Renewable Energy Catches On, But Not in KY

by kespeland on July 10, 2008

(Listen to the story here.)

There are two basic sources for generating electricity.  One comes from fossil fuels, the other from renewable sources.  That’s what the elements provide, free of charge. But where those elements—like sun and wind—work their magic—varies.

“We don’t have a lot of potential for wind…”

Len Peters is secretary of Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet.  When it comes to the potential for generating more electricity from wind, Kentucky just doesn’t have the resources a state like Wyoming has, where 60-mile-an-hour winds regularly shoot across the high prairie.

“We have some hydro,” Peters says. Hydroelectric dam generator on the Kentucky River

But only about 2.5% of the state’s electricity comes from hydroelectric dams.

“And I believe as we move forward within Kentucky we’re going to be seeing solar on a much more distributed basis as opposed to base-load generation for electricity.”

Translation: solar isn’t practical here on a large scale for centralized, base-load generation, which is the minimum amount of power required 24 hours a day for a utilities’ customers.  That’s partly because Kentucky doesn’t receive as much sunlight every year as, say, Arizona.  So what does that leave?  Not many options.

Nevertheless, in a special session last summer, the state House called on the Public Service Commission to look at how current state regulations might help or hinder developing more renewable sources.  One question: whether or not Kentucky should mandate that a certain percentage of electricity from all utilities come from renewable sources.  It’s called a Renewables Portfolio Standard, or RPS.  And it’s an idea that’s gaining popularity, and spurring on the development of renewable resources, around the country.  But the Commission’s Andrew Melnykovich says Kentucky isn’t ready for it.

“The commission generally in reaching its conclusions found the arguments by the opponents of an RPS to be very persuasive,” Melnykovich says.

The first argument from opponents like electric utilities is that there’s not enough renewable energy potential in Kentucky.  The second is that adding new renewable generation facilities would cost ratepayers more.  But Melnykovich says the fact that Kentucky isn’t setting an RPS doesn’t mean state officials are turning their backs on renewables.

“We’re going to have to diversify in the long run.  I mean don’t think anybody’s saying that we’re going to be able to be 95% dependent on coal for the indeterminate future.”

Kentucky’s best option for renewables is biomass—organic materials like the leftovers from corn production and gas from animal waste.  But Kentucky doesn’t require that a certain amount of our electricity come from biomass or any other renewable resource.  And that puts us in the minority, compared to the 29 other states that do have an RPS in place.  Illinois has mandated that 25% of its electricity come from renewables by 2025.  North Carolina has set a target of 12.5% by 2021.  There, Utilities Commission attorney Sam Watson says they’re concentrating on meeting their target by making the most of what they’ve got: biomass.

“…It could be methane projects from swine waste, hog lagoons, also biomass from wood waste, poultry litter, energy crops,” Watson says.

Some of those sources are abundant in Kentucky, too, but energy secretary Len Peters says putting a statewide plan in place to take advantage of them will take some time.

“We’re a brand new cabinet.  Governor Beshear put us in place June 16.  We certainly are trying to make realistic estimates on what might be possible with renewables.”

He says the cabinet is currently developing research papers on those possibilities.

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