From coal mine to solar project: Eastern Kentucky to get $1 billion investment in renewable energy
Published 10:19 am Friday, July 28, 2023
HAZARD — Years ago, during the coal economy downturn, Rocky Adkins walked out of the doors of Starfire Mine alongside 1,700 miners who had just lost their livelihoods.
Adkins was one of many Eastern Kentuckians devastated by coal mine closures’ impact on the region’s economy.
But on Tuesday afternoon, he stood above the same mountains once again, this time as Gov. Andy Beshear’s senior advisor, overseeing the next generation of renewable energy creation.
A conservation organization, renewable power group and electric vehicle company are collaborating to build enough solar panels on the 7,000 acre property to create over 800 megawatts of solar energy — enough to power 500,000 households.
What was once Starfire Mine will soon become one of the largest solar power projects in the nation. What once powered America’s Industrial Revolution will now power the next generation’s transition to cleaner energy.
The BrightNight Starfire Renewable Power Project is a billion dollar investment into the future of Eastern Kentucky.
The project’s first phase is expected to break ground in 2025, after the completion of a power grid operator study, said Martin Hermann, BrightNight CEO.
The entire project could be completed as early as 2030 if all goes to plan, he said.
BrightNight is a global company that designs, develops and operates large scale renewable power projects. Since 2018, it has amassed a 20 gigawatt portfolio on over 70 projects from coast to coast.
BrightNight is partnering with The Nature Conservancy and Rivian Automotive to bring the project to fruition.
The first phase will generate 210 megawatts of energy, half of which will be sold to Rivian to power its electric vehicles as part of its commitment to shifting to a carbon-free future.
Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe said the energy will be enough to power 450 million miles a year.
The Nature Conservancy will use 2.5 MW for its offices. The rest of the energy will be available for the region’s communities, business and industry.
One of the first questions business and industry ask before coming to Kentucky is whether the state can guarantee them a certain amount of megawatts of renewable energy, Adkins said. This project will allow Kentucky to be more competitive in those negotiations.
“Eastern Kentucky, in my opinion, has earned and deserved industries that will locate here and be able to provide the same job opportunities that were lost,” he said.
Phase 1 alone is expected to generate $100 million in local tax revenue over its 40-year lifetime and power 170,000 households.
TNC CEO Jennifer Morris said she hopes the project serves as a national model for innovative partnerships that builds much-needed renewable energy infrastructure without undermining nature by, for example, cutting down trees to create a solar farm.
“We know we need renewable energy, but we know we can do it in a smart way,” Morris said. “We know we can use degraded sites like this incredible place here that you’ve seen is now being restored.”
To meet the nation’s renewable energy needs, Morris said it will need a size of land as large as Texas. That means thousands of projects.
Kentucky Department of Energy and the Environment Secretary Rebecca Goodman agrees.
“We’d like to see any available space that is unproductive be used for whatever we can put back into the grid,” she said. “Solar is predicted to impact only about 1% of the state’s 12 million acres of farmland. But where it makes the most sense, such as on this reclaimed mine site, it can bring jobs and a cleaner environment that moves us forward.”
Goodman emphasized that renewable energy projects like this are only part of a multi-faceted energy portfolio needed to power Kentucky, where coal is still being generated.
“I think that you will find that solar pairs well with these coal economies,” she said. “I think they’re looking for something to supplement and looking for something that will help boost their communities as much as possible.”
Community investment and involvement is a critical aspect of the project. Goodman said that there have been discussions with BrightNight about potentially using energy from the project to help support “higher ground” communities being built after last year’s historic flooding in Eastern Kentucky.
It’s good to be back on top of Starfire Mountain, Adkins told a crowd Tuesday. He told them that they were on a piece of property that helped build America, where thousands of Eastern Kentuckians worked hard every day to provide energy for the country.
It’s America’s turn to help rebuild Eastern Kentucky, he said.
“The challenge for all of us here today is how we diversify this economy and we bring back that hope and opportunity. The greatest workforce in the world lives in these hills, mountains and hollers that we call Eastern Kentucky,” he said.
“We’re not going to get better until all of Kentucky gets better.”