Dozens rally outside Lawrence City Hall to urge Evergy to shut down Lawrence’s coal-fired power plant

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Dozens of members of the public took part in a rally outside Lawrence City Hall Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023, organized by the Sierra Club and calling for electric utility Evergy to shut down the coal-powered Lawrence Energy Center.

Holding signs with phrases like “Our kids deserve clean energy” and “Don’t be a fossil fool,” dozens of people gathered outside of Lawrence City Hall on Tuesday to call for electric utility Evergy to shut down its Lawrence-area coal-fired power plant.

The demonstrators, stationed outside the building and scattered around the intersection of Sixth and Massachusetts streets, were there for the nonprofit Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign, which calls for closing all coal plants in the country and replacing them entirely with clean energy sources. But Sierra Club lobbyist Zack Pistora told the Journal-World ahead of the demonstration that for people in Lawrence, the rally was also about their pocketbooks and about Evergy’s previous pledge to shut down the plant that got pushed back by five years.

Even though the demonstrators were gathering outside of City Hall before a Lawrence City Commission meeting, Pistora made it clear that the rally wasn’t meant to criticize city leaders.

“There’s no strong criticism of what the community leaders of Lawrence are doing,” Pistora told the Journal-World Friday. “Our rally is to encourage them to continue to do more and be a leader for their community, but also for the state of Kansas.”

In the Sierra Club’s view, Pistora said, the real problems have to be addressed by Evergy, the largest electric utility in the state.

Part of the issue has to do with the cost of electricity. The company is seeking a rate increase of 9.77% for customers in its central Kansas coverage region, which includes Lawrence. That increase, which has not yet been approved by the Kansas Corporation Commission, would add an average of $14.24 per month to residential electric bills and would bring in $204 million more per year for Evergy. This is the first chance Evergy has had to increase its rates since Kansas City Power & Light and Westar merged to create the new company in 2018, and Pistora said the central Kansas region is currently facing its largest rate increase in the past 15 years.

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

People who attended the Sierra Club rally were positioned both in front of Lawrence City Hall and across the street at the corner of Sixth and Massachusetts streets ahead of the Lawrence City Commission meeting Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023.

Another problem, Pistora said, is Evergy’s repeated delay in retiring its Lawrence power plant’s coal units. The plant began operating commercially in 1938, according to Evergy, and its two remaining coal units have been operating since 1960 and 1971, respectively.

The electric utility in June filed an integrated resource plan with Kansas and Missouri regulators that called for pushing the retirement date for both of the Lawrence Energy Center’s coal units to 2028. Just two years ago, the plan called for the plant to be shuttered entirely by the end of 2023, which Evergy later walked back in favor of converting units at the facility to natural gas power instead.

“That’s part of the frustration,” Pistora said. “Here you tell us one year for your long-term plan, you say this, and now you’re breaking your promise on this. I don’t know, but I would guess that the Lawrence community would rather support a homegrown, cheaper solar facility with maybe a storage as a backup … versus a 60-year-old coal plant.”

Those issues are top of mind not just in Lawrence but throughout Kansas and the rest of the world, Pistora said. Most recently, Kansans have been seeing — and breathing — the hazy smoke blowing south as a result of wildfires in Canada and the Pacific Northwest. A week ago, the National Weather Service in Topeka was warning Kansans to avoid spending time outdoors as the air quality dropped into the “unhealthy” category across much of the state.

Pistora said many people are thinking about the effects of climate change that they can see and feel in real time such as this and wondering what they can do to change the system.

“We really feel compelled to demonstrate the positive support, because it can too often feel like we’re helpless,” Pistora said. “This is a global situation with climate change — what can we do in Kansas, and what can we do at the local level? We can only make positive change if we have leadership.”

The message to Lawrence leaders, he said, is “coal is costing us” and community members want to see them take it to the table with Evergy. That could manifest in a number of ways, like passing a resolution to intervene in utility planning or engaging in direct conversation with the utility. They could also opt to engage with the Kansas Corporation Commission.

The Sierra Club itself is continuing to engage in conversations with Evergy, Pistora said, in settings like Climate Action KC’s annual Climate Summit, which the nonprofit regional collaborative hosted at Rockhurst University in Kansas City last weekend.

Pistora said another way community members can make their voices heard is by submitting a public comment to the Kansas Corporation Commission. The public comment period for Evergy’s rate increase application remains open through 5 p.m. Friday, Sept. 29. Comments can be submitted online or by calling 1-800-662-0027 or 785-271-3140. Comments can also be submitted via the mail to the KCC Office of Public Affairs and Consumer Protection, 1500 SW Arrowhead Road, Topeka, KS 66604.


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