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Despite Evergy's claims, Sierra Club says the utility is failing in its carbon neutrality pledge

 Evergy's Lawrence Energy Center. A coal-fired power plant.
Brian Grimmett
Kansas News Service
Evergy's Lawrence Energy Center, a coal-fired power plant. Evergy announced in 2021 they would stop burning coal at this plant by the end of 2023.

Evergy scored low ratings for its reliance on coal and gas as sources of energy, and its failures to invest in more sources of renewable energy.

The Sierra Club has given Evergy low marks for its efforts to transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy sources.

The environmental organization’s second annual “Dirty Truth About Utility Climate Pledges” report card, which was published Monday, gave Evergy a “D” grade overall.

“They often tout a lot of their accomplishments,” says Ty Gorman, the Sierra Club’s Kansas representative. “But it doesn’t really show how much they’re not doing and what they need to be doing compared to other utilities.”

Sierra Club’s report ranks 77 major utility operations, owned by 50 parent companies across the nation, based on the progress they made on their carbon neutrality pledges through their integrated resource plans. An IRP demonstrates how a utility company intends to acquire and change its energy sources in future.

Scores are based on utility companies’ plans to retire coal power, not build new gas plants, and add more renewable energy sources to power the grid. Large utilities scored, on average, 23 out of 100 total points available.

Evergy’s Kansas City Metro region ranked especially poorly, scoring an “F” for the second year in a row.

According to the report, Evergy’s Kansas City Metro subsidiary lost points for lacking a commitment to retire all coal by 2030 and for failing to add clean energy sources like more wind and solar generation.

As a whole, Evergy did slightly better, increasing from four points to 18 in the last year.

“I would say that that 14 (point) jump reflects a very underwhelming response considering Evergy’s rhetoric to the economic pressures on fossil fuel,” Gorman says.

Gorman says Evergy’s parent company improved its score in part because of an announcement that they would stop burning coal at their Lawrence plant by the end of 2023. As the Kansas Reflector reported, in 2021, Evergy originally announced they would close the Lawrence plant entirely, but then retracted that statement, deciding instead to close portions of the plant and use natural gas.

Evergy dismissed the organization’s report, saying half of the company’s electricity already comes from emission-free sources and they have reduced their carbon emissions by 46% since 2005.

“The Sierra Club’s report is short-sighted, inaccurate and reflects only their narrow mission to eliminate all fossil fuel generation immediately,” Evergy spokeswoman Gina Penzig said in a statement.

Evergy is the company created when KCPL and Westar Energy merged in 2018. Penzig said the utility company has set a goal of 70% carbon reduction by 2030 and plans to be carbon neutral by 2045.

“Despite investing billions of dollars in clean energy investments and significant progress retiring fossil generation, the Sierra Club has never acknowledged our progress or changed our ‘grade,’” Penzig says.

Penzig says that Evergy has added 4,400 megawatts of renewable energy since 2005 and retired more than 2,400 megawatts of fossil generation.

“Evergy’s clean energy plans are appropriately timed and balanced to maintain reliability and affordability while advancing our clean energy goals,” she says.

The Biden administration has called for the United States to reduce greenhouse gas pollution by 50% by 2030, and reach net zero emissions economy-wide by 2050.

But Gorman says that utility companies are not switching from fossil fuels to clean energy fast enough to meet those federal climate goals.

Billy Davies, Missouri’s conservation program coordinator with the Sierra Club, says the rhetoric used by utilities amounts to “greenwashing” – when companies say they are doing more for the environment than they really are.

“Evergy spends a lot of time, it appears, on radio, print, TV talking about their leadership in taking action to be good neighbors protect communities and take action on climate,” Davies says.“The reality is far from it.”

Davies says unless utility companies move away from coal and gas faster than they are now, the pollution will add to community health issues and could contribute to a “heat belt” where, unusually high temperatures become a regular occurrence.

“Too often we see these net zero goals far off into the future lead to just being used as an excuse to do very little,” Davies says. “When we're talking about climate action, this is not some abstract warm, fuzzy feeling, pipe dream.”

As KCUR’s general assignment reporter and visual journalist, I bring our audience inside the daily stories that matter most to the people of the Kansas City metro, showing how and why events affect residents. Through my photography, I seek to ensure our diverse community sees itself represented in our coverage. Email me at carlos@kcur.org.
Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga reports on health disparities in access and health outcomes in both rural and urban areas.
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