New giant solar project expected to transform former surface mine in Eastern Kentucky

A giant solar array on a former surface coal mine in Eastern Kentucky could one day generate enough electricity to serve the equivalent of 500,000 homes, helping combat climate change, company and state officials announced Tuesday.

The project would turn a site that produced a product blamed for contributing to global warming to one that will help cut carbon emissions that cause warming, supporters said.

“You are witnessing the future right here,” Jennifer Morris, CEO of The Nature Conservancy, said at the announcement.

BrightNight, a renewable power company, plans to build the solar array on the former Starfire mine, which is in Perry, Knott and Breathitt counties.

The plan is to build the project in four stages, ultimately reaching capacity to generate 800 megawatts of electricity after the final phase, said BrightNight CEO Martin Hermann.

The investment in the project would be $1 billion. It would be the largest solar project in Kentucky and one of the largest in the nation on a former surface mine, the partners said in a news release.

Hermann said the project will transform a coal mine, reinvest in a region that has been an energy leader and wants to continue that role, and show the power of corporate purchasing to drive development of renewable energy.

“I think we have a great milestone today,” he said.

Rivian, which works to promote use of renewable energy to electrify the transportation sector, has committed to buying enough power from the project to provide up to 450 million miles of driving with renewable power, according to a news release.

“We need to have projects like this happening thousands of times over” to speed up the transition to carbon-free energy, said Rivian founder RJ Scaringe.

The Nature Conservancy’s involvement in the project included advising Rivian on choosing a renewable energy project to support.

The organization also will buy power from the project to help reach its sustainability plans.

BrightNight would feed power to the grid and Rivian and The Nature Conservancy would received renewable energy credits against their carbon use.

The Nature Conservancy and Rivian developed a guide on how companies can back projects aimed at boosting clean-energy projects, based on the principles of protecting the climate; conservation, including protecting habitat; and helping communities.

The Starfire project will put dormant land back into productive use generating clean electricity and avoid having to cut trees to make space for solar panels or use agricultural land, said Morris.

“Significant investments in infrastructure will be critical to solving the climate crisis, but how we invest is just as important as how much we invest,” Morris said. “We need to make sure both people and the planet are central to these decisions, especially in communities like the Appalachians that have powered America for centuries and have tremendous natural resources.”

Central Appalachia, including Eastern Kentucky, is a priority area for the organization to protect because it is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet.

The goal is to start construction on the first phase of the Starfire project in 2025 and begin generating power in 2027.

However, that timetable depends on the operator of the grid the power would feed into, PJM, finishing a study on how to integrate electricity from the array into its system, Hermann said.

Hermann said the project would create an estimated 250 direct construction jobs in each of the four phases, as well as related jobs.

The facility would provide few jobs after it is finished, but could drive other investments and boost tax revenue for local governments, supporters said.

“This is an investment in the future of Kentucky,” Rocky Adkins, senior advisor to Gov. Andy Beshear, said at the event.

Hermann said former state Auditor Adam Edelen, who has a separate solar project underway in Martin County, helped originate the Starfire project.

Rebecca Goodman, secretary of the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, said the state would like to see more solar projects on reclaimed mine sites.

Coal companies started mining at Starfire more than 50 years ago and ultimately mined and reclaimed 20,000 acres. Coal from the site “helped build America,” said Adkins, who once worked for the company that operated the mine.

The site for the solar array is near the Olive Branch community being developed to provide homes for people displaced by devastating flooding in the Hazard area on July 28, 2022.

BrightNight and the state are discussing ways the company can help at that development, according to a news release.

It’s difficult to attribute any single weather disaster to climate change.

But the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said human activity that puts greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, including burning coal, has caused global warming that drives adverse events such as more intense storms, drought and wildfire.