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Environmentalists say Kansas would save money by going green faster. Evergy rejects their research

Jeffrey Energy center from the air.
Kansas Highway Patrol Air Support Unit
Steam rises from Jeffrey Energy Center in northeast Kansas during a record cold stretch in February of 2021.

The Kansas Sierra Club says electric utility Evergy is not moving fast enough to cut carbon emissions and close coal-fired power plants. A new report says customers would save hundreds of millions of dollars closing all coal plants by 2030.

WICHITA, Kansas — Electric utility Evergy claims that shutting down all of its coal-fired power plants by 2030 is impossible.

But a new report from the Kansas Sierra Club contends that’s not just possible, it’s the cheaper way to go.

“These coal plants can be replaced with only clean energy and they can be replaced with clean energy quite soon,” said John Romankiewicz, the report’s lead author.

The report said using the proper computer modeling with more accurate renewable energy costs shows replacing coal-fired power plants with wind, solar and battery storage becomes more economical as early as 2028.

Evergy officials said the report is focused solely on emissions reductions and doesn’t take into account real-world complications of technology availability, cost and reliability.

“We don’t have the luxury of being able to say, we’re going to optimize towards just one variable,” said Chuck Caisley, Evergy’s lobbyist.

The model the Sierra Club used compares the cost of building new wind, solar and battery storage to the cost of operating a coal plant.

When a combination of renewable energy options can meet the top 50 hours of electricity demand during a year and the cost to build and operate those facilities fall below the cost of operating a coal plant, the model says it’s time to shut coal down and replace it.

The report found that the state’s largest coal plant, Jeffrey Energy Center located northwest of Topeka, would become more expensive than renewable options by 2025. The La Cygne coal plant a few hours south of Kansas City would reach that point by 2028.

Under this timeline, the company would save customers as much as $333 million in reduced costs.

Evergy’s current plan doesn’t call for closing all of those plants until 2039.

The Sierra Club recommends that Evergy more aggressively consider a financial tool known as securitization that could relieve some of the financial burden of closing down coal plants early, saving both the company and customers money.

Simply put, the Sierra Club said replacing coal quickly is not only the most environmentally sound plan, but also the cheapest.

The report’s authors also want Evergy to use more demand-side management programs. That means calling on large industrial users to use less electricity as a way to curb systemwide electricity use during peak times.

Finally, the Sierra Club is asking for more energy efficiency programs aimed at communities with high energy burdens.

“We do acknowledge that it takes time for Evergy to develop these programs,” Romankiewicz said, “However, it is entirely doable if they make a plan and get serious about doing so.”

Evergy said it will likely take a look at some of those suggestions, including capacity expansion modeling, as it moves forward with its planning process.

The utility is also a big proponent of using securitization to reduce costs in the future.

But the company says it doesn’t see any realistic scenario for replacing all of its coal plants with renewable energy by 2030.

“That is technologically, construction and grid operationally impossible,” Caisley said. “That cannot and will not happen.”

The company has mountains of data, Caisley said, and has run hundreds of scenarios looking at potential solutions. The company considered ways to reduce the environmental impact while keeping electricity affordable and reliable.

He also pointed to the last 15 years of investments in renewable energy as a sign the company is serious about shrinking the amount of carbon it puts into the atmosphere. Its current goal is to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 70% from 2005 levels by 2030.

President Joe Biden has set a goal for the U.S. power sector to be carbon-free by 2035. Evergy, like most large investor-owned utilities in the country, is not on track to meet that goal.

Caisley said any plan to close all Kansas coal plants before 2030 couldn’t be done with renewables alone.

“It would have to be replaced by a significant amount of natural gas generation,” he said. “And I don’t think (the Sierra Club) would like that very much either.”

Brian Grimmett reports on the environment, energy and natural resources for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett or email him at grimmett (at) kmuw (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Brian Grimmett is a two-time Regional Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist covering energy and environment stories across the state of Kansas.