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Following previous denials, McCracken County board approves solar farm permit

McCracken board.jpg
Liam Niemeyer
The McCracken County Board of Adjustment on Wednesday.

A McCracken County board unanimously approved a conditional use permit for the county’s first ever solar farm — a $60 million investment to take up more than 600 acres — with dozens of community members and local elected officials attending the meeting Wednesday night.

This approval follows the McCracken County Board of Adjustment denying the permit twice for McCracken County Solar LLC in recent weeks, once over disputed concerns about land impacts from the installation and a second time to hear more about potential economic development connected to the solar farm.

Local boards of adjustment in Kentucky are responsible for approving permits for entities that have conditions stipulated for their use, and the McCracken County Fiscal Court changed zoning laws to allow permits for solar installations for conditional use in agricultural zones just last year. McCracken County Solar LLC is a subsidiary of Pennsylvania-based Community Energy Inc. seeking the permit.

County and city elected officials, economic development leaders and the president of the Big Rivers Electric Corporation all spoke to the board about the economic importance a solar farm could have for the county, urging the board to approve the permit.

Greater Paducah Economic Development President Bruce Wilcox said having a solar farm to offer green energy for a company’s energy supply is crucial with tens of thousands of economic development organizations across the country chasing companies to land jobs in their communities.

“It's not about site selection. It's about site elimination. And everything you can do to get one step further into the game to keep from being eliminated, that should go,” Wilcox said. “So, having a green energy plan is critical for us to be able to attract large entities.”

McCracken County Judge-Executive Craig Clymer echoed that sentiment, saying he is confident that an economic development project bringing 1,000 jobs or more with average wages of $80,000-$90,000 could come to the county within the next 12 months, with the addition of the solar farm. Paducah Mayor George Bray also said a couple of cryptocurrency companies moving into Paducah care about the cost of electricity, with solar energy being a substantial part of that equation.

Big Rivers Electric Corporation President Bob Berry said the solar farm, in conjunction with other solar projects planned near Owensboro and in Meade County, will help reduce electric costs for Jackson Purchase Energy Corporation customers. He said without the solar farm in McCracken County, Big Rivers Electric Corporation customers would lose out on $1.9 million of electric bill credits a year from the cost savings of the solar installation. Berry said customers received $13.3 million in bill credits this year, with the expected bill credits from electricity revenue to rise to $17 million next year.

“This is information that you probably should have had months ago, not this evening. And shame on us for doing that. So, please accept my apology for that,” Berry said.

Community Energy Responds.jpg
Liam Niemeyer
Community Energy Regional Development Director Chris Killenberg (right) responding to questions from community members on Wednesday.

Some board of adjustment members said they appreciated the new information on economic benefits and cost savings from the solar project, mentioning how the information they had in previous meetings was limited. Board member Ted Smith previously denied the permit twice but approved it Wednesday.

“We were asked to make a decision based on the evidence presented to us and not theoretical evidence of jobs or potential evidence or the presence of green [energy],” Smith said. “We just had the evidence before us, and it was very limited. And I believe that's why it was denied.”

Community Energy Regional Development Director Chris Killenberg said, in retrospect, he would have provided the board with much more information about the impact studies of the site to ease concerns about the safety of solar panels. He said he understands it was a difficult process with solar energy being new to some in McCracken County.

“There's a lot of information, and there are a lot of implications. So, I'm just grateful that they took the time to allow us to reintroduce or add some additional evidence and to really think through this,” Killenberg said.

Killenberg added that Community Energy will continue to conduct studies regarding capabilities of the site, including how much energy the transmission lines connecting to the installation can absorb.

Some community members in the crowd raised concerns about the aesthetic of the solar farm in western McCracken County. Killenberg and other stakeholders at the meeting responded, saying the site would have distance requirements from homes along with trees planted to obscure the installation from view.

"Liam Niemeyer is a reporter for the Ohio Valley Resource covering agriculture and infrastructure in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia and also serves Assistant News Director at WKMS. He has reported for public radio stations across the country from Appalachia to Alaska, most recently as a reporter for WOUB Public Media in Athens, Ohio. He is a recent alumnus of Ohio University and enjoys playing tenor saxophone in various jazz groups."
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