Event puts Frankfort’s clean-energy efforts on display

Andy McDonald is an author of the report asking the City of Frankfort, Franklin County Fiscal Court, Frankfort Independent Schools and Franklin County Schools to cooperate on a 20 megawatt (MW), 150-acre solar project. (Photo by Charles Pearl)

The Frankfort Plant Board has hired a consultant to evaluate a proposal asking the City of Frankfort, Franklin County Fiscal Court, Frankfort Independent Schools and Franklin County Schools to cooperate on a 20 megawatt (MW), 150-acre solar project.

FPB General Manager Gary Zheng said that he has hired the firm Burns & McDonnell to create a report that evaluates the proposal authored by Andy McDonald and former FPB Vice Chair Walt Baldwin. 

McDonald and Baldwin initially presented their proposal on March 1.

Zheng said FPB is paying $22,500 to Burns & McDonnell, a Kansas City-based engineering, consulting and architecture company with offices around the globe.

At Tuesday’s meeting, he projected that staff would give the company’s report to the board by the time the agenda for its April 20 meeting gets released, at latest. He said the report would also be made publicly available.

The solar project’s implementation is contingent on FPB’s approval.

Zheng said FPB had already engaged with Burns & McDonnell before the solar proposal was submitted to the the utility, eliminating the need for a request for proposals (RFP).

He added that the report will likely not include input from FPB staff, calling the company, which boasts over 7,000 staff engineers, “very knowledgeable and very familiar” with large solar projects.

“Personally, I don’t think they need our input," Zheng said. "I really like that they’ll do an independent study.”

Both Zheng and FPB spokesperson Cathy Lindsey pointed to FPB's and the Kentucky Municipal Energy Agency’s (KYMEA) commitment to solar energy through their upcoming contract with the Ashwood Solar power plant in Western Kentucky.

“We are for solar,” Zheng said. “KyMEA is going to have 54 megawatts at a pretty low-cost solar come in … . Personally, I would like to have solar in Frankfort near our service territory. But it’s also about trying to do it most economically.”

Lindsey added that the FPB staff has adopted a "wait and see" approach about the report on the local solar project, which would provide power to all city and county government facilities and public school buildings.

Zheng sent an email to that effect earlier this month to the city and county elected officials.

"We just want to assure you that we are very interested and supportive of solar opportunities," Zheng said. "That’s why we are excited that the joint action agency we are a part of and through which we purchase our power, KyMEA, has a 20-year agreement for 54 MW of solar generation which begins operation in late 2022. We have started to study the report and to look into the numbers to determine how this project would affect all of our customers."

McDonald and Baldwin said on Monday that already met with Mayor Layne Wilkerson, Judge-Executive Huston Wells and the two school systems' superintendents. They added that they will likely present to each entity's elected board soon.

At Tuesday’s FPB board meeting, Frankfort City Commissioner Leesa Unger submitted a comment in favor of the solar project that was read aloud.

“As the capital city of Kentucky, I would like to see us lead the way in the discussion on renewable energy sources and reducing our greenhouse emissions,” Unger wrote. “Just today, I heard about an Arkansas school district that has been able to save on utilities with a solar project they started and have given their teachers significant raises. I hope the FPB will support the community in this effort as the governing bodies and local school districts discuss this opportunity.”

FPB board member Kathryn Dutton-Mitchell commended the proposal’s “vision.”

“I applaud the vision of any project that would move Frankfort toward lowering its carbon footprint,” Dutton-Mitchell said. “I appreciate the expertise and time that Andy McDonald and Walt Baldwin took in presenting this project … . I do want to appreciate their efforts and hope that they’ll be patient while we consider it.”

No other board member commented on the proposal during Tuesday's meeting.

Baldwin served as vice chair of the FPB until his term expired in 2019, and he was not reappointed by then-Mayor Bill May. McDonald has been vocal at FPB meetings regarding its energy policies in recent years and has previously proposed solar projects to Franklin County public entities.

McDonald and Baldwin presented the solar proposal under the banner of McDonald’s company, Apogee Climate & Energy Transitions. McDonald has said that Earth Tools, the company for which he works, would not propose building such a facility and that neither he nor Baldwin would personally benefit from the project.

The proposed solar facility would be funded by a private developer at no cost to the local government entities, McDonald said. 

McDonald and Baldwin estimate that the plan would save the four entities a collective $1.2 million annually but cost FPB $800,000 in reduced revenue.

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