A 800 megawatt solar installation is planned for the reclaimed Starfire mine site. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Liam Niemeyer)
KNOTT COUNTY — It was a little over five years ago when Philip Marsh looked over the thousands of acres of reclaimed strip mine land he owned near the Knott County line and wouldn’t have a clue what would come of it.
The Eastern Kentucky mountaintops that Marsh owned, now pastures after decades of coal mining, used to be the Starfire mine that employed nearly 300 people and took out of the mountains more than 3 million tons of coal a year at its peak, according to Marsh.
“They’ve been mining coal up here since the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. So it’s hard to find somebody that doesn’t know about Starfire in Knott, Perry and Breathitt counties,” he said.
Marsh, who used to work for the coal company that owned the Starfire mine, and his business partner built a small lodge and campground for guided elk hunts across the land. But another opportunity came along in 2020 that kindled an idea to help return the land to its energy-producing roots.
Kentucky officials and the Florida-based solar developer BrightNight unveiled that opportunity Tuesday as the company announced plans to invest about $1 billion to build a sprawling solar installation generating up to 800 megawatts (MW) – the electricity equivalent of powering more than 500,000 homes. It would be the largest solar installation planned in the state so far in terms of energy generation.
For Marsh, the massive project could benefit Kentuckians from nearby coalfield communities with tax revenue and jobs.
“It’s a good repurposing of this ground,” Marsh said. “What will hopefully, ultimately happen here — it’s the best that could happen to these three counties.”
BrightNight CEO Martin Hermann told the crowd gathered at the former Starfire mine that the finished multi-phase project would generate about $400 million in tax revenue to local and state governments over the course of the solar project’s 40-year lifespan. The goal is to finish construction on the leased land by 2030, he said.
BrightNight also has other solar installations in development in West Kentucky, specifically McCracken and Ballard counties, along with other locations across the country. The company is also developing a 120 MW project in Washington and Marion counties to sell to Kentucky’s largest utility.
Electric SUV manufacturer Rivian plans to buy 100 MW of energy from the project as renewable energy credits that can offset the carbon emissions of its drivers. The conservation organization The Nature Conservancy plans to buy 2.5 MW for renewable energy credits to offset the carbon emissions of their offices.
Nature Conservancy CEO Jennifer Morris said the region “has been a powerhouse” of energy production, referencing its coal mining present and past. Using reclaimed mine land for solar projects, she said, can save more productive land for other purposes.
“This is the future: continuing that large tradition, that long tradition of energy production, but doing it in a way that can be more sustainable, both for our country, our world and certainly for the nature in this incredible place,” Morris said.
The plans are in place. What now?
It could be at least a couple of years before solar panels begin to enter the ground at the former Starfire mine, in part due to bureaucratic hurdles that planned solar installations across the country are facing.
Solar companies wanting to connect to a regional electric grid have to apply to do so through what’s known as an “interconnection queue.” The electric grid operator has to then study the costs it takes to connect such projects to the grid.
Getting permission from regional grid operators can take years, which adds to the cost of solar projects.
Hermann, the Brightnight CEO, said the company has done its own study of what transmission costs will be for their Eastern Kentucky project while it waits on feedback from the regional grid operator. The company submitted a request for the first phase of the project in 2021 with the hope to hear back on that request by 2025.
“There is just no other way than to wait until you get the study results,” Hermann said. “There has just been a glut of interconnection requests hitting the power grid.”
BrightNight would also have to get permission from the Kentucky Public Service Commission, the state’s utility regulator, to build the project by applying for a construction certificate through the Electric Generation and Transmission Siting Board.
Once construction starts, Hermann said each phase of the four-phase project is expected to take up to two years to build, creating between 20 to 50 jobs during construction of each phase.
He said an estimated 20 permanent jobs will be created to maintain the project site, which he described as “unfortunately” low compared to the number of temporary construction jobs for the site.
Adam Edelen, a former Kentucky auditor and Democratic candidate for governor, whose renewable energy company helped shepherd forward the BrightNight project, said solar installations ultimately can’t replace all the lost coal mining jobs but will be important to the economy.
“It’s about diversifying the economy and providing a solution suite of opportunities for the folks who, you know, live, love, work and worship here,” Edelen said. “With a recognition that renewable energy is going to be the preferred power source of the 21st century economy, creating those opportunities here is important to magnetizing opportunity for our people.”
Edelen recently touted a deal for car manufacturer Toyota to purchase power from another planned solar installation on a former coal mine site in Martin County to offset emissions.
Several of the speakers at the BrightNight announcement mentioned the upcoming anniversary of deadly, catastrophic floods that hit Eastern Kentucky communities near the planned solar project.
Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet Secretary Rebecca Goodman said BrightNight has had “very productive discussions” with the cabinet about how the solar developer could help with the affordability and resiliency of planned cottages at a “higher ground” community under development to replace housing lost to the flood.
“There’s no doubt that the weather events [affecting] Kentucky are still continuing,” Goodman said, referencing a recent record rainfall that caused major flooding in West Kentucky. “I think we’ve seen a pattern that continues to go, and we need to do everything we can to mitigate the effects of these disasters.”
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