Big Business Pushes Coal-Friendly Kentucky To Embrace Renewables Nearly 90 percent of Kentucky's electricity is from coal — the cheap energy source that helped build its manufacturing economy. Now it's struggling to respond as more businesses want clean energy.

Big Business Pushes Coal-Friendly Kentucky To Embrace Renewables

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Years ago, while living in Kentucky, I was in a car that rolled past a power plant. I asked if it was nuclear power, and the driver laughed. He said no, any power other than coal would not be well-received in Kentucky, which is a coal-producing state. That was a long time ago, and times change. Today, some big employers in Kentucky want power from renewable energy. They want renewable energy even as the Trump administration pushes to promote coal. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports on a coal state that is thinking about solar.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Kevin Butt's job is to find cleaner ways to power Toyota. This sprawling plant in central Kentucky is one of the hardest places to do that, but he's trying.

KEVIN BUTT: This is a new engine assembly line. And this has a tremendous amount of energy efficiency involved.

LUDDEN: Butt points out enormous fans overhead, LED lights, a more efficient motor that slowly moves a circular conveyor belt. He says all these changes save millions.

BUTT: I mean, what company doesn't want to reduce their energy bill?

LUDDEN: That's the business case for going green. And in a lot of places around the country, solar and wind are now the cheapest energy option. But by 2050, Toyota wants all of its operations all around the world to be zero-carbon.

Is that realistic?

BUTT: I think it is.

LUDDEN: Toyota's not alone in Kentucky. GM, Ford, Wal-Mart, L'Oreal and others have big goals to reduce emissions. Even the state's beloved bourbon makers are looking at renewables, which are scarce.

BUTT: There's not enough renewable energy being manufactured right now for all of us to do what we say we want to do. I mean, it's just not there. You don't have that amount of power.

LUDDEN: It's especially not there here in Kentucky, where nearly 90 percent of energy still comes from coal - where people like to say coal isn't just the economy, it's the culture.

CHARLES SNAVELY: We're a coal state. We're proud to be a coal state. We're sentimental about our attachment to coal.

LUDDEN: Charles Snavely is secretary of Kentucky's Energy and Environment Cabinet. Before this job, he spent 35 years in the coal industry. Snavely's working with companies - he calls them customers - to help develop renewable energy. But he says he struggles.

SNAVELY: Does the growth of renewables come at the expense of coal? Is it a bigger pie, or is someone taking a slice of our pie?

LUDDEN: Coal built this state's economy, he says, creating some of the cheapest power in the country.

SNAVELY: We have industries in Kentucky that would not be here if we didn't have such low electricity rates.

LUDDEN: But now more and more businesses want solar or wind, even if they're still not quite as cheap as the state's coal.

JIM GARDNER: The future is renewables and the large corporations that want renewables.

LUDDEN: Jim Gardner used to help regulate Kentucky's power companies. Two years ago, he was struck when someone at Facebook told him businesses are even deciding where to expand based on where they can get renewable energy.

GARDNER: He made it seem like there was literally a list with a lot of states with big X's marked in so that Facebook and others were not looking because they were not going to be open to renewables.

LUDDEN: The Public Service Commission, where Gardner worked, worried the state was missing out. It quietly issued an official statement.

GARDNER: It just sent a clear signal to people outside of the state.

LUDDEN: It said - hey, if a big customer wants renewable energy, Kentucky's utilities can cut a special deal to provide it. That meant utilities had permission to offer renewable energy, but they still had to find a way to produce it.

DAVID CREWS: This tract is about 60 acres.

LUDDEN: David Crews is showing me a gently rolling field with a duck pond. This field will soon be full of 32,000 solar panels.

CREWS: It'll butt right up against the golf course.

LUDDEN: East Kentucky Power Cooperative is doing this by popular demand from businesses. The utility has no plans to build another coal plant. Crews says just because the new president does not want to limit carbon emissions doesn't mean the next one won't.

CREWS: The seesawing of regulations, when we're trying to make a 50-year investment, it will drive you crazy. And that wouldn't be good for our customer base.

LUDDEN: So the utility is marketing its new solar panels. And if demand is strong enough, Crews says, they'll add more.

Toyota isn't waiting for the next solar farm. Kevin Butt is getting creative about finding renewable energy now. He takes me down a rutted dirt road, through towering brown hills. It's a landfill. And here and there, things stick up.

BUTT: The black tube coming up, it's a methane capture well.

LUDDEN: The methane is released as the trash here rots. Now, when it goes into the air, methane's a dirty greenhouse gas. But last year, Toyota set up a generator to turn it into clean electricity. The power is sent through an underground line.

BUTT: Right up over that hill and then it follows the road, sort of, almost all the way to the plant.

LUDDEN: Straight to the Toyota plant six miles away, bypassing the local utility altogether. Butt says until Kentucky's utilities offer more renewable energy, Toyota will keep finding other ways to get it. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.


Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.