Kentucky Emerges From Solar Energy Stealth Mode

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Kentucky has been bumping around in the lower tier of US states for installed PV capacity, but its solar energy wallflower days appear could be coming to an end. A new green hydrogen hub, one of the world’s largest indoor farms, and a giant water battery are all in the mix.

The Solar Energy Industry (Finally) Revs Up In Kentucky

Kentucky’s solar energy industry has been underperforming the state’s population by a wide margin. As of last year, the Bluegrass State held the 26th slot for population, the same as in the 2010 census. However, Kentucky has dropped down to the 46th slot for installed solar capacity, even as other states have been piling up the clean kilowatts.

According to figures from the Solar Energy Industries association, as of Q2 this year Kentucky only had a total of 78 megawatts in solar capacity under its wing. Other nearby states with a similar population fared much better, with Louisiana coming in at 211 megawatts and Alabama clocking 578.

Hold on to your hats, because a change is coming. The PV developer BrightNight, for example, has a 125-megawatt project under way in McCracken County. Topping that is Savion Energy, which is planning a 200 megawatt array at a former coal site in Marion County. Savion was acquired by deep-pocketed Shell last year, which could mean that more coal-to-solar projects could soon be in the Kentucky pipeline.

More Solar Energy For A Green Hydrogen Hub

The sudden spurt in PV development is just one indication that Kentucky is transitioning into a more sustainable energy profile. The state also made a big move into the green hydrogen space in September, when it hitched a ride on the newly formed Midwestern Hydrogen Coalition.

The Coalition will be taking an all-of-the-above approach to hydrogen production, which means that hydrogen sourced from natural gas is still in play.

That might not be so for long. Considering the rapid growth in the market for green hydrogen sourced from water, plain vanilla hydrogen will be on shaky ground in the coming years.

Also putting natural gas at a disadvantage is the stipulation that “clean” hydrogen from natural gas must include a carbon capture element. That adds expense and complexity, which could be avoided by going to water, biogas, or other renewable resources.

So, where does Kentucky fit in? Globally speaking, the green hydrogen movement has been dominated by access to wind power, especially offshore wind.

That would appear to leave Kentucky out in the cold. The state is landlocked, and it is also situated in a region where wind resources are less than optimal.

However, as a member of the Coalition, Kentucky could have access to additional wind resources through its fellow members including Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

Kentucky can also leverage its solar energy resources. The Kentucky Hydrogen Hub Workgroup does not appear ready to commit to a plan, but the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet notes that the Biden Administration plan for new hydrogen hubs has a focus on re-purposing brownfields for new energy projects. For Kentucky, that means that unused coalfields could be converted to solar energy for hydrogen production.

“This is a great opportunity to connect renewable projects with hydrogen production. There are approximately 12 GW of solar and storage projects for Kentucky in the PJM queue,” the Energy and Environment Cabinet observed, in a public request for information from stakeholders.

“Connecting those to electrolyzer opportunities for a clustering of production potential is critical,” they added.

Giant Water Batteries For More Energy Storage

If you caught that thing about 12 gigawatts, we’re not sure where that figure came from, either. That sounds like an awful lot of solar energy and energy storage infrastructure is going to drop any day now, though some of those assets could be located in neighboring states. If you know any details, drop us a note in the comment thread.

Whether or not all 12 gigawatts materialize, something is stirring the energy storage pot in Kentucky, which does increase the potential for solar energy energy projects in the state.

Keep an eye on Bell County, where the gigantic Lewis Ridge pumped hydro storage project is slated to begin construction in 2027, deep in the heart of coal country. The project is sized to deliver 200 megawatts of stored renewable energy to consumers for eight hours.

A Solar Powered Indoor Farm

Rounding out the suite of clean tech developments is one of the world’s largest indoor farms, a 15-acre, fully automated facility that began growing salad greens last month in Berea, Kentucky. It is large enough to accommodate 35 million heads of lettuce at a time.

The lettuces will take less than a month to mature, opening up the potential for multiple harvests each year. All else being equal, that seems much more energy efficient than plowing and irrigating open fields.

“The AppHarvest Berea growing environment leverages sunshine and rainwater and is automated for lighting, humidity and temperature,” AppHarvest explains, adding that “the farm uses a closed-loop irrigation system, which enables expected water savings of up to 90 percent compared to open-field farming and allows for precision dosing of nutrients, resulting in far less use of fertilizer compared to open-field farming while avoiding pollution from agricultural runoff.”

Integrated pest management is also part of the system, which reduces the need for chemical pesticides.

The farm is a greenhouse, not a warehouse, which is why we’re putting it in the solar energy slot. To the extent that the automated system runs on renewable energy, solar-sourced electricity could also be involved.

In that regard, the prospects for solar growth in Berea seem to be improving alongside the statewide trend. Last year, our friends over at the Richmond Register took note of a strong uptick in new commercial and industrial interest in the area, including two solar developers on the prowl for new PV sites.

For those of you keeping score at home, the firm Mastronardi Produce recently pumped its financial firepower into AppHarvest’s plans for growth, in order to secure a reliable pipeline for its “Queen of Greens®” salad packs.

For those of you keeping track of the state of women’s rights in Kentucky, laws that haven’t been enforceable for more than 50 years suddenly kicked into action in states across the nation after all six Republican-appointed Justices on the US Supreme Court ruled against equal rights for women, girls, and other pregnancy-capable people in the Dobbs abortion case last summer.

Piling on the hurt in Kentucky is Amendment 2, a proposal on the ballot that would tweak the state’s constitution to specify that abortion is not a protected right. We’ll see if the voting public agrees with that notion, once Election Day 2022 has come and gone.

Follow me on Twitter (for now) @TinaMCasey.

Photo: High tech, solar powered, energy-saving indoor farm courtesy of AppHarvest.


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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3293 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey