The Ashwood Solar I project is entering the final phases of its years-long development process. Completing construction of the highly anticipated power plant is expected in little more than two years. By late 2022, some 86 megawatts of electricity are expected to beam out from 200,000 solar panels on 800 Lyon County acres to light up 14,000 homes in communities far and wide.
The facility will sit on land adjacent to, and in close proximity to, the Western Kentucky Correctional Complex near Fredonia. RWE Renewables, the parent company, currently is working to complete the Kentucky State Siting Board’s permitting process, according to Craig Sundstrom, RWE’s director of government and regulatory affairs.
RWE calls itself “one of the world’s largest providers of solar, battery storage, onshore and offshore wind operations,” said Joshua McNeely, RWE’s vice-president for sales and marketing. The company has developed and constructed more than 300 large-scale, solar photovoltaic plants worldwide. Photovoltaic, or PV, modules convert light directly into electricity.
The company says it’s “active in more than 15 countries and is one the largest electric utilities in the world.” It has signed wholesale contracts to sell the electricity the Lyon County project generates to the Kentucky Municipal Energy Agency and Owensboro Municipal Utilities.
“RWE generally engages a specialized construction contractor to oversee the building of the project and it is industry practice that our general contractor will look to hire local labor as much as reasonably possible,” said Sundstrom. “Once permitting is complete, it will move into the construction phase.”
A combination of factors makes Lyon County ideal, RWE officials say. That includes access to Louisville Gas and Electric Company overhead power lines, from that Louisville-based, regulated electric and natural gas utility, serving Louisville and 16 surrounding counties. Lexington-based Kentucky Utilities provides electricity to 77 Kentucky counties.
Other positive factors include relatively flat, open land along U.S. Highway 641 and landowners eager to participate. The project also was developed specifically to address the increase in regional demand for renewables from local municipal power companies.
“The declining costs and improved efficiencies of solar technology have made it much more cost-competitive with conventional fuels, which means solar development in new locations is becoming increasingly possible,” Sundstrom said. “This shift gives us the opportunity to deliver clean, emissions-free power and generate new local revenue in areas like western Kentucky at rates competitive with other traditional types of electric generation.”
Since 2018 Amanda Davenport has served as executive director of the Lake Barkley Partnership, a regional economic development organization for Lyon, Caldwell, Livingston and Crittenden counties.
“It’s very interesting to see the allure of these companies coming into western Kentucky and it’s been a learning experience, understanding what is driving the market on having the companies invest here,” she said. “Really, our big push with the organization has been working with the solar farm, as they go through their siting board process and working with the landowners (concerning) lease agreements they have with the solar farms. Mostly, our organization has been trying to understand the solar industry and the impact it will have on our community.
“There are two solar companies coming into the region,” Davenport continued. “One is the farm in Lyon County with RWE Renewables and the other one is with Geronimo; they have two projects in Caldwell County. It is (accurate) to say that those two projects will be the most significant economic investment that has happened in the region from one agency.”
A reasonable question often asked is why solar power suddenly has moved to the forefront. Davenport has learned utility providers, in large part, are driving the trend. “The electric companies have been putting out requests for proposals to add solar energy to their portfolios,” she said. “The big thing in our area that’s beneficial is that the farmers who have leased their land will have income every year that’s predictable, not volatile. So, it helps them with their farming business operations and the county governments and (public) schools will receive additional funds, just through taxes.”
She also is encouraged by the experience of other regions. “Everything that we have heard so far is that these companies have been great to work with,” she said. “They’ve been very transparent with our elected officials and me, when we have questions. We will have an impact in the community. You will see the farms and the farmers who have leased their land will benefit greatly. The counties will receive some income from taxes on the farm, but there’s not going to be (an obvious) impact like there would be if we had a major manufacturing announcement.”
Even so, there are some bright spots, so to speak, for local employment. “My understanding is that they want to hire as many local people for construction jobs as they can,” Davenport concluded. “We’ve been in talks with the Caldwell Regional Career Center and Morganfield Job Corps. They are starting a solar training program up in Morganfield. We’ve been in contact with them and with our Caldwell Regional Career Center to talk about a solar construction training program to see what kind of skill set is needed for the installation.”