Community Energy Solar, a Pennsylvania-based developer of solar farms for electricity generation, has identified 1,600 acres of agricultural land south of Russellville and is aiming to replace the site's corn and soybeans with solar panels.

The company is among the finalists in a bid process to become the Tennessee Valley Authority's next "green" energy provider, and TVA's decision could come as soon as next month.

"We started working on this during the first part of the year," said Chris Killenberg, the Southeast director of business development for Community Energy. "TVA issued a request for proposals seeking bids for solar power, so we put in two bids."

One of those bids, for a solar array on farmland owned by five families, has reached the finalist stage.

"We have leases in place for all the land involved," Killenberg said. "If we're selected by TVA, we'll have a contract to sell them power."

And lots of it.

With a 1,600-acre site, Killenberg said the proposed solar farm could go online in a couple of years and begin producing enough electricity annually to power 40,000 households.

Killenberg said the Logan County site is well-positioned to be developed as a solar farm. It is located near high-voltage power lines running from TVA's Paradise Fossil Plant in Muhlenberg County, where two coal-fired units have already been converted to natural gas and a third is expected to be taken offline next year.

"That's the reason we started looking at Kentucky," said Killenberg, whose company has developed solar farms on sites from Pennsylvania to Minnesota and Georgia but nothing so far in Kentucky. "TVA announced that it was closing the Paradise plant because it wasn't cost-effective anymore.

"There's a lot of potential in Kentucky for land alongside those transmission lines. You need flat land too, and the site we found is wide open."

That's no guarantee the Logan County site will be selected by TVA, but Killenberg and Logan County Economic Alliance for Development Executive Director Tom Harned are optimistic.

Although it's a different sort of economic development than he's accustomed to, Harned embraces the idea of a solar farm in his county.

"We're supportive of the project," Harned said. "The capital investment will be good for the county. There was a bit of reluctance to give up good farmland, but the taxes generated by this will be helpful for our schools and our county."

The benefits of a solar farm are such that Logan Fiscal Court has taken action that smooths the way for such a project.

In August, the county's magistrates agreed to change the rules for how far electric generation units must be from existing structures, reducing it from 1,000 feet to at least 250 feet from residences and other structures.

"Logan County has gone the extra step of creating setback ordinances so the distance from the solar panels is defined," Killenberg said. "They understand the benefits to the county. We'll pay substantially more taxes than what you get from a farm. There will be some jobs during construction and some long-term jobs as well."

Killenberg expects to see interest in developing solar farms in Kentucky to ramp up due to improvements in solar technology and a greater emphasis on renewable energy from power providers like TVA.

"When I started with solar power seven years ago, the cost was three times what it is today," he said. "As you get bigger, things tend to get cheaper."

And, in the case of solar energy, more efficient.

"Solar panels and related equipment are getting better all the time," Killenberg said. "In a traditional solar farm, all the panels are in a fixed position, facing south. Now, we use a tracking system that tilts the panels toward the sun in the morning and in the afternoon. It has made solar farms more productive."

And more attractive to TVA, which is slowly making renewables a greater part of its power-generation mix.

The TVA website said its power-generating portfolio is changing, with coal's portion of the power mix dropping from 58 percent in 2007 to 17 percent by 2030. Solar and wind, meanwhile, are projected to increase from 3 percent currently to 10 percent by 2030.

"We might as well embrace the fact that solar farms are coming because TVA is looking for other ways to produce power," said Simpson County Judge-Executive Mason Barnes, whose county is considering making accommodations for solar farms similar to what Logan County has done. "There are going to be a substantial number of solar farms going up."

Logan County's Harned said the rise of solar farms doesn't necessarily mean the demise of traditional farms.

Solar developers typically lease land for 30 years, he explained, after which the land can be returned to its original use.

"The land can be returned to agriculture use pretty easily," Harned said.

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