Environment

It’s Earth Day, the day governments and corporations re-up commitments to do better in the face of a climate crisis while reminding people to plant more trees, drive less and recycle. 

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer’s Earth Day announcement Thursday focused on Metro Government’s partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory to help meet the city’s 100% renewable energy goals: transitioning city operations to 100% clean electricity by 2035, clean energy by 2035 (this would include changes to fuels), and 100% clean energy community-wide by 2040 (meaning everybody).

Fischer’s announcement comes on the heels of President Joe Biden’s renewed commitment to combating climate change. On Thursday, Biden pledged to cut U.S emissions in half from 2005 levels by 2030

City officials say the partnership with National Renewable Energy Laboratory will help Louisville draft a roadmap to meet those climate goals, identify opportunities to add solar generation on city-owned buildings, and explore renewable options including geothermal, wind and renewable natural gas. 

“We must increase the percentage of our city’s energy sources that is run by renewables, and I believe with the right partners at the table, we can do just that,” Fischer said in a press release. “We can’t look past the fact that our current energy sources are the dominant factor in greenhouse gas emissions.”

Transitioning cities away from using fossil fuels is vital to combating the worst impacts of climate change. 

Greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. These emissions are now higher than at any time in human history and climate scientists say it’s imperative for the global economy to drastically reduce them as much and as fast as possible. 

In Kentucky, climate change will bring about warmer weather, increasing the frequency of large storms, flooding, heatwaves and droughts. Rain may become less likely in the summer months, but overall it is expected to get wetter. And climate change is about more than weather; the downstream impacts affect health, housing, income and equity. Cities need to plan now to be more resilient in the future. 

Cutting Coal

Electricity generation and consumption are among the greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Louisville, accounting for the equivalent of nearly 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2016, or about 62% of the city’s emissions, according to the city. 

But phasing out fossil fuels from energy generation will be a challenge for the city. Louisville has two choices for power, it can begin to generate its own or purchase it from LG&E, a utility with an energy portfolio that continues to be dominated by coal and natural gas and has no plans to change anytime soon. 

LG&E’s parent company, PPL Corporation, has said it is committed to reducing emissions to 70% of 2010 levels by 2050, which is a significantly slower timeline than those laid out by the city, Biden and climate scientists’ recommendations.  

“These goals strike the right balance between safe, reliable, and cost effective service to our customers, providing fair, just, and reasonable returns to our shareholders, and contributing to the progressive, but orderly reduction in carbon emissions,” LG&E CEO Paul Thompson said last year.  

LG&E has said it plans to speed up the retirements of several of its coal-fired generating units, but still plans to use coal generation until at least 2045 — five years after Louisville aims to have clean energy sources community-wide. At least four of LG&E’s units are scheduled to continue burning coal well into the late 2030s. 

Going Green

LG&E’s goals are not in line with what scientists say is necessary to stop the worst impacts of climate change, but Louisville is unlikely to meet its own clean energy goals without them, said Louisville Climate Action Network Executive Director Sarah Lynn Cunningham.

LG&E has a natural monopoly to provide energy to Louisville and everyone else in its coverage area, but as a corporation, it’s motivated to maximize returns on its investments, Cunningham said. 

“And so they are worried about getting paid to use those facilities as long as they possibly can, and the other problem of course is LG&E is getting almost 10% guaranteed profits on their assets. Every time they retire a power plant, they lose that source of profit,” Cunningham said. 

Louisville’s other option outside of LG&E is to produce its own power.

Solar panels are a good renewable energy investment for the city since the city uses most of its electricity during the day while the sun is shining, Cunningham said, but Kentucky ultimately needs systemic change if it wants to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels. 

“We have so many vested interests and we have so many rules that control who is at the table, that starting at the legislature and ending at the Public Service Commission, the public just doesn’t stand a chance,” Cunningham said.  

 

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