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Stories focused on energy & environment topics throughout the state of Kansas.

Even In Windy Kansas, Coal And Gas Still Necessary Sources Of Energy

Jewlissa Frickey
Westar Energy
From the coal-view observation deck, visitors can see the train system, the coalfield and the flue-gas stacks.

Environmental regulations and commitments to address global warming are certainly not on terra firma. The Trump administration has vowed to ease emissions controls for power plants and to get coal miners back to work.

The Jeffrey Energy Center, in St. Mary’s, Kansas, near Topeka, is one such coal-fired power plant.

The plant’s guts are mainly outside on a series of decks; the top deck is 280 feet up and there’s an open grate to look below.

Credit Jewlissa Frickey / Westar Energy
Westar Energy
The flue-gas stacks are 600 feet tall and exhaust flue gases from combustion to the outside air.

From there, you have a good view of the three stacks spewing their cloud-like steam into the sky. (Don’t call it smoke—it’s steam.)

Beyond the stacks on the ground out back is the coalfield. It goes on, and on, and the big open-topped railroad cars are standing still on the tracks. They seem almost like a model train set, waiting for their giant child to come back and play.

Right now, there’s about 74 days’ worth of coal supply, if the plant runs all of its units at full load, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

But they don’t run the three units 24/7. And the answer for that is in the wind.

The Jeffrey plant went online in 1978 and since then has almost doubled in size--not because it puts out more power, but because there are huge pollution control units hanging near the turbines. They scrub the air clean (or cleaner) from the coal, which burns to heat the water to make the steam to turn the turbines to make, finally, electricity.

But coal is a fossil fuel, and it has become a bad word in environmental discussions about carbon emissions and global warming.

Credit Jewlissa Frickey / Westar Energy
Westar Energy
John Bridson, senior vice president of Generation and Power Marketing at Westar.

During the Obama administration the Environmental Protection Agency introduced the Clean Power Plan, with regulations designed to further reduce pollution 32 percent by 2030. States and utilities objected, and in March the Trump team basically pulled the plan.

“Westar had to come into compliance with a variety of rules prior to the Clean Power Plan even coming out in its proposed form,” says John Bridson, senior vice president of Generation and Power Marketing at Westar, Kansas’ largest energy company. “In fact, we’ve invested about $1.8 billion over the last decade in new equipment that’s been added to these fossil plants to meet limitations under the various rules."

Related: Low-Carbon Fuels Could Lose Emphasis From Trump EPA

So Westar, seeing state mandates about renewable fuels, started building wind turbines and filling wind farms with them to get a leg up. And wind is subsidized.

“What we’ve added for wind generation lately has been more about what’s most economic for our customers than it has been about meeting any mandates or regulation," Bridson says.

And Bridson says he can’t see Westar going back, regardless of any deregulation on emissions or the promise of new jobs for coal miners. Building a new coal plant is, for now, not part of the Westar plan.

“Not at this point in time. It’s hard to imagine we would ever make that decision. Not until some technology changes," Bridson says. "Westar made enough investments in renewable power that we far exceed the carbon reductions that the Clean Power Plan sought to get from the country’s electricity producers.”

"It's hard to imagine we would ever make that decision. Not until some technology changes."

Bridson says that Westar’s 700,000 customers get almost a third of their power from wind and solar--mostly wind. Including nuclear power, they get 50 percent of their power emissions free.

But what happens when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow?

When they are, the coal plants cycle down and allows the wind turbines to provide the load. But when it’s dark and still, the Jeffrey plant kicks back up to keep the energy availability at the level that the customers need.

Credit Jewlissa Frickey / Westar Energy
Westar Energy
Control Room Operator Jim St. John, Senior Vice President of Generation and Power Marketing John Bridson and Plant Manager Doug Mericle.

The plant is constantly monitored by a network of metering, which helps to decide who on the southwest power pool grid needs what, and when.

But there are a couple of giant hang-ups to going more and more green, even in windy Kansas. The grid is not totally interconnected, and Westar can’t store the energy and tap into it later.

"That's really the Holy Grail in the electrical industry is to figure out how to store power cost effectively," Bridson says. "Once we do that, then you can move toward a world that really is 100 percent renewable, but until then we’re always going to need dispatchable resources like coal-fired or gas-fired plants."

Aileen LeBlanc is news director at KMUW. Follow her on Twitter @Aileen_LeBlanc.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.