Environment

After retiring the city-owned coal-fired power plant earlier this year, Henderson, Kentucky, is reviewing more than two dozen proposals to energize the city with solar power.

Henderson’s coal-fired power plant belonged to a vintage of older, smaller plants that went online in the 1970s. Historically it provided some of the cheapest electricity in the state, but market forces and maintenance costs eventually made plant operation unprofitable.

“Keeping the coal plant open as a coal plant was not in the financial interest of our customers,” said Henderson Municipal Power and Light General Manager Chris Heimgartner.

After conducting a few studies, the city settled on a power mix that involves buying some energy off the open market, building its own solar power plant and perhaps adding a natural gas plant.

“The project that made sense to start with first was the solar project,” he said.

Why solar? Heimgartner has worked in the energy industry since 1981 and did his first solar project on the West Coast in the early 90s when it was not cost effective. He’s watched those costs drop to a level he now believes makes financial sense for the 28,000 residents of Henderson.

Heimgartner said the smaller carbon footprint was an added benefit, but it all came down to economics.

“Really the simple answer is it was part of the least cost portfolio,” he said.

Earlier this summer Henderson put out a request for proposal and received bids on more than two dozen projects from 20 vendors. The proposals include bids to build anywhere from 25 to 150 megawatts of solar power for the city.

“It was really a robust answer from the industry,” he said.

To put that in context, Heimgartner said at the peak of summer, the city uses about 105 megawatts of electricity.

“So if you’ve got 100 megawatts of solar out there, it can power a city of 20,000 to 25,000, maybe 30,000 people, including all of our industry,” he said.

Heimgartner hopes to award a contract early next year and complete construction by 2023.

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