Ky. should get in on new energy boom

Expect coal to again monopolize energy discussions in the General Assembly. But smart lawmakers and the Bevin administration should heed Louisville engineer David Brown Kinloch, who tells the Herald-Leader’s Bill Estep: “There is an appetite for renewable energy.”

Indeed, as investment soars in solar and wind energy, Kentucky is more at risk than ever of being left in the dust (coal dust, of course).

Utilities went on a wind and solar building binge in 2015, The Washington Post reports, while stock prices for both industries surged after Congress extended tax credits for renewables in last month’s spending deal. Coal company values, by contrast, have fallen steeply, setting the stage for more bankruptcies and layoffs.

Despite a glut of cheap fossil fuels, 60 percent of new investment in power plants is going into renewables, reports the International Energy Agency.

Coal now fuels 30 percent of the world’s electricity generation, 39 percent in the U.S. (down from half just a few years ago) and 92 percent in Kentucky. IEA projects coal’s global share will decline to 15 percent by 2040 with China leading the decline.

India and southeast Asia are the only places where demand for coal is rising. While India’s coal demand could triple in the near future, India, like China, is aggressively pursuing solar.

Meanwhile, Kentucky boasts some bright spots, despite the gloomy outlook for the coal industry.

The state’s largest hydroelectric projects in nearly 40 years will begin operating in 2016 on existing dams on the Ohio River. Hydro now provides 3.4 percent of Kentucky’s electricity but the state’s hydro-power could quadruple by retrofitting existing dams with turbines and generators, according to Oak Ridge National Laboratories.

Kinloch’s company, which operates a hydro generator near Shakertown, recently received permits (after a seven-year wait) to install generators at Kentucky River dams in Estill and Lee counties. While each of these small hydro plants generate only enough power for about 1,100 homes, their cost is competitive with larger producers, earning them a role in meeting future energy demand while reducing emissions from burning coal.

On the efficiency front, Estep reported from the historic coal town of Benham in Harlan County, where the power board offers on-bill financing, enabling consumers to upgrade homes and businesses with insulation and other energy-saving features, then pay for the upgrades through their monthly savings in energy use.

Gains in energy efficiency, through programs like Benham$saves, offer Kentucky some of its greatest opportunities for saving money, putting people to work and protecting the environment.

Jobs are the constant in the new energy boom. Between 2008 and 2012, more U.S. jobs were created in wind and solar (79,000 direct and indirect) than lost in the coal industry (49,530), according to a Duke University study.

Smart leaders would be looking to get Kentucky a bigger piece of that growth.