Less coal, lower bills: Evergy customers make demands following utility’s ‘sustainability’ plan

Mission resident: “This is what it looks like when a hedge fund is driving a ‘sustainability transformation plan’ ”

By: - July 14, 2021 5:13 pm
solar panels

Evergy customers want to see the electric utility retire coal-fire power plants faster and invest in renewable energy. They also voiced concerns about rate increases. (Evergy)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Evergy’s plan to spend more than $8.9 billion updating its infrastructure is too expensive and doesn’t focus enough on moving the electric utility away from coal power, says the consensus of hundreds of members of the public who commented on the plan.

Since last year, the Kansas Corporation Commission and environmental and consumer stakeholders have been reviewing Evergy’s “Sustainability Transformation Plan,” which it developed under pressure from an investor. And despite its name, the plan has faced criticism that it appears more geared toward Evergy shareholders than sustainability.

After some of those complaints, the KCC opened the plan up for public comment, receiving overwhelming feedback that Kansas electric customers want more price protections and more renewable energy.

“This is what it looks like when a hedge fund is driving a ‘sustainability transformation plan,’ ” Michelle Milburn, of Mission, said in written comments posted Wednesday to the KCC website.

Evergy announced the STP last August after Elliott Management Corporation, an activist Evergy shareholder, urged the board to either develop such a plan or sell. The plan doesn’t need KCC approval. The commission will review any infrastructure spending Evergy proposes to pass onto customers as part of its normal rate-setting process.

But the KCC opened an investigation to review the plan and allow environmental groups, consumer advocates and Evergy to discuss the proposals. Much of the analysis underpinning the plan — and more detailed information about the plan itself — has been marked confidential and shielded from public scrutiny.

Over the past several months, KCC has hosted workshops on the STP before opening up for public comment.

“Now, the public comments are part of the agency record and can be considered by the commission,” the agency’s spokeswoman, Linda Berry, said in an email. “The commission will evaluate the record and determine if additional information or proceedings are needed.”

The plan, billed as a five-year strategic and operating plan, is meant to “drive increased value and benefits for all of the company’s stakeholders, including Evergy’s shareholders, customers, employees and the communities it serves,” the company said in its announcement last year. The plan says the company expects to spend more than $8.9 billion by 2024.

The bulk of that — about $5 billion — will go to upgrade transmission and distribution technology to improve reliability. Just $675 million goes to generating more renewable energy. The plan accounts for retiring up to 500 megawatts of coal generation and development and purchase of up to 900 megawatts to replace it.

Documents on file with the KCC show the plan could result in rate increases of more than 11% over the coming years. For its part, Evergy says its rates have become more competitive in recent years and anticipates any rate increases resulting from the STP would be lower than inflation.

Since then, Evergy has filed integrated resource plans in Kansas and Missouri that outline investments in renewable energy and retirements of coal-burning power plants. Evergy spokeswoman Gina Penzig said in an email the company prioritized “reliability and keeping energy affordable as we begin to retire aging fossil-fuel units and add more renewable energy.”

“We appreciate customers taking the time to learn about the plan and share their opinion,” Penzig said. “Public comments will complement our customer research to help us better understand where customers are supportive or concerned with the company’s long-term plans.”


Transitioning from coal

Evergy announced as part of its IRP filings this spring that it would retire the Lawrence Energy Center, a 487-megawatt power plant north of the city, in 2023.

But it will take until 2040 for the company to retire “nearly all” of its remaining coal generation, something stakeholder groups and members of the public want it to do faster.

“We don’t have the time to gradually lose coal,” Molly Crager, of St. Paul, wrote to the commission. “We need it gone now. … We knew about the climate crisis years ago and knew it would cost more to wait.”

Ty Gorman, Kansas representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, said the environmental group wasn’t satisfied by the STP’s priorities. Environmentalists want to see the company invest in battery storage to help make wind energy, which is now only reliable when the wind is blowing, more steady. They also want to see Evergy work on energy efficiency projects to reduce the amount of power people are using.


Rates going up

Members of the public also feared Evergy’s STP would mean a hike in their rates after a year of economic destruction brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Veda Joy, of Leavenworth, wrote that when her family lost power during an ice storm in 2019, they lost their perishable food and stayed in a hotel.

“It took me nearly a year to pay off the credit card debt we took on as a result,” Joy said. “And we were not alone.”

Kansas’ electric rates, including both Evergy and other companies’ territories, were some of the highest among surrounding states as of March, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Penzig said the company’s rates had become more competitive over the past three years, following the merger between Westar and Kansas City Power & Light, which created Evergy.

Evergy must go through the KCC to raise customers’ rates, and Penzig said in a statement that the company “remains committed to regionally competitive rates.”

The STP, she said, anticipates any rate increases will be less than inflation.

While the STP doesn’t need KCC approval, Gorman said he hopes the public comments will inform the commission’s proceedings moving forward and push Evergy to make more investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency in its next integrated resource plan update.

“We really want the KCC staff and commissioners to know that the public cares about their energy future,” Gorman said. “They know that it’s possible to get away from poisonous fossil fuels and move to clean energy while also lowering prices for our struggling communities.”

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Allison Kite
Allison Kite

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on the environment and agriculture. A graduate of the University of Kansas, she’s covered state government in both Topeka and Jefferson City, and most recently was City Hall reporter for The Kansas City Star.