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Berea College—the first integrated, co-educational college in the South—has again made history by becoming the first institute of higher learning in the U.S. to construct a hydroelectric plant. Located at Lock and Dam 12 on the Kentucky River near Ravenna in Estill County, the $11 million Matilda Hamilton Fee Hydroelectric Station project came online in May of 2021, made possible by $7 million in New Market Tax Credits (NMTC) facilitated by Kentucky non-profit Community Ventures, a Community Development Entity (CDE). These credits can be “bought” by investors to use against Federal income taxes, while the CDEs use the proceeds to make business loans or equity investments in low-income communities or businesses.
Notably, since 1892 no Berea College student has paid tuition. Arguably the greatest impact from these projects will be realized by its students.
The impetus for the hydroelectric undertaking was multi-pronged and included reducing the college’s energy bill and carbon footprint. The Matilda Hamilton Fee station currently produces on average half of the electricity the college uses on an annual basis. In addition, the project supplies energy to hundreds more customers over and above the school.
Utilizing money saved and proceeds from the sale of excess energy to other electric companies, Berea College has been able to further fund scholarships aimed at students from economically disadvantaged families—primarily in Appalachia—who would not have otherwise been able to pursue a higher education.
“Community Ventures is on a mission to create thriving communities across the Commonwealth, and financing projects in underserved communities, like Berea, through new market tax credits is one way we are achieving that goal,” said Community Ventures President of New Market Tax Credits Dan Hefferman. “We were honored to help Berea College offset its energy costs and provide scholarships for students in need by providing $ 7 million in financing for the hydroelectric plant, and we look forward to witnessing the impact these students will have in the years to come.”
Based on the success of the first hydroelectric station, Berea College will partner with Appalachian Hydro Associates on a second station to be built 35 miles upstream at Lock and Dam 14 near Heidelberg in Lee County. Like Lock 12, Lock 14 was originally built for navigation but abandoned in the mid-1990s. The dam is currently used for water supply and to maintain the river for recreational use.
Projected to be completed and producing power by May of 2024, the Lock 14 hydroelectric plant will see Berea College’s electrical usage more than entirely offset by hydropower.
“Community Ventures new market tax credit investment played an integral role in developing Berea College’s first hydropower generation project, which supports our mission to continue to provide free higher education to Appalachian students or, as we like to say, ‘the best education money can’t buy’ for students of modest means and high potential,” said Derrick Singleton, Vice President for Operations and Sustainability at Berea College. ““The income generated by this first project will benefit the College and our students. Resulting tax revenues will benefit Estill County. None of this would be possible without the generous support of Community Ventures.”
The projects provide the College’s students a ‘real life laboratory’ opportunity to dive into learning the business, technical, and sustainability aspects of clean energy investment. The power produced by these plants will be sold at a discount to Jackson Energy Cooperative, which serves customers in the immediate area. And both projects will generate tax revenues that will benefit Estill and Lee Counties, making this a winning NMTC initiative all the way around.