In October 2021, the city of Frankfort, Kentucky, set a very accelerated and ambitious clean energy goal: to supply 100% clean, renewable electricity to city government operations by the end of 2023.
“We need that pressure to hold ourselves accountable,” Frankfort City Commissioner Kelly May said. “Had we not hired the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) with their level of expertise, I don’t think I would have set that target.”
May has led the vision behind the goal and ushered the city’s resolution from the beginning. The resolution also sets a deadline to achieve completely clean electricity across the city, as well as completely clean energy for all government operations by 2030. The clean energy goal for the city includes heating and transportation energy uses, and while electric sedans are often available, electric ambulances and fire trucks are harder to come by. However, May continues to push forward amidst these challenges.
“We have to be ambitious because we don’t have all the resources that some larger communities do,” May said. “We must force ourselves to be creative. It’s a giant undertaking, but not only will we help our environment, we will also improve our quality of life in Frankfort. Climate change and global warming is a problem for everybody no matter where you live. What happens across the globe affects us back home.”
The city’s population is only about 27,500 people, and it is the fourth smallest capital in the United States.
“We’re kind of a unique case,” said Laura Hagg, city manager of Frankfort. “Because if we address climate change and we’re looking at using renewable energy, you must make it work equitably and in a place that doesn’t have as much money and resources.”
NREL became involved after May saw how the laboratory helped Louisville, Kentucky, plan for its own clean energy goals. NREL can guide cities along the process, providing helpful data so a city can plan out how it can reach clean energy goals equitably. One of the key tools is the State and Local Planning for Energy (SLOPE) platform.
“NREL and Frankfort used the SLOPE tool together to explore real data so the community could customize its plan for its needs,” NREL Group Manager Katie Richardson said. “It takes the guesswork out of the equation for communities by fostering data-driven decisions that help communities achieve their goals faster and more affordably.”
May believes clean energy also makes economic sense for the city. According to him, coal recently tripled in price and, because federal policies continue to change, setting up the city to take advantage of clean energy incentives now puts them in better standing.
“If we wait, they’re just going to come in and tell us where it goes and how to do it,” May said. “This is our opportunity to do it how we want to do it.”
Because many companies now make sustainability a priority, providing them ways to cut costs while being powered by renewable energy makes Frankfort a more attractive destination to grow a business.
“We have Toyota already in Kentucky, and they are looking for ways to cut their costs,” May said. “The Amazons of the world and the Googles of the world, they could operate a facility in Frankfort that will use a lot of energy, but with clean energy maybe we can keep costs down. It’s about job creation.”
SLOPE data helped Frankfort visualize the future of clean energy jobs in the state. In Kentucky, energy-efficiency jobs at utilities are projected to increase 4.5 times, reaching almost 5,000 in total by 2030, while solar jobs could increase 2.5-fold in an accelerated investment scenario. Currently, much of the power for Kentucky comes from coal.
“Kentucky’s identity is with coal,” Hagg said. “There’s going to be members of the community who are not going to be supportive of clean energy. This is a conservative community, and there’s a lot of passions in our communities. If we’re going to do the right thing as something as important as this, you need data.”
That is how NREL’s assistance made a difference. NREL used SLOPE and the Low-Income Energy Affordability Data (LEAD) tools to create data visualizations. The city was able to evaluate three different options for moving forward with a solar project to generate clean electricity to power city operations.
“[NREL] really helped us,” May said. “The number one thing we can do right now is to be more efficient. They recommended those types of fixes and started by looking at previous energy audits. It’s great where you know where you want to go but just as important to know where you are at. If we can reduce our usage as much as possible before we start the electricity transformation, then that’s our ideal.”
Frankfort is now moving into phase 2 of its solar project. Phase 1 focused on data collection, and during phase 2 the city will evaluate site potential in collaboration with the Frankfort Plant Board and analyze the best way to compound different types of credits to maximize financial efficiency.
“It starts to get real now,” May said.
Originally published by National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), by Jeffrey Wolf
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