LG&E and KU Energy fostering out-of-the-box thinking

Aron Patrick, manager of technology research and analysis for LG&E and KU Energy

Innovation is not just the bailiwick of startups. Long-established corporations are also embracing innovation through internal R&D. LG&E and KU Energy is an example of one company doing just that. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) recently honored the company with a Technology Transfer Award for its achievements in research and development in reducing natural gas use and related emissions.

Louisville Future spoke with Aron Patrick, manager of technology research and analysis for LG&E and KU Energy, about the innovative research they’re working on.

Talk about the company’s research priorities.

Patrick: We’ve already installed environmental controls over the past several decades that have reduced emissions of other pollution–for example, sulfur dioxide or nitrous oxide have been eradicated from our portfolio. Our next engineering challenge is looking at how we get rid of carbon dioxide. And so with our parent company, PPL Corporation, we’ve set a goal of having net zero emissions by 2050 and an 80% reduction in our greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. It’s a pretty big challenge.

How do you approach this goal?

Patrick: To tackle this challenge, we’ve put together several partnerships, the oldest of which is our partnership with the University of Kentucky. We work with professors in chemical engineering and electrical engineering, and our research partnerships, to help us integrate renewables into our grid. One of our goals is to increase the amount of our energy that comes from renewables, primarily solar, but also wind and other resources as well.

Another partnership that we have with UK is looking at carbon capture technology that can actually take carbon dioxide right out of the air and store it or use it for some other purpose. We are currently making plans to build the first carbon capture system at the Cane Run generating station in Louisville to be the first and largest natural gas carbon capture system in the world.

How will this happen?

Patrick: We’re partnering with three local businesses that require carbon dioxide (CO2). Ordinarily, those businesses are making CO2 from natural gas or petroleum, but we’re going to be providing them it directly from Cane Run. Also, the UK project we’re collaborating on concerns carbon capture, where we’re just taking it straight out of the ambient air. We call that direct air capture.

Who pays for the research?

Patrick: The U.S. Department of Energy is going to be paying almost all of the costs for our next carbon capture systems. We’ve applied for a $75 million grant for this carbon capture system to be built in Louisville. And we’re doing several other studies that are going to be overwhelmingly funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

These projects are bringing economic activity to Kentucky. We’re bringing in federal research dollars and, often, global research dollars, right here to our area. To build cutting edge technologies that haven’t been developed anywhere else.

What is the EPRI and how did the award come about?

Patrick: EPRI is a consortium of electric utilities not just around the United States, but around the world, from France to Korea. Every year, they take nominations for projects they think offer really cutting-edge value to the industry as a whole. Our study — we identified 100 million megawatt hours of fossil fuel energy that could be converted to electricity between now and 2050 — was nominated. We didn’t actually find out that it got nominated until we had won the award.

It wasn’t your first award from there, though, right?

Patrick: Since 2010, we’ve received 13 of these awards. In 2016, we won an award for the solar farm we built at E.W. Brown. We also received an award for building Kentucky’s largest lithium battery.

What is it about Louisville’s community that helps foster these innovations?

Patrick: I would say that the Louisville community, particularly our partners at UK and the University of Louisville, are very excited about our objectives. Every year, I take a group of Jefferson County public school teachers to see our solar farm and power plants. I remember standing in front of this group of teachers, three or four years ago, and saying we’ve got a goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050 and reducing our emissions by 80% by 2040. And these teachers stood up and applauded. So you know, the support from the community has been overwhelmingly positive.

We’ve got a big challenge before us. The community, particularly students and faculty, are working with us toward that goal.