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Despite green energy promises, Independence considers spending millions on gas generators

030122_cm_IndependenceCityHall
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
The Independence City Council voted 4 to 3 to allow the city manager to enter into an agreement with ProEnergy Services to install two gas turbines to update the city’s aging energy infrastructure.

The project, which would cost nearly $70 million, was criticized by some residents for its use of fossil fuels.

The Independence City Council on Monday gave the go-ahead to the city’s utility to enter into a $69 million agreement for two gas turbines even though the city has committed to becoming “the greenest city in America.”

The council voted 4-3 during a special session to direct City Manager Zachary Walker to execute a $69.4 million agreement with ProEnergy Services to install and purchase the gas turbines. That will allow the city’s municipal utility, Independence Power & Light, to proceed with contract negotiations with ProEnergy.

Once details are finalized, the project will still require city council approval.

Council members Mike Huff, Mike Steinmeyer and Brice Stewart voted against the measure.

The vote comes after years of the city kicking the can down the road on updating its energy infrastructure. Independence Power & Light shut down its power plant in Blue Valley in 2020. Meanwhile, the city’s turbines are aging and the city can’t afford to indefinitely delay action on building a new power plant, said James Nail, director of Independence Power & Light.

“We continued down the road to where we are today, where we have aging assets,” Nail told the council. “Assets we know are not as efficient as other options that we could get.”

Nail said a 2021 study by Independence Power & Light showed the city does not have sufficient acreage to get the needed power capacity and generation from wind or solar energy. The study recommended aeroderivative turbines, a variation of gas turbines.

The nearly $70 million project would require the city to make annual debt payments of $4.3 million.

Some council members were concerned with the cost. Councilmember Daniel Hobart said that given the amount of money involved, the project should be submitted to a public vote.

“It's been rare in our city, at least in my life, that the citizens have had a real chance to weigh in on these really big expenditures,” he said. “Unfortunately, from time to time, or more often than not, they haven't paid off. So it seems to me like it makes some sense to do that.”

Huff, a retired employee of Independence Power & Light, was also concerned with the price tag, and recommended that the city hear from a panel of experts.

Several Independence residents testified against the proposal, arguing that continued reliance on fossil fuel power runs counter to a resolution passed by the council in 2018 that set a goal for Independence to become the “greenest city in America.”

“This plan is discussing burning methane within our city limits for the next 30 years,” said Kevin Baird, an Independence resident.

Billy Davies, conservation program coordinator for the Sierra Club’s Missouri chapter, called the council vote a misstep.

“In order to avert worsening climate disruption, and in order just to, you know, put our residents' health and well-being first, we need to be transitioning away from fossil fuels,” Davies said.

Council member Steinmeyer suggested the city hasn’t been asking the right questions.

“I have concerns about the debt and what we're getting in return,” Steinmeyer said. “I do think because this is a public utility that we do need more input from the public if they're going to bear the burden of carrying this cost.”

Independence Mayor Eileen Weir encouraged the Public Utilities Advisory Board to hold public hearings.

“It does not commit us to any significant expenditure or eliminate other options off of the table,” Weir said of Monday night’s vote. “But it does allow us to ask those questions and have those discussions, which clearly we all are eager to have to determine this very, very big decision.”

As KCUR’s Missouri politics and government reporter, it’s my job to show how government touches every aspect of our lives.
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