Earth Healing The Health of the Bluegrass Is The Triangle Really Golden

The Health of the Bluegrass:
Is the Triangle Really Green?

Published by Earth Healing in cooperation with
EcoPerspectives, a project of Earth Island Institute



Dependence on Coal for Electricity 

            In Kentucky as a whole approximately 95% of the electricity generated comes from coal.  Six of the state’s fourteen large power plants that predominantly burn coal are in the Bluegrass.  This is not something for the region to be proud of, since coal-fired plants are major contributors to global warming, and since they emit a host of toxic substances that damage human health and the environment in other ways.  

 In 2006, the most recent year for which the US Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) gives complete figures, Kentucky’s electricity industry generated 98,792,014 Megawatt hours (MWh) net of electricity.  Of this figure, 91,198,488 MWh came from coal (92.3%); 3,340,898 MWh came from petroleum (3.4%); 1,176,046 MWh came from natural gas (1.2%); 3,836 MWh from other gases (0%); 2,591,701 MWh from hydroelectric sources (2.6%); and 459,390 MWh from other renewable sources (0.5%); other (0%) (1). 

Customers in the Bluegrass purchase and receive electricity from the utilities Louisville Gas and Electric (LG&E), owned by E.ON U.S. LLC, a member of the E.ON AG family of companies with headquarters in Germany; Kentucky Utilities (KU), also owned by E.ON U.S. LLC; East Kentucky Power Cooperative, and Duke Energy Company (formerly Union Light, Heat, and Power, owned at that time by Cinergy).  However, electricity is transmitted from utility to utility and even from state to state based on need at a particular time and on economic factors.  Therefore, it cannot be assumed that residents and businesses in a particular city always consume electricity generated by the company that serves them or by the nearest plants.  In 2006, Kentucky’s  interstate trade in electricity resulted in a net result of 3,133 million kilowatt hours or 3.2% of production being sold out of state (2).  

            The six power plants in the Bluegrass that generated more than 2 million MWh of electricity each in 2006, all from fossil fuels (i.e. coal, oil, or natural gas), predominantly coal, are: 

Facility Name



Nameplate capacity (MW)

Net Generation (MWh) 2006






Mill Creek





H. L. Spurlock


E KY Coop



Trimble County





E.W. Brown





Cane Run




3,581,101 (3)

Coal-fired plants are on the increase in the Bluegrass.  One coal-fired plant has gone into operation in Kentucky since 2001.  It is Spurlock Unit 3, a 268 MW plant near Maysville, which East Kentucky Power Cooperative put into operation in 2005.  Three additional coal-fired plants have been approved for construction in the Bluegrass, a 278 MW plant, Spurlock Unit 4, approved for construction by East Kentucky Power Cooperative in Mason County; a 278 MW plant, Smith Unit1, approved for construction by East Kentucky Power Cooperative in Clark County; and a 750 MW plant approved for construction by Louisville Gas and Electric in Trimble County. 

The Bluegrass has only three relatively small hydroelectric plants.  E.On U.S. owns two of them: the Falls of the Ohio Plant at McAlpine Locks and Dam complex in Louisville, currently with a capacity of 80 MW, in the process of being raised to 100 MW; and the Dix Dam Plant near the E.W. Brown Plant in Mercer County, with a capacity of 24 MW.  Lock 7 Hydro Partners owns the Mother Ann Lee Plant on the Kentucky River near Harrodsburg.  It currently supplies 2 MW, but is being renovated to increase its capacity. 

East Kentucky Power Cooperative has five small plants that make electricity from the methane gas given off by landfills.  One of them is in the Bluegrass.  Bavarian Landfill in Walton (Boone County) has four units which produce a total of 3.2 MW. 

As a result of the leadership of Appalachia - Science in the Public Interest, Kentucky has a net metering law that makes it possible for householders to feed back into the grid electricity that they generate by means of solar equipment.  Few have taken advantage of this possibility to date, although with the rapidly increasing price of fuel, more will undoubtedly do so in the coming years.

One major problem with plants that burn fossil fuels is that eventually their fuel supply will be exhausted.  The shortage of oil is well known, but even coal reserves may not last as many decades into the future as is generally anticipated.  The other major problem is that they release pollutants, in particular carbon dioxide (CO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and, particularly in the case of coal, heavy metals. 

Carbon dioxide is a major cause of global warming, and power plants play a key role in its emission.  In the United States as a whole they contributed almost 40% of CO2 emissions from man-made sources in 2006.    

Sulfates from sulfur dioxide and products of the reaction of nitrogen oxides with ammonia, moisture, and other compounds are major sources of fine particle pollution (particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter), which damages human health by causing cardiovascular and respiratory problems.  (Power plants also put fine particles directly into the atmosphere.)  The reaction of nitrogen oxides with volatile organic compounds in sunlight produces the lung irritant ground-level ozone.  Furthermore, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, forming sulfuric acid and nitric acid, acidify rain and other forms of precipitation, damaging forests and killing wildlife in lakes and streams.  The precipitation often falls far from the power plant that released the chemicals, and plants in the Ohio River Valley contribute to the acidification of water bodies as far away as northern New England. 

Kentucky power plants as a whole emitted a total of 101,784,836 tons of carbon dioxide in 2007, which made it the seventh state in the nation in quantity of carbon dioxide emissions from power plants in that year.  In 2006 it emitted 102,289, 243 tons, putting it in seventh position for 2006 also (4).   Power plants tend to emit approximately the same amount of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour of electricity generated as one another so that there is not a wide spread as to rates of emission among them.  However, it can be pointed out that, as calculated by the Environmental Integrity Project, Kentucky in 2006 had the third highest rate of production in the nation: 2071 pounds per MWh.

            The Environmental Integrity Project ranked the plants in the United States by total carbon dioxide emissions in 2007.  Three in the top hundred in were in the Bluegrass:  Ghent (Carroll County) was 42nd with 12,561,781 tons; Mill Creek (Jefferson County) was 54th with10,918,631 tons , and H. L. Spurlock (Mason County), 92nd with 8,156,402 tons.  Next in the Bluegrass were E. W. Brown with 4,302,393 tons; Trimble with 3,912,618 tons; and Cane Run with 3,787,734 tons.

            Kentucky power plants as a whole emitted 427,577 tons of sulfur dioxide in 2006. (The EPA Emissions Tracking System does not yet provide totals for 2007.)  For total tonnage of sulfur dioxide emissions in 2006, Ghent was 50th in the nation with 49,913 tons.  For emissions rate of sulfur dioxide, E. W. Brown was 14th in the nation with 23.75 pounds/MWh generated.  Both these plants and Spurlock will be outfitted with equipment to remove most of the SO2 by 2010.  This equipment will reduce mercury emissions as well as sulfur dioxide (5).

            Kentucky as a whole emitted 171,857 tons of nitrogen oxides in 2006.  Emissions of nitrogen oxides from individual plants in the Bluegrass were not great enough to cause them to be listed among the nation’s top polluters. In comparison to other Bluegrass plants only, Ghent was the top polluter in 2007 with 15,083 tons of nitrogen oxides.  Second was Mill Creek with 14,030 tons.  Third was E. W. Brown with 7,275 tons.

            The list of other pollutants emitted from power plants is varied, as the substances released in 2006 by the Ghent Station in Carroll County owned by Kentucky Utilities, in turn owned by E.On, illustrates.  The pollutants reported by Kentucky Utilities to the U.S. EPA include ammonia, antimony compounds, arsenic, barium compounds, beryllium compounds, chromium compounds, cobalt compounds, copper compounds, dioxin and dioxin-like compounds, hydrochloric acid, hydrogen fluoride, lead compounds, manganese compounds, mercury compounds, nickel compounds, polycyclic aromatic compounds,  thallium compounds, vanadium compounds, and zinc compounds (6).  Each substance is released into the air or water or disposed of on land.  Many of the substances go to two or three of these outlets.  The only one of the above toxics that has been widely publicized in connection with power plants is mercury. Ghent in 2006 released 419 pounds of mercury into the air and 1 pound into the Ohio River, disposed of 181 pounds on land, and transmitted 814 pounds to a Cincinnati firm for recycling.   

The Brookings Institution found in a study of the “carbon footprints” of the nation’s one hundred largest metropolitan areas, that the Lexington area has the largest footprint (3.46 metric tons of carbon emissions per resident per year), the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area the third largest (3.28 metric tons), and the Louisville area the fifth largest (3.23 metric tons).  The ranking was based on carbon dioxide from residential use of electricity and from highway traffic.  It does not include carbon dioxide from the heavy non-highway traffic in the three metropolitan areas or from the industrial use of electricity (7). 

The fact that most of the electricity generated in Kentucky is produced in coal-fired plants contributes to putting the Bluegrass at the top of the Brookings list.  Another factor is the relatively low price of electricity in Kentucky, which makes residents less likely to conserve than they would be if they lived in a state where electricity is more expensive.  As of 2008, the average price per kilowatt hour of electricity in Kentucky was 5.43 cents.  The average price in the United States as a whole was 8.90 cents.

Individuals and businesses can assist in reducing Kentucky’s dependence on coal by conserving energy, by participating in “green” programs offered to consumers by utilities, and by installing their own solar and wind facilities.  The Kentucky Solar Energy Society/Kentucky Solar Partnership, on the Web at is a source of information on solar applications in Kentucky.  Another is the book by Al Fritsch and Paul Gallimore, Healing Appalachia: Sustainable Living through Appropriate Technology (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007).

                                                             --Mary Byrd Davis

1.  U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, State Energy Profiles, Kentucky, Table 5: Electric Power Industry Generation by Primary Energy Source, online at

2. U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, Table 10:  Supply and Disposition of Electricity.

3.  Environmental Integrity Project, Dirty Kilowatts: America’s Most Polluting Power Plants, (Washington, D.C.:  Environmental Integrity Project, July 2007), Appendix A, available online at ;  and U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, ‘Existing Electric Generating Units in the United States, 2005,” available online at

4.  Environmental Integrity Project, Running out of Time: New U.S.EPA Data Shows Power Plant Greenhouse Gases Rising Steadily: An Analysis by the Environmental Integrity Project (Washington, D.C.: Environmental Integrity Project, March 18, 2008), available online at and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Clean Air Markets, available online at .  To access information on Kentucky as a whole and on Kentucky power plants, click on “Where You Live” in the left margin and then on Kentucky on the U.S. map that appears.

5.  Environmental Integrity Project, Dirty Kilowatts Reports for 2006 and 2007.

6. Division of Specialized Information Services, National Library of Medicine, Toxmap, available online at

7.  Marilyn A. Brown et al., Shrinking the Carbon Footprint of Metropolitan America (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, May 2008), available online at .

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