MURRAY — At an event in Murray last week, the secretary of the Kentucky Energy and Environmental Cabinet said that solar energy can be the next big thing in the commonwealth’s agricultural exploits.

The event in question was the unveiling of a solar-powered heat pump for the main shop building of the West Farm that is run by the Hutson School of Agriculture at Murray State University. And Secretary Rebecca Goodman said that this a perfect example of what solar can mean to the future.

“I’m so so excited and encouraged to see these young students who are so engaged in this new technology and who are so conscious about their impact on the world and on making a cleaner environment and pursuing these types of opportunities,” said Goodman, who was part of a speaking lineup that included Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear and former state Rep. Dorsey Ridley of Henderson, now a member of Beshear’s staff in Frankfort, among others. 

Fittingly, the speaker’s podium was sheltered from the sun by an elevated solar panel positioned outside of the shop.

“Across the country, thousands of schools have seen the benefit of installing solar arrays and showing their students that solar energy is viable. In building this HVAC system on campus, the Hutson School is providing its students with hands-on experience with solar technology and that’s a sector we expect to see substantial job growth in the future.”

Beshear talked about how numerous financial analysts see Kentucky as making one of the fastest recoveries from the COVID-19 pandemic and how this is positioning the commonwealth for big opportunities. Goodman said this is especially true with the solar/ag concept.

“Gov. Beshear has positioned us very well to become a national leader in agritech … you know, the marriage of farm production and technology … and our geography and climate makes all of this possible,” she said, noting the two dozen applications that have been sent to the Kentucky Electric Generation Transmission Sighting Board in the past month. “I saw them approve three projects for a combined total of 334 megawatts.

“Agritech means new markets for our farming industry and that’s why we’re seeing a bright future.”

Goodman also frequently used a word not too well known outside of this field — agrivoltaics — which she said, in layman’s terms, is the use of solar panels on farms to make them self sustaining, while ensuring food production.

“Instead of placing solar panels close to the ground, though, they can be positioned about seven to 10 feet above the ground and there’s also some spacing you can do between the clusters that would provide a mix of shade and sun to plants that are growing underneath them,” she said, noting how this can be particularly effective with grazing livestock, as well as bee keeping, even some aspects of poultry production. 

“Our teams are working with ag and energy leaders to identify opportunities that don’t take away existing ag land use but make it more sustainable. Research by Oregon State University shows that wide-scale agrivoltaic systems could lead to an annual reduction of 330,000 tons of carbon dioxide, which is the equivalent of taking 75,000 cars off the road each year and it could lead to the generation of 100,000 jobs in rural communities, like this one, while minimally impacting our crop yields.”

Goodman also said that in order to make these things happen, Kentucky will have to take a page out of the Murray State playbook, using partnerships in which several entities come together for a cause. That was how the solar heat pump at the West Farm shop was made possible, along with numerous other projects that have happened since Murray State President Dr. Bob Jackson became the campus’ 14th holder of that office in March 2019. He has hammered the partnership concept and continues to do so.

“Projects like this really, really depend on our partners that we have throughout the state and, really, this multi-state region,” Jackson said, emphasizing the contributions of Henderson farmer, entrepreneur and former Murray State student Robbie Williams, Murray State alum Todd Powell and Murray-based Sunway Energy Solutions and several others, including Gree Commercial, an international company whose American headquarters are based in South Florida. 

“This pilot project is a reality today because of these individuals and we really appreciate all you have done and will continue to do for Murray State. This project is a unique new component of Murray State University and it’s providing alternative/solar energy to this facility and this is the first of what will probably be many.”

Jackson also credited longtime Hutson School Dean Dr. Tony Brannon.

“He always has about 20 ideas in the hopper probably, but he’s got thoughts on how to make every building on the West Farm and other farms solar and I appreciate Tony and his work,” the president said. “But it’s an opportunity to showcase, not just the Hutson School of Agriculture, but other colleges and schools in every area. We’re glad to have the governor here so we can tell our story at Murray State University because these types of events benefit the state and they benefit the region and the universities in this commonwealth.”

And Goodman said Kentucky has plenty of room for more of these types of projects.

“We need practices that promote resiliency and innovation. In Kentucky, renewables have accounted for about 8% of our electricity generation in 2020 with hydroelectric and biomass (which includes a bioburner used for heating/cooling at Murray State’s Equine Center) accounting for the highest percentage. Solar is less than 1% of all renewable generations statewide and only 2% of the state’s total generation capacity when it comes from solar,” she said. “That means we’ve got plenty of room to be more balanced and more robust in our generation mix without compromising energy reliability or the resiliency that’s needed.

“Now, we know that solar development might not align with every community’s development plans because land-use decisions are a local process of aligning development with community values. This is why we have the Electric Generation Transmission Sighting Board to ensure that local concerns are addressed and evaluated. We also know that most renewable technologies are intermittent and they’re not a substitute for our baseload resources, but the hybrid power plans and storage devices are realistic alternatives to help Kentucky integrate renewables into our power mix.”

Goodman also said western Kentucky is already making strides in this area.

“Last month, our cabinet’s leadership was able to visit six small producers in western Kentucky and it was a great trip. We were able to see some great agricultural success stories firsthand. There were producers who were using solar arrays to capture sunlight and produce enough energy to operate large grain facilities and then sell the excess back to the local utility,” she said. “We discussed how biodigesters can help eliminate waste, improve air and water quality, while, all of the time, producing energy. 

“Now we’re seeing Murray State students witnessing firsthand how this works as they’ve actually created a sustainable hub on campus and that’s just really exciting. I thank you Murray State and I thank you students for your hard work. We’re pretty excited and we want to come back and see your next project, and I’m sure there will be a next project pretty soon.”