LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Democrats and Republicans gathered Wednesday to celebrate a $20 million federal grant designed to move Kentucky toward new forms of energy, a tricky subject in a state dominated by the coal industry.
Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and U.S. Rep. Andy Barr joined Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and state House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins to announce a federal grant that will be distributed among the state's eight public colleges and universities. The money will pay for researchers to explore new ways to generate energy from plants and chemicals.
"As the world grows more sophisticated around us, the older ways of doing things, whether that's powering our cars, generating fuel and energy or producing clean water are no longer good enough," Beshear said. "Now, we in Kentucky could be unnerved by this reality or we could see it as an opportunity to do some amazing things."
About 90 percent of Kentucky's electricity comes from coal-fired power plants. And the coal industry is a major employer and economic driver in parts of eastern and western Kentucky. But a decline in demand combined with new federal emission standards have resulted in the loss of 7,000 direct coal mining jobs since January 2012.
Those job losses have become flashpoints in Kentucky politics. Coal has dominated the race for Kentucky's U.S. Senate seat between McConnell and Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes.
But both Republicans and Democrats said Wednesday's grant announcement will complement the coal industry, not compete with it.
"We certainly need to pursue an all-of-the-above energy strategy, and that will only enhance employment and job creation in eastern Kentucky," Barr said.
The $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation, in addition to $4 million from the state Council on Postsecondary Education, will pay for 150 people to research alternative energy in Kentucky for the next five years. Rodney Andrews, director of the University of Kentucky Center for Applied Energy Research and the leader of the project, said it is different from other grants in that it is "directed at putting the best minds that we have toward solving the major questions in Kentucky."
"We need to develop all of our technology options if we are going to continue to be able to provide affordable energy to people in the state," he said.
He said the research will include a focus on how to use various crops to complement the state's use of coal and other fossil fuels. One idea is to capture the carbon dioxide from coal-burning power plants and use it to make the plants grow faster.
"Burning (the crops) is probably the least valuable use we can make," he said. "We are looking at how do we design those plants to make things of sufficient value to build the economy around."
The grant proposal is 350 pages thick and took two years to write. The money will pay for research at the Universities of Kentucky and Louisville and Kentucky State, Northern Kentucky, Western Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky, Morehead State, and Murray State universities. The Big Sandy and bluegrass community technical colleges will also receive funding.
McConnell, who has made coal a central part of his re-election campaign, declined to answer questions after a news conference on whether the grant would impact the coal industry. He said the grant shows Kentucky is in a great position to compete for federal research dollars and noted the project will help fill a need to increase the number of graduates in the state in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.