Utility companies across the commonwealth are implementing upgrades to keep Kentucky operating at full strength

By Shannon Clinton

Utilities, the most impactful users and providers of the vital resources the economy relies on, are leading the broad shift toward more sustainable operations, steadily investing to revamp processes to pollute less as they become more efficient and reliable.   

With aging infrastructure and an uptick in extreme weather events, the likelihood of boil water advisories, power outages and other service interruptions that affect the public could also climb without intervention from the agencies and decision-makers overseeing these systems.  

 We recently examined what’s being done at state, local and national levels to enhance utilities systems statewide to make them more efficient and reliable while reducing environmental impacts.  

 Identifying the weakest links  

Knowing what vulnerabilities exist in utilities systems is a huge step toward fixing them. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has awarded the Kentucky Office of Energy Policy (OEP) $213,000 from its Building Resilient Infrastructure Communities (BRIC) program to work with 15 Area Development Districts (ADD) in the commonwealth that tackle regional planning, economic development and hazard mitigation issues in their respective regions.  

 In an effort to pinpoint future mitigation projects in a variety of energy infrastructure areas, “The OEP and ADDs have collaborated to survey critical facilities for backup generation capabilities, identify vulnerable areas and services in the community and determine hazards and threats that increase the likelihood of long-term power outages,” according to a release issued by the OEP.  

Last spring, FEMA issued new hazard mitigation plan guidelines requiring counties to conduct vulnerability and capabilities assessments detailing critical facilities and counties’ ability to “pursue and complete hazard mitigation actions for those facilities,” the release said, adding that the grant will help counties fulfill these mandates toward investing in energy resilient solutions.  

 Providers do their part  

Columbia Gas Public Affairs Manager Lisa Smith said the company serves 138,000 customers in 30 Kentucky counties who are poised to benefit from ongoing projects there, including gas-line replacement and upgrading in Winchester, Lexington, Ashland, Cynthiana and other communities.  

 The aging pipeline replacement program began here in 2008, and customers are kept informed about projects and their timing, affected areas, processes, progress and property restoration, she said.  

 Using a holistic method of assessing pipe condition in certain areas, multiple streets or blocks are replaced at once instead of employing a smaller, piecemeal approach to upgrade cast iron or bare steel gas pipelines of decades ago with a superior hard-coated plastic.  

 “These projects have enabled us to get all of the old cast iron out of our system and we’re working right now to get rid of all the bare steel in our system,” Smith said.   

 With these upgrades, low-pressure systems can be upgraded to medium-pressure systems that work better for today’s outdoor kitchens and modern appliances, Smith said.   Environmentally, Columbia Gas personnel work with an arborist to minimize damage to trees, she notes.  

 This March, Kentucky Power officials announced completion of a significant upgrade to its electrical system in Hazard to ensure future reliability and resiliency, replacing an aging substation transformer that was eight decades old.  

“Our team and contractors worked diligently to complete this cost-effective project to enhance reliability and modernize the Hazard substation,” Project Manager Lance Blackburn said. “These improvements increase power quality for customers and support the community’s needs.”     Besides boosting overall reliability, other project benefits were listed as increasing grid safety and reducing outage durations.  

 Susan Lancho, senior manager for external and government affairs at Kentucky American Water Co., said the company continues its ongoing investment in water system infrastructure by replacing aging water mains through its Qualified Infrastructure Program.   The company serves part of 14 Kentucky counties with water and/or wastewater services.  

 In the summer of 2023, KAW filed a rate adjustment with the Kentucky Public Service Commission, citing an investment of $330 million in water system investments since 2019 and increased operating costs, adding that water treatment and distribution facilities were among aging infrastructure being addressed. 

 Putting millions into pipes 

Duke Energy is in the midst of a phased pipeline replacement project in Northern Kentucky to upgrade 70-year-old pipes with stronger materials and enhanced safety inspection components.  

 Now in the phase of design and routing for the first two phases, the project will progress through a total of five phases through 2027-28.  

Louisville Metro Sewer District’s (MSD) current fiscal year budget includes more than $255.3 million earmarked toward 189 projects, including those that upgrade its wastewater treatment facility—Kentucky’s oldest—and capital projects that include sanitary trunk sewers, neighborhood collector sewer systems and more.  

 MSD supplies sanitary sewer, stormwater drainage and flood protection services to more than 200,000 customer accounts and each year adds more than 4,000 customers and a whopping 70 miles of sanitary sewers to a system that is over 3,200 miles long.  

 The Paddy’s Run Flood Pump Station is a current, $230 million project funded collectively with American Rescue Plan Act dollars, Congressional allocations and money from the state revolving fund, replacing the 1953-era facility by doubling its capacity to 1.9 billion gallons per day, preparing it to handle a 10-year, 24-hour storm event.  

 These enhancements are important to the 214,500 people, 70,000 homes, 60 businesses and 40 neighborhoods in the pump station’s service area for flood protection.  

 Keeping funds flowing for water projects 

In the Andy Beshear administration, heavy investments have been made to upgrade water and wastewater systems across Kentucky.  

 According to Beshear’s Better Kentucky Plan overview, the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority is serving as administrator for $500 million appropriated since 2021 for water and wastewater grants. In 2022, $250 million was allocated on a population-weighted basis toward county projects in addition to another $250 million appropriated in 2021 for county-based projects; projects improving clean drinking water services for rural customers; addressing stormwater and sanitary sewer system concerns in Lexington, Louisville, Northern Kentucky and Winchester; and to supplement the cost of a variety of infrastructure improvement projects.  

 USDA Rural Kentucky has earmarked more than $3.1 billion to be used in rural areas, in part for infrastructure improvement, along with other economic development and quality of life enhancements.   

In February, USDA Rural Development Kentucky officials announced more than $45.3 million in rural Kentucky projects, including a $42 million Electric Infrastructure Program guaranteed loan to connect 3,712 customers and build and improve nearly 200 miles of line.   

 Other funds are being used in rural counties to install rooftop solar systems, evaluate the wastewater system in Monroe County and other enhancements.  

Modernized means to provide power 

Close-up of Solar cell farm power plant eco technology.landscape of Solar cell panels in a photovoltaic power plant.concept of sustainable resources.

On May 1, Louisville Gas and Electric Co. and Kentucky Utilities Co. issued a request for proposals (RFP) for new projects from solar, wind and hydroelectric providers to begin in 2026.  

 The company is exploring options that will diversify LG&E and KU’s generation portfolio, better position the company to meet federal environmental regulations and meet customers’ long-term energy demand.  

 “We have an all-of-the-above approach that’s balanced and flexible for our power generation fleet, and achieved last year power reliability for our customers that was among the best in the nation,” said John Crockett, president of LG&E and KU. “We, with our parent company PPL, are pursuing a comprehensive clean energy strategy to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 while preserving reliability and affordability for our 1.3 million customers. We are continually evaluating a number of energy resources and exploring innovative solutions that will continue to best serve Kentucky and our customers’ needs and interests.”  

 RFP projects may also be considered as an energy supply source for LG&E and KU’s Green Tariff program when the company partners with businesses and industrial customers to create custom renewable energy solutions, combining the Green Energy and Business Solar programs and Renewable Power Agreements for those customers interested in purchasing renewable power.  

 LG&E/KU ranks as the state’s largest power provider, with LG&E serving 335,000 natural gas and 436,000 electric customers in Louisville and 16 surrounding counties and KU serving 545,000 customers in 77 Kentucky counties, as well as 28,000 in five Virginia counties. The companies are currently in the process of converting 1.3 customers over to smart meters, an effort that will continue through 2025.  

 The company has also brought its first utility wind turbine to fruition in Mercer County, near the companies’ 10-megawatt solar facility. The 165-foot-tall turbine is designed to produce 193 megawatt hours annually, enough to power 16 average homes. Data from the turbine will be used to determine the potential of similar systems as a viable renewable energy production option in Kentucky.  

 Addressing demand for sustainability

Frankfort Plant Board serves about 22,000 electric customers in Frankfort, Franklin County and parts of Woodford and Shelby counties, also providing water, internet, cable and phone services in this area.  

 Chief Electric Engineer Travis McCullar outlined a recently completed phase one for providing solar energy on a subscription basis in which customers can receive energy credits on their bill.  

 In the planning stages is a 1.1-megawatt addition to the company’s solar facilities, pending USDA funding, he said. And FPB is a member of joint public agency Kentucky Municipal Electric Association for its wholesale power purchases that uses a large-scale solar utility system in its operations.  

 This spring, FPB has partnered with a contractor to launch a comprehensive pole inspection and treatment program to determine each pole’s strength, remaining life and ability to withstand extreme weather events.  

 A smart meter installation effort is 75% complete for electric and water systems, enabling employees to respond faster for outages and service quality matters, he said.  

 Cathy Lindsey, the plant board’s executive director of communications, said as a nonprofit, the public municipal utility is always reinvesting money into its system, whether it’s replacing poles, tree trimming or pursuing other enhancements and replacements.   

 Hydropower without the dam 

Sandy Slayton is vice president, environmental for Rye Development, a Florida-based developer of pumped storage hydropower solutions working on the Lewis Ridge Project, a 287-megawatt hydropower plant in Bell County made possible with $81 million in federal Department of Energy funds.  

 “In terms of impact, this project is really special because it’s a homegrown energy storage solution for Eastern Kentucky and it really will result in decades of positive economic benefit for (this area) and also strengthen the grid,” Slayton said.  

 The new plant will generate enough power for 67,000 homes, with eight-hour energy storage capabilities helping safeguard against blackouts or other extreme weather events.   

 The project will also provide about 1,500 construction jobs during its four- to five-year construction period, Slayton added.  

 Such plants can be developed on former mine lands, as this project is, depending on water access, topography and other factors, Slayton said.  

 “We do think there will be more opportunity in areas like this,” she said.