Three universities and six colleges have joined forces to help Kentucky transition from a coal economy to a solar power powerhouse.

Universities & Colleges From NC & PA Unite On Huge Solar Power Project In … Kentucky?

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The iconic US coal-producing state of Kentucky ranks a lowly #43 in a state-by-state comparison of installed solar capacity, which is no surprise. However, something happened last year. The state began to break free of its solar power doldrums with at least three new giant solar arrays in the works. Now six colleges and three universities have united to use the force of a powerful financial tool, the power purchase agreement, to help keep the momentum going.

Solar Power Was A Tough Row To Hoe In Kentucky

The Solar Energy Industries Association currently notes that the E. W. Brown solar array in Harrodsburg is among the largest solar power installations in Kentucky. They score the plant’s capacity at 14.1 megawatts — though, the owner, Louisville Gas & Electric, lists it at just 10 megawatts. Either way, that’s not a lot of megawatts compared to solar activity elsewhere around the US. The array was installed back in 2016, which pretty much says it all about the state of the Kentucky solar industry since then.

In 2018, Kentucky had a chance to amp up its solar profile with a new 86-megawatt facility to be located in Lyon County under the purview of a joint venture called Ashwood Solar 1. However, two years later, the project seemed all but dead, done in by concerns over rising transmission costs.

The Owensboro Municipal Utilities had arranged to claim 32 megawatts from the array, but reportedly they got cold feet when an opportunity came up to join the sprawling MISO grid management region. MISO is awash in wind and solar power from the sunny and windy states of the Midwest, so presumably Owensboro is getting its hands on plenty of clean out-of-state kilowatts.

All’s well that ends well. As of 2020, the Ashwood project was still in the permit application phase. It finally broke ground in July of 2023 under the umbrella of RWE Clean Energy. Completion is expected later this year, making it the biggest solar power plant in Kentucky by a long shot, at least for now.

The Power Of The Solar Power Purchase Agreement Compels You

We’re going to credit the Kentucky Municipal Energy Agency with saving the project. The original plan was to partner up with Owensboro in a power purchase agreement, providing the developer with assurance that two large-scale electricity buyers would commit to purchasing electricity from the forthcoming Ashwood array over a 20-year period. When Owensboro dropped out, KMEA picked up all the slack and will get all 86 megawatts.

If you’re new to the topic, power purchase agreements are a relatively new thing (well, depending on what you consider “new”). In the US, they were formalized under the  the Energy Policy Act of 2005. They are basically a risk management platform, based on a long-term commitment to purchase electricity. The developer gets a firm financial footing to build new energy infrastructure, and the buyer gets clean energy, typically at a lower cost than the going rate. The customer also gets protection from price spikes in fossil energy markets.

PPAs have become wildly popular in the era of renewable energy. As of 2017, Kentucky was among just a handful of states to expressly prohibit third-party PPAs that leave local utilities out of the loop. That seems to have slowed things down, but now PPAs are sprouting up in Kentucky like mushrooms after a rain. If you can figure that out, drop us a note in the comment thread.

8 Colleges, 1 University, One Giant Leap For Solar Power In Kentucky

On April 22, the North Carolina school Davidson College announced that it is part of a nine-member, multi-state partnership in a PPA involving the new 150-megawatt SeBree Solar II solar power plant, to be constructed in Henderson County by the leading renewable energy producer NextEra Energy Resources.

The other eight members are Wake Forest University and Elon University in North Carolina; and Dickinson College, Haverford College, Lafayette College, Lehigh University, Muhlenberg College, and Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

If all goes according to plan, Sebree Solar II will begin construction next year, towards a startup date in 2026.

If you’re wondering how much it will cost to transmit all those clean kilowatt-hours from Kentucky to North Carolina and Pennsylvania, that’s a good question. The project enables the nine schools to claim renewable energy credits (RECs) for their campuses. Davidson, for example, will get credit for the equivalent of all the electricity it purchases, enabling it to put a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions on its books.

As part of the agreement, NextEra is also providing the partner institutions with educational resources and internships centering on the project.

A New Era For Solar Power In Kentucky

SeBree II is just the tip of the solar iceberg. NextEra previously announced Sebree Solar last year as a two-phase solar power project in Kentucky totaling 400 megawatts in all, deploying steel from the Nucor Steel plant in Ghent for use in the racking systems.

In addition to the two-phase SeBree project, Nucor is also providing racking system steel for the 200-megawatt Green River Solar project in in Meade and Breckinridge counties, a project of the NextEra subsidiary Green River. That project broke ground earlier this month and completion is expected next year.

That’s peanuts compared to the monster 800-megawatt Starfire solar power project engineered by the firm BrightNight, which pairs Rivian and The Nature Conservancy in a PPA.

To ice the green cake, the Starfire solar array will sit on the site of the Starfire Coal Mine, which covers parts of Perry, Knott, and Breathitt counties.

The 8oo megawatts is just a starting point. As part of the project, BrightNight will build a 20-mile transmission line with the aim of opening the door for another 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy (1 gigawatt) on top of the Starfire project.

Repurposing Appalachia’s Coal Site For Clean Power

The Solar Energy Industries Association is already anticipating that Kentucky’s solar profile will rocket from #43 up to an impressive #18 for installed solar capacity over the next five years. SEIA currently puts the five-year total at 2,846 megawatts.

With all those clean kilowatts surging into the grid, the state’s energy storage profile will have some catching up to do.

One solution has emerged in the form of the Lewis Ridge pumped hydropower energy storage project, which repurposes a former coal mine in Bell County for the construction of two new reservoirs. Under the wing of the hydropower firm Rye Development, Lewis Ridge will be a 287-megawatt closed-loop system designed to ease impacts on local water resources.

Pumped hydro energy storage systems generally last much longer than battery arrays. Furthermore, battery storage systems typically weigh in at 4–6 hours, while the Lewis Ridge facility will have a duration of up to 8 hours.

Repurposing old coal mines for energy storage, solar power, or wind power is not as easy as it may seem, partly due to a mismatch between local power demand and transmission capacity. In the case of Lewis Ridge, however, Rye has found a match and is counting on an existing transmission line for an assist.

When last heard from, Lewis Ridge was greenlit for $81 million in funding from the US Department of Energy under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, enabling construction to move forward in 2027.

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Photo: More solar power is on tap for Kentucky as the coal-producing state flexes its renewable energy muscles (courtesy of NextEra via Davidson College).

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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.

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