Is a Proposed Kentucky Solar Farm on Mine Lands a Model for PA?

Recently, Kentucky coal company Berkeley Energy Group, along with EDF Renewable Energy and former state Auditor Adam Edelen, announced a feasibility study for a project that would convert a former Kentucky mountaintop removal strip mine into a 100 megawatt solar farm—the largest in the state and ten times the size of the next biggest solar facility.

Berkeley officials have said that the company doesn’t intend to replace its coal production with the solar farm, but wants to find a use for some of their mined-out land and create local jobs.

Could this project be a model for Pennsylvania?

Pennsylvania has over 200,000 acres of abandoned mine lands, and in 2015 (latest figures available), there were 39 active anthracite and 88 active bituminous surface mine operators in the state.  So, there’s plenty of mined out land that could be used (thus avoiding green field development for utility-scale solar projects), and opportunities to create a new revenue stream for coal operators.

And certainly, there’s an opportunity to create jobs here in Pennsylvania and put laid-off miners back to work.  In the last five years, solar and wind jobs have grown 12 times faster than the rest of the U.S. economy.  But not so much in Pennsylvania.  Indeed, even Ohio boasts almost twice as many solar jobs as the Keystone State.

Kentucky’s solar resource is stronger than Pennsylvania’s, according to the National Renewable Energy Lab.  But the project faces stiff competition from the state’s cheap coal resources.  Over 80% of Kentucky’s electricity comes from coal fired power plants (down, for the first time in decades, from over 90%, thanks to a recent doubling in natural gas-fired power.) 

And Kentucky, in contrast to Pennsylvania, does not have a renewable energy portfolio standard

If Kentucky can pull off a project like this, could Pennsylvania?

Pennsylvania public policy is not especially friendly to solar power.  Its 2004 Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act (AEPS) (that I helped get passed when I worked for Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future) created a solar share—a requirement that 0.5 percent of total state electricity supply must come from solar photovoltaic systems by 2021.

However, AEPS allowed solar projects built anywhere within PJM to be used for compliance purposes, thus inhibiting the growth of in-state solar power. And the law has never been updated. It was a comparatively strong requirement 13 years ago, but has been eclipsed by many states, including most of our neighbors.

Similarly, the Commonwealth’s public utility rules are not terribly solar-friendly. The Public Utility Commission (PUC) has discouraged utilities from entering into long term contracts for renewable energy for default supply, and for AEPS alternative energy credits.  

While 100 MW solar projects would not qualify for net metering, the state’s policies are also unhelpful for small-scale solar projects.  See my 2016 comments on proposed limits on net metering—rules that the Pennsylvania Independent Regulatory Review Commission rejected last May. Those regulations were later modified by the PUC and adopted, and still face legal challenges from the solar industry.

To encourage mine land-to-solar farm conversions in Pennsylvania:

Pennsylvania is a national leader in mine reclamation. But the Commonwealth is not a national leader in renewable energy, according to this new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists. But the report points out that “(a)ny state can lead on clean energy, not just those with the strongest renewable energy resources.”

Why not be a leader in reclamation and renewables—at the same time?

Projects like Kentucky’s could show Pennsylvania the way.

* Thank you to Kleinman Center Director of Policy and External Affairs Christina Simeone for helpful suggestions for this post.

John Quigley

Senior Fellow, Kleinman Center
John Quigley is a senior fellow at the Kleinman Center and previously served on the Center’s Advisory Board. He served as Secretary of the PA Department of Environmental Protection and of the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.