

 

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.