Construction Underway on Kentucky's Largest Solar Farm

Construction of what would be the largest solar array in Kentucky is underway. National Grid Renewables on Dec. 14 said the company’s 160-MW Unbridled project, located in Webster and Henderson counties about 40 miles south of Evansville, Indiana, and 160 miles southwest of Louisville, is expected to enter commercial operation next year.

Unbridled is National Grid’s first project in Kentucky, a state long dependent on coal-fired generation for its electricity supply. The solar farm has a power purchase agreement in place with Big Rivers Electric Corp., which is partnering with Wanzek Construction on the project’s build.

“We’re both proud and excited to be constructing the largest solar renewable energy project in the state of Kentucky,” said Blake Nixon, President of National Grid Renewables. “Unbridled is our first project within the state and exemplifies our commitment to the clean energy transition and the benefits it provides to rural economies in the form of new tax revenue and jobs throughout America.”

Economic Impact

National Grid Renewables said the project is estimated to provide about $42 million in direct economic impact over the first 20 years of the solar farm’s operation. Officials said the array is responsible for the creation of at least 200 jobs, and will provide more than $11 million in new tax revenue for the region, along with than $24 million to local farmers and landowners.

Government data shows Kentucky ranks 43rd in the U.S. with just 172 MW of installed solar power capacity. That accounts for less than one-half of 1% of the state’s power generation. Kentucky has no state targets or mandates for the use of renewable energy resources, and has no operating utility-scale wind power generation.

Unbridled might not be the state’s largest solar farm for long. State regulators recently approved a proposal by Louisville Gas and Electric and Kentucky Utilities (LG&E/KU) to install 877 MW of solar generation capacity, along with 500 MWh of battery energy storage, in the coming years. LG&E/KU earlier this year said the groups would close a handful of coal-fired and also natural gas-fired units in the state, while keeping plans to build two new gas-fired units.

BrightNight, a Florida-based renewable energy developer, earlier this year announced plans to build an 800-MW solar farm at the site of the former Starfire Mine, which was once among the largest coal mines in the U.S. The company said the BrightNight Starfire Renewable Energy Center, which would be located southeast of Lexington, would represent a $1 billion investment. BrightNight said Rivian, an electric vehicle manufacturer, and the Nature Conservancy already had agreements to purchase power from the facility.

The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) has said Kentucky could add as much as 3.3 GW of solar power generation capacity over the next five years, which would be a dramatic increase in the state’s renewable energy portfolio. The SEIA said that until recently, a 14.1-MW array at the E.W. Brown Generating Station in Harrodsburg, which came online in 2016, was the state’s largest solar power installation. The Brown site also includes a 412-MW coal-fired unit (two other coal units were previously retired), seven natural gas-fired turbines, with nearly 900 MW of capacity; and the 33-MW Dix Dam hydroelectric facility.

‘Valuable Addition’

“The Unbridled Solar Project will be a new and valuable addition to the diverse power portfolio needed to provide safe, reliable, and sustainable energy to our Member-Owners,” said Bob Berry, president and CEO of Big Rivers Electric, in a news release. “This large-scale project also prioritizes our region with solar development that directly benefits the local economy and generates power for the people we serve.”

“Unbridled is a strategic project for Wanzek and the MasTec Renewables team in Kentucky,” said Rob Turner, vice president of Construction for MasTec Renewables. “We are thrilled to establish this partnership with National Grid Renewables and hope to continue to build additional clean energy projects in the state.”

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) said coal provided about 68% of Kentucky’s utility-scale power generation last year, behind only West Virginia and Wyoming. Natural gas-fired power plants generated about one-quarter of the state’s electricity in 2022.

EIA said Kentucky is the fifth-largest coal-producing state, and is home to about 20% of the nation’s operating coal mines, behind only West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Kentucky’s coal production, though, has fallen about 65% over the past 10 years, as markets for the state’s coal have been reduced as other states have moved toward cleaner energy resources.

Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).

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