If Mark Twain was alive today, he wouldn’t say that the death of coal was greatly exaggerated. He would just say to be patient. Eventually, the end comes for all of us.
Last week, Evergy released a long-term electricity generation plan, known as an Integrated Resource Plan, that largely follows the playbook of other utilities that seek to accelerate the switch to renewable resources and reach “net carbon zero” by mid century.
That means switching from coal, which accounted for 52% of Evergy’s generation capacity in 2010 and 40% in 2020. Evergy plans to reduce coal reliance to 24% in 10 years and to 7% by 2040, while adding 3,200 megawatts of wind and solar generation in the next decade.
The company outlines plans for retiring several aging plants, including the remaining units of its coal-fired Lawrence Energy Center in late 2023 and unit 4/6 of its Lake Road facility, located in St. Joseph, in late 2024. That unit at the Lake Road plant used natural gas to produce electricity. Other Evergy plants will be retired between 2030 and 2039, when today’s newborns are in high school.
The Sierra Club criticizes Evergy for not doing more sooner and leaving some coal in its portfolio. Scientists cite the year 2030 as a key target date, with an influential report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calling for significant carbon reductions by that year and a switch to net-zero carbon by 2050, in order to avoid the worst effects of a warming planet.
The release of this report, in 2018, led to screaming headlines declaring, “Only 12 years to limit devastating global warming.” This oversimplifies a complex problem, but clearly the utilities took it to heart. Especially the later date, which probably seems more attainable. The year 2030 is not that far away.
Utilities like Evergy will need to balance environmental responsibilities with their obligation to keeps the lights on, a difficult juggling act that was exposed in the near collapse of the electrical grid in February.
The ghost of the February outages seems to haunt this Evergy report, with optimistic statements of “uncompromising fidelity to high standards of environmental stewardship” mixed with cautious statements of “balancing the intermittency of renewables and ensuring reliability.” What they mean is that wind might not always be there when you need it.
At one point, Evergy admits, “the assumption is that new carbon-free generation and/or suitable long-duration energy storage technology will be available to provide capacity.”
Translation: either technology saves us, we learn to live with coal or we will make sacrifices and live in the dark. The clock is ticking. As Twain once said, “never put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.”