Wind is beginning to challenge coal’s status as the primary energy source for electricity produced in Kansas.
The shift has accelerated almost exponentially since 2010. As the cost to develop major wind projects has decreased, the cost to operate and maintain aging coal plants has gone up. The simple economics of the equation means utility companies are closing coal plants at the same time the number of new wind projects is exploding.
And there’s still more wind potential to be tapped.
“There’s no doubt that additional wind could be done and new wind is available at a lower cost and it would be good for consumers in Kansas,” said Natural Resources Defense Council economist Ashok Gupta.
Exactly how fast utilities turn from coal to wind will depend largely on what tools state lawmakers and regulators give companies as they try to recuperate their investment in coal facilities.
“We need to refinance the old stuff at much lower interest rates,” Gupta said.
But even with government inaction, market forces mean wind will continue to grow, just maybe not as quickly as it could.
Top generators in Kansas
Taking a look at the facilities that produce the most electricity can give a sense of how things are changing. Here are the 10 plants that produced the most electricity in 2017.
And here’s how that compares to the top 10 generators in 2010.
While Jeffrey Energy Center is — and will likely continue to be — the largest producer in the state, the charts hint at the fact that our mix of electricity generation is changing.
Only one relatively small wind facility made the top 10 in 2010, while three of the top generators in 2017 were wind.
Beyond looking at the top 10 generators, which only shows how big a facility is, the total amount of electricity generated per year also shows how quickly the energy landscape is changing.
In 2010, coal made up 68 percent of the total electricity generated in the state. Wind generated only 7 percent.
Fast forward to 2017, and coal provides only 38 percent of the electricity generated in the state, while wind has increased to 37 percent.
It’s likely that once totals for 2018 or 2019 are posted wind will overtake coal as the largest source of electricity produced in Kansas.
The impacts: cheaper energy, cleaner air
Building a new wind farm is much cheaper than building a new coal-fired power plant. It’s also on its way to being cheap enough to compete with the price of electricity from existing coal plants. So more wind should lead to savings for consumers.
The shift has also helped cut down on emissions that contribute to climate change.
In 2010, Kansas produced more than 1,600 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour generated. That was bad enough to be 14th worst in the country.
But by 2017, the CO2 production had dropped to less than 1,000 pounds per megawatt hour, good enough to move Kansas to 27th worst.
Emissions of toxic sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide have also significantly decreased over the past decade.
With more investment in wind, the state could become a leader in the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Brian Grimmett reports on the environment and energy for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett.
Coverage of energy and the environment is made possible in part by ITC Great Plains and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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