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More Solar Panels For DoD, One More Stab In The Back For Coal

Promises, shmomises: when US Department of Defense pitches solar panels in Kentucky, it’s game over for Commander-in-Chief’s love affair with coal.

Wow, it looks like the Kentucky Air National Guard is tired of waiting around for the local utility to ditch coal. Last week, the 123rd Airlift Wing proudly announced plans for new rooftop solar panels, aimed at reducing its reliance on fossil fuels. The new project is a money-saver, too. When completed, the new solar array will — wait, why is the Trump administration still going to bat for solar power when the US coal industry is in a tailspin?

solar panels military

Illustration of new solar panels planned for the 123rd Civil Engineer Squadron Building in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo by Philip Speck, via DOD

Solar Panels And Energy Upgrades

The new solar project for the 123rd Airlift Wing is a relatively small one, but it sticks out like a sore thumb in the state of Kentucky.

Kentucky is in the heart of the Appalachian coal region and it gave President* Trump a 29% margin of victory over his rival in the 2016 campaign cycle, partly based on his promise to boost the coal industry.

That’s why it’s no surprise that Kentucky lags far behind other US states in the race for renewable energy. Kentucky currently ranks down at #45 for installed solar capacity, and its growth rate over the next five years is a measly #32.

Stakeholders in Canada’s tar sands oil fields also apparently have a hand in stoking political fires that have burned through the state’s opportunities to exploit its fairly decent solar resources, which is a whole ‘nother can of worms.

Despite all that, infrastructure is different than politics. It ages out every 20 years or so, and needs to be upgraded or replaced entirely.

The 123rd Airlift Wing is located at Louisville International Airport and its facilities are more than 25 years old, so energy planners jumped at the opportunity to upgrade to new energy technology.

After all, the Air Force is all about new technology, right?

Solar Panels For The Kentucky Air National Guard

The 123rd is very enthused about the new project, which will go atop the Civil Engineering Building at the base.

Though the solar panels will only save the base about $18,000 per year when the project is finished, that’s not chump change, and it’s enough to pay back the cost of the solar panels within the next 10 years or less.

In a press release announcing the new project, Lt. Col. Keith McCallie, deputy base civil engineer for the 123rd Civil Engineer Squadron, emphasized the technology aspect.

“[Solar] technology has changed drastically in the last five years,” he explained “It is definitely improving commercially and becoming more affordable for everyone, even for residential homes.”

McCallie also noted that the base has been assessing its 25-year-old infrastructure and plans to “replace those bad portions and replace the equipment in the facilities with better, energy-efficient equipment.”

Dept. Of Defense Falling Out Of Bed With Coal

Energy upgrades for the base also include new gas microturbine technology, so it’s not all roses and flowers for renewables.

However, that’s still bad news for coal. Low cost natural gas was initially the main driver pushing coal out of the power generation market, and now here comes renewable energy to compete for market share as well.

The trend is especially apparent in the Department of Defense. The agency has been a renewable energy early adopter and it continues to pursue solar power (and more recently, wind power) as a matter of resiliency and reliability, in addition to addressing issues related to climate change and national security. That thing about saving money is icing on a much larger cake.

Where Are All The Coal Jobs Going?

That brings us around to the 123rd’s utility company, Louisville Gas & Electric.

The company has been dipping a toe into renewable energy. It currently lays claim to the largest solar farm in Kentucky, located at its E.W. Brown power generating station, which went online in 2016.

At 44,000 solar panels, the solar farm is nothing to sneeze at. It pales in comparison to activity elsewhere in the US, though. Its 8-megawatt capacity is dwarfed many times over by the 290-megawatt Agua Caliente solar power plant in Arizona, for example, which has been operating since 2012.

More to the point, LG&E supports a range of solar programs but its current renewable energy profile is still down in the 1% range. That includes hydroelectric as well as solar. The utility’s energy mix includes 80-90% coal, with the rest going to natural gas.

LG&E might want to step up its game. If all goes well at the 123rd, others could follow. For that matter, back in  2017, L’Oreal installed the biggest commercial rooftop solar array in Kentucky, at its Florence manufacturing facility (okay, so it’s only 1.4 megawatts, but still).

L’Oreal is still adding to its renewable energy portfolio in Kentucky and elsewhere, with the aim of achieving carbon neutrality by the end of this year. In the latest development, the company has hooked up the Florence plant with renewable natural gas.

CleanTechnica is reaching out to the company for a closer look at its renewable energy plans for Kentucky, so stay tuned for more on that.

As for coal jobs in Kentucky, last August the Lexington Herald-Leader took note of statewide coal statistics that continue to show a downward spiral, despite the Commander-in-Chief’s oft-repeated pledge to save coal jobs.

Promises or not, the recently announced Murray Energy bankruptcy doesn’t bode well for the future.

Follow me on Twitter.

*Developing story.

Image: “This photo illustration depicts a planned solar array for the 123rd Civil Engineer Squadron building at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base in Louisville, Ky. The array is expected to save the base approximately $18,000 a year in energy costs. (Photo by Philip Speck).

 
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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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