Two years ago, Gardner was struck by an encounter with a local man who worked
remotely for Facebook. He told Gardner that big corporations were actually
deciding where to expand based on where they could get renewable energy. "He
made it seem like there was literally a list with a lot of states with big X's
marked in," says Gardner, "so that Facebook and others were not looking because
[some states] were not going to be open to renewables."
The Public Service
Commission worried the state was missing out. It quietly issued an — "a clear
signal to people outside of the state," says Gardner — that if a big customer
wanted renewable energy, Kentucky's utilities could cut a special deal to
provide it. That gave utilities permission to offer renewable energy. But they
still face challenges to produce it. The state's cheap coal makes it harder for
renewables to compete, and to see a return on investment. What's more, Kenya
Stump, of the Energy and Environment Cabinet, says Kentucky has only , and not
much at all for wind. She says hydro power holds the most promise. Stump is
working with companies that want to develop renewable power, but she doesn't
foresee a major spike anytime soon. "Right now renewables are starting to
compete on costs, but not reliability," she says. But she adds that once battery
technology develops and solar or wind power can be stored, "all bets are off."
Kentucky's utilities are also highly regulated. An energy activist says he's
been heartened by a shift in the state's attitude, but thinks officials could do
a lot more to encourage renewables. "The sun in Kentucky is as strong as it is
in North Carolina and Ohio and New York, where the solar industry is employing
tens of thousands of people," says Andy McDonald of the Kentucky Solar Energy
"Kentucky is not limited by our resources; it's limited by our
policies." None of those challenges is stopping a slow transition. "This tract
is about 60 acres," says David Crews, standing in a freshly mowed field where
East Kentucky Power Cooperative is about to install 32,000 solar panels. It will
be one of the state's first utility-scale solar farms, and it's there by popular
demand — from businesses. Crews says some companies don't mind paying a bit more
to meet their sustainability LED Canopy
Light goals. East Kentucky Power has no plans to build another coal plant.
Crews says just because the new president doesn't want to limit carbon
emissions, doesn't mean the next one won't. "The seesawing of regulations when
we're trying to make a 50-year investment, it will drive you crazy," he says.
"And that wouldn't be good for our customer base." The utility is marketing its
new solar farm, and if demand is strong enough Crews says it will add more
panels. At Toyota's plant in central Kentucky, Kevin Butt envisions installing
solar panels on the roof. The company is also researching fuel cell technology,
seeking the breakthrough that could help it eliminate carbon emissions.
now, he's getting creative about finding renewable energy where he can. He
drives me down a rutted dirt road, through towering brown hills. It's a
landfill, and here and there, things stick up. "The black tube coming out," he
says pointing, "it's a methane capture well." The methane is released as the
trash rots. When it goes into the air, methane is a dirty greenhouse gas, but
last year Toyota set up a generator here to turn it into . The power is sent
through an underground line, straight to the Toyota plant 6 miles away,
bypassing the local utility altogether. "They either have to put it in their
system," Butt says, "or people will be looking at alternate ways to get that
energy in a renewable form."
A previous version of this story
incorrectly said 90 percent of Kentucky's energy comes from coal. It's actually
90 percent of the state's electricity.