Solar farms: Community Energy and Meade County Solar

CHAD HOBBS

Messenger Staff


In order for the solar projects to be built in Meade County, there are multiple requirements that must be completed. Review and approval by the Kentucky Public Service Commission and the federal Rural Utilities Service are two such requirements. With both the President and the Governor being strong supporters of renewable energy, along with the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development being a large player in the Nucor deal and their desire for renewable energy, it would be very unlikely to see any level of federal or state encumbrance in regards to these projects.

They must also achieve county permitting by abiding by Meade County’s Solar Ordinance. The county’s ordinance appears to be a deficient piece of legislation which was pieced together at some point in 2020. Its inadequacy is due to the fact that it only calls for a solar company to stay at least 25 feet from property lines and 100 feet from residential structures. Yet, Community Energy, the developer of the Meade County Solar project in the southern part of the county, says that they will be setting their solar panels a minimum of 500 feet back from any road or neighboring residence. As such, one could argue that the private company is five times more concerned with Meade County property owners that neighbor these projects than the county government is.

The second part of the county’s ordinance is that there must be a seven foot tall fence and “to the extent reasonably practicable, a visual buffer that provides reasonable screening to reduce the view of the solar farm from residential dwelling units on adjacent lots.”

Both Community Energy and NextEra Energy, who has bought the solar project being developed in the western part of the county, have stated that they will build fences around each property that has solar infrastructure on it. Community Energy says that they will be planting a double offset row of evergreens where natural vegetation doesn’t exist. It has yet to be seen if these evergreens will be 15 foot or 15 inches tall at the time of planting. If the latter is chosen, it would meet the county’s “reasonable screening” ordinance, though, it may be in the last few years of the 20-30 year lease contracts that these companies have signed with property owners before the evergreens reach a height that neighbors find them capable of providing “reasonable screening.”

On the state level, these two companies are seeking Construction Certificates from the Kentucky Public Service Commission. These certificates will be issued by the Kentucky State Board on Electric Generation and Transmission Siting. The Siting Board evaluates environmental impacts, economic impacts and the solar facilities proposed impact on Kentucky’s electric transmission grid. This board is composed of three members of the Public Service Commission along with the Secretary of the Kentucky Cabinet for Energy and Environment, the Secretary of the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development, the chairman of the Meade County Planning Commission and a resident of the county appointed by the Governor.

The Siting Board review, according to Community Energy, takes approximately nine months and is composed of six key steps: a public meeting, application, evidentiary hearing, local hearing, decision and appeal (if needed). Community Energy held their public meeting earlier this month and will be the focus for the rest of this article, as NextEra has not yet held their public meeting. They plan to submit their formal application on May 5. The evidentiary and local hearings are optional and are to be determined at a later date. The decision step of the Siting Board is anticipated to take place at some point during the fourth quarter of this year.

As previously reported, Community Energy plans to build a 40 megawatt solar farm on two sites comprising approximately 370 acres located on Big Spring Road and Stith Valley Road just west of Flaherty. This came about after Big Rivers Electric Corporation conducted a competitive bid process, seeking to buy solar energy last year under a long term fixed-priced contract which Community Energy was selected for.

The project will consist of 104,000 three foot by five foot solar panels attached to a racking systems that will rotate, tracking the sun’s path through the sky each day. The panels are silicon celled panels that have been used since the 1970s. They are composed of roughly 85 percent glass, 8 percent aluminum, 6 percent silicon and 1 percent wiring (copper, silver and zinc).

During the meeting, I asked if these panels contained any toxic materials such as lead and cadmium, as has been reported from some solar projects where pollution has been an issue in the past. With Meade County being home to many sink holes as a result of the limestone composition of the bedrock in that part of the county, this has been an area of great concern for some, especially those whose water supply comes from wells.

“They will have a small amount of lead in that it has an electrical circuit box on the back which will have solder like every other piece of equipment in our homes that has a small amount of lead. So I can’t say it doesn’t have some lead in it somewhere,” explained Chris Killenberg, Regional Development Director for Community Energy. “It does not have cadmium which is an ingredient in a kind of solar panel called thin film. These are silicon based, old-style if you will, panels. So, there’s no cadmium, selenium and some of the other chemicals that you see, and there’s no liquids.”

Killenberg went on to say he thought around 90 percent of the materials in these type panels were recyclable, and that there were no hazardous materials in them. He also said that the environmental study they had performed by Copperhead Environmental Consulting found that there were some wetlands and streams that had been identified, and that any setbacks or buffers that are required would be observed. There were also three species of bats that are threatened or endangered in the area. Some trees will have to be cut, but this will not happen during the time of year when these bats are roosting in those trees.

Next week, this series will continue coverage of Community Energy’s public meeting, focusing on land values, economic impacts, project costs and what that means for Meade County residents.

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