In April, electricity generation from renewables in the United States exceeded that from coal-fired generation for the first time, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.
As you're heading east on Interstate 64 after leaving Lexington, Kentucky, you pass a solar farm just before the Winchester exit. The solar farm is a move by a power company to diversify its generating mix away from coal and toward the renewables that some customers demand.
East Kentucky Power Cooperative, the owner of Cooperative Solar One, as the solar farm is called, is not the only generator moving away from coal. Among others are a small town in Ohio and the owners of the cleanest coal plant in West Virginia.
"For a number of years we've had cooperative members who have said, 'We want renewable power,'" Nick Comer, external affairs manager for EKPC, said in a phone interview this month. "In recent years, the economics of solar have gotten better. A few years ago we looked at it and said we can do it in a manner that is cost-effective for those who want to participate and won't harm people who don't want to participate."
EKPC is a not-for-profit, member-owned cooperative providing wholesale electricity to 16 owner-member distribution cooperatives that serve 1.1 million Kentucky residents at 535,000 homes, farms, businesses and industries in 87 of Kentucky's 120 counties. EKPC has coal-fired plants in Mason and Pulaski counties, natural gas-fueled peaking units in two other counties and renewable energy plants in seven Kentucky counties.
"It's been successful. It's paying for itself. We're able to cover the cost of the facility with the energy it produces," Comer said.
Cooperative Solar One has about 32,300 solar panels. People belonging to one of EKPC's distribution co-ops can buy a 25-year license for an individual panel for $460. That entitles the buyer to a credit on its monthly electric bill for their share of the power produced by the solar farm.
Comer said EKPC has sold licenses for about 1,000 panels.
The solar farm has allowed EKPC to diversify its generating portfolio, just as the lower cost of natural gas in recent years has allowed it to move more in that direction, Comer said.
EKPC is not abandoning its coal fleet, however. Last October, EKPC announced it will spend more than $262 million at the Spurlock Station along the Ohio River near Maysville, Kentucky, to ensure compliance with federal regulations pertaining to coal ash and water discharges there.
Solar energy is also being used in the eastern Ohio village of Newcomerstown, known in the sports world as the hometown of Cy Young and Woody Hayes. The village has two small solar energy installations. One powers the town's water plant. The other powers the sewage treatment plant.
In West Virginia, Longview Power owns what it describes as one of the cleanest coal-burning power plants in the United States. The 700-megawatt plant near the northern Monongalia County community of Maidsville emits less carbon dioxide than most coal-fired plants because of its high energy conversion efficiency.
Yet when the owners of the plant decided it was time to expand capacity there, they turned to natural gas and solar power, not coal. Earlier this year they announced the addition of a 1,200-megawatt gas-fired unit and a 50-megawatt solar facility, both of which should be online in 2022. That will be an investment of about $1.2 billion. Together the gas and solar operations will be able to produce almost 80 percent more power than the coal unit.
From utility-scale operations to merchant plants selling their power wholesale to small towns, coal is having a smaller and smaller role on the power grid.
Jim Ross is opinion page editor of The Herald-Dispatch. His email is email@example.com.