Environmental Justice, COVID-19 Response Take Center Stage At Governor’s Conference on Energy and the Environment

By Kirsten Delamarter

Issues of environmental justice were at the forefront of the 44th annual Governor’s Conference on Energy and the Environment, as leaders from the environmental and business communities discussed ways to increase accessibility to clean water and affordable energy, improve health outcomes for vulnerable populations and promote economic opportunities for citizens of the Commonwealth.

“As we look at our environmental legacy and the new challenges of a changing climate … we must embrace our responsibility to our environment, which we’re going to leave to our children,” Gov. Andy Beshear said in his opening remarks. “With this responsibility comes understanding what changes are occurring and managing the transitions, which is why today you’ll hear about our renewed focus on environmental justice.”

“My administration wants to ensure the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless or race, color, national origin or income — whether it be access to clean drinking water in Martin County or air quality concerns in West Louisville.”

As part of ongoing efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19, the Energy and Environment Cabinet held conference virtually for the first time. More than 500 people attended the 2-day event that took place Oct. 13-14.

Participants heard panelists speak on a variety of issues such as economic development opportunities within sustainable agriculture, Kentucky’s business outlook, the potential of brownfield redevelopment, and renewable energy procurement. There also were segments on energy affordability, environmental justice, and regulatory and policy updates from cabinet leadership. 

The first day’s sessions highlighted programs from both the public and private sectors that are both ecologically and economically beneficial. This included a session on Kentucky AgriTech, or innovative agriculture.

“While Kentucky already has a robust farming economy, the Agritech industry will not only help make Kentucky’s farms more productive and efficient, but it will harness the efforts of about 70 ag-related manufacturers, service and technology providers,” EEC Secretary Rebecca Goodman said. “Most importantly, Agritech will give us an opportunity to build our economy in areas of the state that need good-paying jobs and economic vitality.”

Speakers included Laura’s Lean Beef Founder Laura Freeman, AppHarvest Chief Sustainability Officer Jackie Roberts, Silicon Ranch Regenerative Energy Director Michael Baute and Beam Suntory Director of Global Environmental Stewardship Rick Price. 

Among the Agritech initiatives discussed, Baute explained how Silicon Ranch, a Nashville, Tennessee-based solar company, is using sheep to manage vegetation around its solar panels. The Office of Energy Policy is working with the Kentucky Sheep and Goat Development Council to partner their producers with solar projects to encourage this type of land management.

“As the solar industry continues to grow, we have one of the largest opportunities to restore functioning grassland ecosystems,” Baute said. “… We’re mimicking natural grazing systems in the way that natural grasslands evolved over millions of years.”

Later in the day, a session expanded on programs such as the Brownfields Redevelopment and Reuse Program through the EEC, which directs funds toward projects that rehabilitate blighted properties in ways that promote economic development. 

“What the Brownfield Redevelopment Program allows is more supply and gives companies more options of where they could potentially locate in Kentucky, said panelist Andy Luttner, a project manager with the Cabinet for Economic Development. “That is a really big advantage for us, and it’s a phenomenal program that has really allowed us to expand our offerings from a real estate perspective when we’re trying to help companies expand or relocate here.”

The second day of the conference focused largely on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on EEC’s work, the regulated community and businesses in the region. The day also included updates from EEC directors and the Public Service Commission.

“I’m extremely proud of the cabinet staff and how everyone has stepped up and faced this pandemic,” EEC Deputy Secretary John Lyons said during his remarks. “At the beginning, there was so much uncertainty, but I believe we have handled this about as well as we could have. Employees of this cabinet are simply outstanding and make a difference in our lives every day.”

A full list of panelists can be found here.

Video recordings of conference sessions can be found here.

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