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Utilities unveil Ky.’s largest solar power plant in Mercer County

The sun shone on rows of solar panels at the E.W. Brown generation station near Burgin in Mercer County. When fully operational in June, it will be the largest solar power plant in Kentucky.
The sun shone on rows of solar panels at the E.W. Brown generation station near Burgin in Mercer County. When fully operational in June, it will be the largest solar power plant in Kentucky. gkocher1@herald-leader.com

The largest solar power plant in Kentucky is quickly going up on 50 acres of former farmland in Mercer County.

Louisville Gas & Electric and Kentucky Utilities showcased the new solar array Tuesday at the E.W. Brown Generation Station. That complex near Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill has a hydroelectric plant, three coal-fired generating units and seven natural gas-fired combustion turbines.

The solar array won’t be finished until May or June, but it’s already producing electricity. As of Tuesday, about 13,000 of the 44,600 solar panels have been installed.

When it’s at full capacity, the array is expected to generate energy for 1,500 homes based on use of 1,000 kilowatt hours a month.

That’s about the same amount of energy that the Ghent generating station in Carroll County, the utilities’ largest coal-fired plant, produces in 10 hours.

Scott Straight, director of LG&E and KU’s project engineering department, said the utilities are building the solar plant because customers want “more environmentally responsible ways to generate electricity.”

“And you can’t be much more environmentally responsible than zero emissions, right?’ he said.

The solar array can produce electricity despite thin clouds such as occurred Tuesday, said Jeff Heun, manager of major capital projects for the utilities.

“But if you have the big puffy clouds where you have huge shade, the solar will drop down to almost nothing,” Heun said.

The contractor, Amec Foster Wheeler, has had as many as 200 full-time construction workers on the site.

The project was initially estimated to cost $36 million, but the final price tag will be about 10 percent to 15 percent less because of competitive bidding and because solar costs have fallen steadily, Heun and Straight said.

Utilities across the country have been building solar arrays before a 30 percent federal investment tax credit begins a gradual decrease in coming years. Since the tax credit began in 2006, the cost to install solar has dropped by more than 73 percent, the utilities said.

Customers won’t see a decrease in their monthly electric bills with the addition of solar power. But the utilities will learn more about the technology, including how it integrates with existing generating units.

LG&E and KU aren’t planning any other solar arrays such as the one in Mercer County, but Straight said there are opportunities for growth in solar energy.

“In Kentucky, there are a lot of warehouse rooftops, manufacturing rooftops, mall rooftops that are space not being used,” he said.

Straight anticipates that solar will remain a small but important niche in energy production for Kentucky.

“We don’t have the land space that you have out west in the desert,” Straight said. “But it’s a nice niche for those who want the greenness of it.”

Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton, who has an industrial engineering degree, was among the guests at Tuesday’s event.

“I’m hoping this will move this technology forward,” Hampton said. “As an engineer, I’m ready to crawl underneath (the solar panels) and ask some more questions.”

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