HENDERSON, Ky. − It appears that at least one of the big solar energy farms that have been proposed for Henderson County is going to become a reality.
The Henderson County codes office last month issued one of the biggest building permits in local history — valued at $186.5 million — for construction of a nearly 1,700-acre solar farm immediately south of the city of Robards.
“It is the single largest construction project, by acreage, in county history,” Henderson County Judge/Executive Brad Schneider said.
The Unbridled Solar LLC project will generate up to 160 megawatts of electricity that will be sold to Big Rivers Electric Corp. That means that at any given moment on a sunny day, it could power roughly one-and-a-half to two cities the size of Henderson, including its industries.
The sprawling solar farm will be connected by a three-mile-long transmission line to Big Rivers’ Reid substation at its power plant complex north of Sebree.
It is expected to be in operation by May 31, 2024, according to parent company National Grid Renewables’ website.
The Unbridled project was approved by the Kentucky Electric Generation and Transmission Board in June 2021. The Henderson County Planning Commission approved Unbridled Solar’s site plan in May 2021.
Unbridled Solar will straddle the Henderson-Webster county line, with 1,140 acres in southern Henderson County and 549 acres in northern Webster County. It will be located immediately south of Kentucky 416 and immediately west of the CSX railroad line. Much of it will border Kentucky 283 and Knoblick Road in Henderson County.
The solar farm will consist of 45,708 solar modules spread across various parcels.
Unbridled Solar has said that around 130 positions, mostly craft workers and contractors, will be employed during the construction phase of the project. Once in operation, the solar farm will require five employees.
The company says the solar farm will pay approximately $160,000 in local taxes annually and will each year offset 255,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.
It also paid a $500,000 fee for the building permit, which is intended to cover the costs of reviewing the application and inspections, including ensuring that fencing and other Henderson City-County Planning Commission regulations for solar farms are met.
While probably the biggest building permit fee paid to the county, it’s lower than it could have been, Schneider said.
“In the past, the fee was 1% for the whole project,” he said. In the case of Unbridled, that would have amounted to nearly $1.87 million.
“For a large industry, that was often waived as an incentive,” Schneider said. “… But for solar, they were told there would be no incentives because there are very few full-time jobs.”
However, taking a lead from what the state charges for building permits, this summer Henderson Fiscal Court passed an ordinance revising its building permit fees. It now charges 16 cents per square foot for permits and inspections for commercial and industrial projects; 15 cents per square foot for single-family residential projects; 16 cents per square foot for solar panel installations; and $1 per linear foot for wind turbines, with a maximum fee $500,000. (Flat $50 fees are set for other types of projects, ranging from demolitions to commercial signs.)
Unbridled Solar will be operated by National Grid subsidiary Geronimo Energy, based in Minneapolis. National Grid currently has seven large solar projects under construction or in operation across the country (two of them with energy storage facilities) along with two land-based wind energy farms. Last month, National Grid announced the start of operations of a 274-MW in Ohio backed by e-commerce giant Amazon, a major investor in renewable fuels.
Big Rivers in 2020 signed a 20-year power purchase agreement to purchase Unbridled Solar’s electricity beginning in 2024. Big Rivers provides power to the three rural electric cooperatives that own it: Henderson-based Kenergy Corp., Jackson Purchase Energy Corp. of Paducah and Meade County RECC in Brandenburg. Those three co-ops serve more than 120,000 member-customers in 22 Western Kentucky counties.
“Unbridled will be 100% dedicated to Big Rivers for our member-owners and to help us diversify our power portfolio,” Big Rivers spokesman Jennifer Keach said in a text message.
The $186.5 million Unbridled Solar building permit is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, ever issued here, dwarfing even a $125 million permit issued in April 2022 for construction of the Pratt Paper recycling and box complex.
Some massive construction projects, such as the Anaconda (now Century) Aluminum smelter near Sebree, were built before the county issued building permits. Perhaps the only comparable building permit actually issued by the county was the $94 million permit in 1995 for the construction of the Hudson (now Tyson) Foods chicken processing complex near Robards.
Adjusted for inflation, that would be the equivalent of nearly $190 million today.
Two other large solar farms have been proposed for Henderson County.
However, Community Energy was acquired in late 2021 by another company, AES Corp., that proposed “a significant cost increase” to the city’s electric utility, HMP&L General Manager Brad Bickett reported.Earlier this year, HMP&L sought a request for proposal for another developer to take over the project. It awarded the project to Stellar Renewable Power.
“At this time, both the project transfer and power purchase agreement are very close to final and we expect the project to continue moving forward,” with the solar farm tentatively projected to begin operations in December 2026, Bickett said in a recent email. That’s in addition to a variety of smaller solar energy installations that have been undertaken by HMP&L and some of its customers.
The permit issued to Unbridled Solar was about the only big new construction activity authorized here in October.
Excluding the solar project, the total value of all building permits issued last month amounted to a mere $845,594 — most of it associated with the only new single-family residential permit issued in October — compared with more than $3.7 million of permits in October 2022.
The one new housing start last month brought the total so far this year to 36 homes, up from 28 at the same time last year.
The value of all construction activity authorized in the first 10 months of this year totaled $221.7 million (or $35.2 million excluding the Unbridled Solar permit), compared with nearly $171 million during the same period (or $46 million including the Pratt project permit).
Midwest Contracting Inc. received a $290,000 permit for remodeling the former Concord Customer Cleaners building at 19 N. Main St. into a new office for a Kentucky Farm Bureau Insurance agency while Sunspring America Inc. received a $66,000 permit for demolition of a 5,400-square-foot building at 1105 Fifth St.
Here are the individual permits issued last month:
Commercial addition: Warren Meuth, 1666 S. Green St., $25,000.
Commercial remodeling: Midwest Contracting Inc., 19 N. Main St., $290,000.
Commercial demolition: Sunspring America Inc., 1105 Fifth St., $66,000.
Manufactured home demolition: Stephen & Jeanne Magowan, 501 Gabe St., $6,000.
Single-family residence demolitions: Peter and Lilia Doll, 329 Eighth St., $6,900; James Blackman, 1214 Helm St., $10,000; Redco Contracting LLC, 804 First St., $7,500; William M. & Lisa T. Fryer, 700 Watson Lane, $700; and Jared Brooks, 1404 Loeb St., $1,000.
Single-family residential accessory: Jennifer Chase, 2387 Terrace Ct., $9,000; James A. and Janice Utley, 493 U.S. 41-Alternate, $10,500; Rhonda Vaughn, 1667 Adams Lane, $5,800; Michael Albring and Brian Crafton, 1701 Adams Lane, $5,200; Donald and Julie Ann Turner, 2524 Fryer Dr., $4,000; Ronald Lee Gentry, 1471 Kayak Lane, $2,700; and William M. and Lisa T. Fryer, 700 Watson Lane, $61,000.
Single-family residential addition: Logan A. Hazelwood, 54 S. Gardengate Dr., $1,200; and Stevan Randall Allen and Sharon Yates, 515 Powell St., $6,000.
Signs: Custom Sign & Engineering Inc., 1773 S. Green St., $6,250; Gardenside Center LLC, 2606 Zion Road, $7,500; Custom Sign & Engineering Inc., 1213 Barret Blvd., $11,200; A and D Hargis Properties LLC, 1480 S. Green St., $4,500; Henderson Nail & Spa, 2480 U.S. 41-North, $875; Hari Realty1 Inc., 702 N. Green St., $3,500; and Custom Sign & Engineering Inc., 2480 U.S. 41-North, $950.
Total: $553,275
New residences: Kevin and Mary Overstreet, 10795 U.S. 60-West, $530,000
Commercial: Scott Industries, 1573 Kentucky 136-West, $9,226; SBA Communications, 2248 S Green St., $25,000; Unbridled Solar LLC, several parcels in Robards area, $186.5 million; and Scott Industries, 1573 Kentucky 136-West, $20,000.
Sign: Niagara Food Mart, 3953 Kentucky 416-West, $22,000.
Manufactured home: Kenneth R Williams, 1140 School St, $172,000.
Garages/utility buildings: Alec N Hensley, 12985 Kentucky 136 East, $4,043; Donna Nation, 6304 Cairo-Dixie Road, $30,000; William Bean, 6109 Kentucky 136-West, $5,000; Pam Wilson, 17495 Kentucky 136-East, $3,850; Don Hutchinson, 4887 Kentucky 1078-North, $1,200.
Total: $186.8 million