Nonprofits unite to bring solar to Eastern Kentucky

Published 4:34 pm Thursday, December 21, 2023

By Sarah Michels

Bluegrass Live

The Nature Conservancy and the Mountain Association are bringing solar to Eastern Kentucky, and Middlesboro is their first stop.

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About a week ago, solar panel installation began at the Middlesboro Community Center. The $140,000 project will produce 74,000 kilowatt-hours of energy per year, enough to save an annual $8,500 on the city’s energy bills.

For generations, Eastern Kentucky has relied on coal for its energy needs, while simultaneously powering the rest of the country.

But as the coal industry disappears, TNC State Director David Phemister said that the region has an opportunity to continue its legacy as an energy leader with cleaner, renewable energy sources.

“This is the future,” he said. “This is where change and opportunity are going, and I think the region is really increasingly embracing that for the environmental benefits, but also, maybe especially for the economic benefits.”

How did this project happen?

In 2019, The Nature Conservancy acquired about 253,000 acres of Cumberland Forest property between Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky, one of the most important areas for climate resiliency in North America.

TNC’s conservation and sustainability goals in Kentucky and Tennessee include maintaining and restoring forest health, protecting and improving water quality, providing outdoor recreation opportunities and supporting local economies, according to TNC’s website.

But TNC’s acquisition only included surface rights, not mineral rights. So now, while TNC can’t stop mineral extraction on their property, when it happens, they get royalties.

Phemister said that TNC wanted to use those funds to reinvest in communities. In Kentucky, that has manifested in a partnership with the Mountain Association to invest in community solar projects.

The Mountain Association is a nonprofit working toward a more diverse, sustainable, equitable and resilient economy.

One of its services is free energy audits for local governments, nonprofits and small businesses in Appalachian Kentucky.

Carrie Ray, the Mountain Association’s director of energy programs, was approached by the city of Middlesboro a few years ago for an energy audit of the city hall and community center.

While the mayor was interested in solar, there wasn’t enough funding available at the time.

So later, when TNC asked the Mountain Association about potential recipients for their Cumberland Forest Project royalties, Middlesboro was a top choice.

What is the project’s impact?

The project eliminates most of the community center’s energy costs, dropping them by over 80%. It also reduces its carbon emissions.

The extra funds will be used to keep the community pool open longer each year.

Ray said that interest in solar has “skyrocketed” in the past three to four years with electric bill rate increases, as residents are looking for reliable, cheaper energy.

“I think the idea that coal versus solar is like this epic battle, I think has really faded away and people are realizing that they can work alongside each other,” she said. “Solar just makes sense for folks who are facing increasingly high electric bills.”

How much does the project cost?

Middlesboro’s 162-module solar installation costs about $140,000.

Over half of the cost—$77,990—is subsidized by the Cumberland Forest Project Community Fund.

The City of Middlesboro is contributing $20,000, but with the federal Inflation Reduction Act, it can apply for a full reimbursement.

The Appalachian Solar Finance Fund is contributing $22,000.

Finally, General Motors Corporate Giving will pay the final $20,000, via a Mountain Association-awarded program, Advancing Clean Energy Opportunities in Appalachian Kentucky.

The Middlesboro Community Center may be a small project, but it is a sign of things to come, Phemister said.

“While in and of itself, it’s pretty insignificant on a global scale, the efforts to address climate change are going to be the sum of many actions, both big and small,” he said.

“…It is sort of exposing folks to the idea that the sun is an incredible source of power and our ability to tap into it, to get the power needs we need in a clean, sustainable way, is really valuable, and these opportunities are out there.”

TNC and the Mountain Association have plans to continue their partnership. Right now, they have two more active projects at Red Bird Mission in Bell County and the Leslie County Animal Shelter.