In the New York Times, Thomas Friedman extolled the visionaries of Harlan County under the headline “Coal Museum Sees the Future; Trump Doesn’t.”
The plans for solar in Benham are less surprising to Kentuckians who are familiar with the former company town’s innovative spirit and its support of an energy-efficiency program through on-bill financing.
Still, the story does pop against the popular narrative of Kentucky as a citadel of coal where everyone just wants to turn the clock back 70 years.
Granted, tunnel vision on energy afflicts most of Kentucky’s political class, as well as the state Chamber of Commerce, to the detriment of economic growth.
But plenty of Kentuckians want to diversify the state’s energy mix to save money and create jobs.
The latest example comes from Kentuckians for the Commonwealth which has more than 11,000 members and decided that since our elected officials were not planning for the coming energy revolution, they would. With the help of 1,200 Kentuckians who joined in brainstorming sessions around the state, KFTC has produced a detailed blueprint.
The recommendations are backed by rigorous modeling by Synapse Energy Economics of Cambridge, Mass., which has clients in 31 states and Canada and works for governments, NGOs and public interest groups.
By accelerating energy efficiency and renewables over the next 15 years, the modeling shows, Kentucky could create 46,300 more jobs and achieve 10 percent lower residential electric bills than by sticking with business as usual.
The “Empower Kentucky Plan” lays out a long list of ideas for how to meet 42 percent of Kentucky’s electricity demand through efficiency savings or renewable energy (solar, wind, hydropower) by 2032.
That’s ambitious but not unrealistic when you consider that in 2007 the Beshear administration set a goal of meeting 25 percent of Kentucky’s power demand through efficiency and renewables by 2025. Shortly after that, efforts to plan for climate change met a buzz saw of opposition from the fossil fuel industry and Kentucky politicians of both parties.
Coal-fired power is being rapidly retired in Kentucky but replaced with another fossil fuel, natural gas, which is cheaper and cleaner but not a long-term answer. In 2016, coal produced 83 percent of Kentucky’s power down from more than 90 percent a few years ago. But nationally coal generated just 33 percent of electricity in 2015.
“Empower Kentucky” recommends actions that can be taken locally, which makes sense given the mindset in Frankfort and Washington.
Business is already acting. L’Oreal’s largest U.S. manufacturing plant, which employs 400 people in Florence, this week started construction on a 1.42 megawatt solar array. The beauty-products giant says the Kentucky solar investment is key to an 84 percent reduction in carbon emissions in the U.S. while growing production by 29 percent, “proving sustainablility and profitability do no have to be mutually exclusive.”
Solar is expected to shave $8,000 to $10,000 off the coal museum’s costs; the surplus power will be fed into Benham’s grid.