Evergy to close coal-fired power plant just outside of Lawrence

photo by: Associated Press

The Lawrence Energy Center produces power behind Shirks Barn near Lawrence, Kan., Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021. The area is experiencing rolling power outages as energy companies fail to meet demand. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Story updated at 4:47 p.m. Friday:

Evergy plans to close its coal-fired power plant just outside of Lawrence by 2023, the electric utility company disclosed Friday in a regulatory filing.

Evergy, which is the company that was formed when Westar and KCP&L merged, said the Lawrence Energy Center is its oldest remaining coal-fired power plant. The company plans to close the facility as part of a “measured” plan to have less reliance on fossil fuels to generate electricity.

The pending closure will remove the coal-belching smokestacks that have been just northwest of the city of Lawrence since the 1930s. The shutdown likely will improve air quality around Lawrence and be another volley in the battle against global warming caused by fossil fuels.

But the closure also will create some new questions. How will local governments make up for the hundreds of thousands of dollars the power plant pays in taxes, and what will happen to the more than 500 acres that make up the power plant complex?

For now, those questions are largely unanswered. The theme of the day on Friday was Evergy’s plan to move away from producing electricity via fossil fuels and focus more on using renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

“We’re on a journey to a cleaner energy future, while balancing the highest priorities of reliability and affordability for our customers,” David Campbell, president and chief executive officer of Evergy, said in a statement.

The company chose to close the Lawrence plant — located at 1250 North 1800 Road — partly because of the facility’s age, spokeswoman Gina Penzig said.

“It is the oldest coal-fired plant in our fleet,” Penzig said.

There are two operational power units at the plant. One was built in 1971 and the other in 1960. However, the site has been operating as a power plant since the 1930s, Penzig said.

The plant currently employs 55 people, Penzig said. Employees will be given a chance to re-train for other jobs within Evergy, or transfer to other power plants operated by the company, she said. But job losses are still a ways off. The company plans to operate the plant into late 2023, and then dismantling the plant likely will take three to four years, Penzig said.

When the company closes the plant, it will lose about 487 MW of electricity-producing capacity, or enough electricity to power about 300,000 homes at any given time. In its regulatory filing on Friday, the company said it expects to add 350 MW of solar energy in 2023 and another 350 MW in 2024. The company hasn’t yet announced where those projects will be built, but Penzig said Evergy currently is accepting proposals for the project.

The shift to solar, and also to wind, is part of a broader goal to have net-zero carbon emissions by 2045. The company hopes to have a 70% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030.

“We’re hearing more often from our current and prospective commercial and industrial customers about their desire to move to more sustainable operations,” Campbell said. “This plan helps us help them achieve their carbon goals, as well as advancing Evergy’s emission targets.”

The plan got mixed reviews from some environmental organizations. A leader of the Beyond Coal movement for the Sierra Club said Evergy could have done more to phase out coal-fired power plants at other locations.

“Evergy’s plan falls short of the action needed to mitigate the worst consequences of the climate crisis,” Andy Knott, deputy regional director for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, said. “While the new investments in renewable energy are important, it’s unfortunate that Evergy is proposing to continue operating 80 percent of its coal fleet beyond 2030, a decision that is wildly inconsistent with a low-cost grid and necessary action to achieve climate progress.”

While Evergy plans to close a power unit at its Jeffrey Energy Center in 2030, nine years earlier than anticipated, it also intends to continue operating part of its Iatan power plant near Weston, Mo. and its Kansas City-area Hawthorn plant past 2040.

Evergy officials argued a certain number of coal-powered plants are still necessary to ensure reliability of the power grid, which was severely challenged with the arctic blast of 2021: “As the company’s older fossil-fueled plants near the end of their useful lives, Evergy will continue to responsibly manage these assets for the benefit of customers while allowing advancing and emerging technology to develop.”

The last time Evergy shut down a coal-fired power plant was the Tecumseh Energy Center near Topeka in 2018. Penzig said that plant has now been dismantled and removed, and the site has been restored to native grass.

Whether that will be what happens to the more than 500 acres Evergy owns along the Kansas River north of Lawrence is unclear. Penzig said planning for the site will occur over the next couple of years as the plant is shut down and dismantled. But she said the fact that the site is well connected to the electric transmission grid makes it a “good candidate for future renewable generation or energy storage.”

According to county records, Westar paid about $380,000 in taxes in 2020. Historically, Wakarusa Township, which nearly surrounds Lawrence and includes many rural homes, has relied heavily on the power plant to supply tax revenue. That raises a question of whether Wakarusa Township will have to significantly increase its mill levy in future years once the power plant is no longer on the tax rolls. Attempts to reach a pair of Wakarusa Township officials weren’t successful Friday afternoon.


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