Empire plans pivot to wind energy generation

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Empire District Electric Company today filed an application with the Missouri Public Service Commission to shift its power generation to more than triple the amount of energy it gets from wind and continue the company’s — and the industry’s — move away from coal-fired power.Empire’s filing requests permission for a $1.5 billion project to construct wind turbines in Southwest Missouri and eventually close its Asbury power plant.The company plans to pursue an equity partnership that will take advantage of $800 million in federal tax incentives for the project, making Empire’s total investment $700 million, it says. 

Costs associated with upgrades to the Asbury power plant were built into rates approved by the PSC in Missouri in mid-2015. That increase raised the bill of Empire’s average residential customer by about $8 per month. Approximately 55 people currently work at the Asbury plant. The future of those jobs is unclear.Empire says a dramatic flip in market forces has made it far more feasible economically to generate wind power as the cost continues to drop. The company estimates its costs for generating power with coal at Asbury are about $38 per megawatt-hour and would be close to $24 with wind, leading to a projected savings of more than $300 million over 20 years.Empire already uses some wind power through purchase agreements, but says it can cut costs by constructing and using its own turbines.

Under the plan, closure of the Asbury plant would take place in approximately April of 2019, more than 15 years before Empire originally its life to end. Empire says expensive upgrades are due to be made to the plant in the coming years, meaning even with the more than $100 million it has spent on the site in the past seven years, it makes more economic sense to shutter the plant and pivot more heavily toward wind power.The change in the market landscape for energy generation is one Empire said the industry didn’t see coming. Prices for renewable resources were too high to make it a legitimate option in recent years, it said. But the shift is one utilities across the nation have taken notice of, Empire said, as there is currently a 30 percent annual increase in renewable energy projects and 30,000 megawatts of renewables are already under construction.

Empire says its power generation makeup consisted of approximately 95 percent from coal as recently as 1997, but this new proposal could reduce that amount to 21 percent by 2023. While a reduction in coal-burning has environmental benefits, Empire says the economics of renewable energies are the driving factor for the proposal.Empire has already secured more than 40,000 acres of property in Jasper, Barton, Dade and Lawrence Counties where wind turbines could be put. Property owners where the turbines are placed would be compensated for the land, Empire said.The PSC will have to rule on the project by June 30, 2018, and it will need to be completed before the tax incentives run out in 2020.

Jordan Larimore

www.joplinglobe.com