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How Kentucky generates electricity — and emits tons of greenhouse gasses

E.W. Brown solar array in Mercer County.
Photo courtesy of LG&E/KU
Kentucky Lantern
E.W. Brown solar array in Mercer County.

A recent state analysis found that, unlike a number of states that have pivoted to other fuel sources, Kentucky utilities still burn coal to generate the large majority of electricity in the state.

The latest Kentucky Energy Profile report published this week by the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet provides a snapshot of how major utilities in the state such as Louisville Gas and Electric and Kentucky Utilities, East Kentucky Power Cooperative and Big Rivers Electric Corporation generate their electricity.

The report, compiling publicly available state and federal data, also highlights the amount of electricity and heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions each individual power plant created in 2020.

The main takeaways from the report:

  • 69% of Kentucky’s electricity was generated from coal in 2020; natural gas generated 23%, hydropower generated 8% and biomass, solar and wind facilities combined generated less than 1%
  • Kentucky power plants emitted 53,725,429 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2020, equivalent to the annual emissions of more than 11.6 million average cars on the road. Kentucky had about 4.5 million registered motor vehicles in 2020. 
  • The majority of carbon emissions from electricity generation came from power plants fully or partially owned by LG&E and KU, the state’s largest utility in terms of customers
  • The average monthly residential electricity bill for Kentuckians was above $100 for nearly all utilities in the state; Kentucky Power in Eastern Kentucky had the highest average at $187.56

While burning coal — the leading global source of electricity generation and carbon dioxide emissions — generated the most electricity in the state in 2020, one advocate for solar energy says the decreasing cost of utility-scale solar installations will mean an influx of such projects in the near future.

“The utility sector is in its gestation period, and I think within a year or two is going to serve significant growth,” said Steve Ricketts, chair of the Kentucky Solar Energy Society. “A lot of people I would suspect in the utility world who’ve been kind of keeping their powder dry, they are now seeing the economics that kind of turned the light green again.”

The state Energy Profile report lists only eight existing solar projects in Kentucky as of 2020.

But a rush of solar developers have come before the state utility regulator in recent years, almost 40 construction requests since the beginning of 2020, asking to build large installations throughout the state. Developers of a planned 200-megawatt solar installation in Martin County recently announced car manufacturer Toyota plans to buy power from the site.

Utilities including LG&E and KU and the Tennessee Valley Authority, which services parts of Western Kentucky, have plans and proposals to retire some or all of its coal-fired power generation to replace with burning natural gas and some solar capacity.

In a statement about the state energy report, Kentucky Coal Association President Tucker Davis claimed shifting away from coal-fired electricity was causing higher electricity prices and would lead to “the destruction of our state’s economy,” echoing past rhetoric from the industry group.

The Energy Profile report states in part that in Kentucky, it was the “rising price of steam coal used by electric utilities” that caused electricity prices to increase from the start of the 21st century through 2015. Electricity prices have since declined but remain, on average, about 9.9% higher than in 2010.

A report earlier this year from the nonpartisan research group Energy Innovation Policy and Technology LLC found that 99% of all coal-fired power plants across the country, including all operating plants in Kentucky, were more expensive to operate than the levelized cost of new solar or wind installations.

Ricketts, the solar advocate, said Kentucky utilities play a vital role in reducing the state’s carbon dioxide emissions, particularly in light of the role those emissions have in worsening the effects of climate change.

Leading climate experts working with the United Nations said earlier this year the world would need to slash carbon dioxide emissions two-thirds by 2035 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. That would mean rich countries stopping the use of coal for electricity by 2030 and having a carbon-free electricity grid, including no new natural gas plants, by 2040.

“We’re on a ticking clock without a lot of time left on that clock,” Ricketts said. “We’ve got to go for existing proven technologies, which can be deployed in very large amounts right away, and by the way, are already the least cost.”

This story was originally published by The Kentucky Lantern.

Liam covers government and policy in Kentucky and its impacts throughout the Commonwealth for the Kentucky Lantern. He most recently spent four years reporting award-winning stories for WKMS Public Radio in Murray.
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