Downtown Kansas City. Credit: Missouri Division of Tourism / Creative Commons

City officials hope a partnership with Kansas City Power & Light will help it meet a set of ambitious clean energy goals.

Kansas City has an important ally in its push to cut the city’s energy consumption and increase its use of renewable power.

Kansas City Power & Light, the city’s electric utility, says it is on board with helping the city achieve a list of ambitious clean energy goals drafted last summer.

“We found that there was an alignment between the direction the city wants to go, and… .the business model that KCP&L is pursuing,” said Dennis Murphey, the city’s chief environmental officer.

Cities are increasingly leveraging their status as large customers to advance clean energy agendas, with the number of cities establishing carbon neutrality or renewable energy targets expanding rapidly in recent years.

“In order to do that, they need to work closely with the companies that supply electricity to the city,” said Chad Laurent, co-author of a 2017 report by Meister Consultants Group that describes how cities can attain those goals.

The city’s clean energy goals include:

  • Powering 100 percent of city operations with renewable energy within three years
  • Achieving Energy Star certification for 90 percent of municipal buildings over 25,000 square feet within five years
  • Developing energy efficiency and community solar programs for city employees to participate in at home
  • Developing an electric-vehicle purchasing plan and procurement collaborative for fleets of public and tax-exempt entities

Kansas City government operations constitute KCP&L’s single largest customer, which gives the company an incentive to listen. But the city’s goals could also benefit the utility by expanding electric vehicle use or establishing premium rates for solar power, for example.

On Jan. 30, the utility filed a green tariff and a rate case including a community solar proposal. They would help Kansas City fulfill its agenda. The green tariff would allow the utility to acquire wind energy for city operations. The community solar proposal would add at least 3 cents per kilowatt hour for residential customers to the cost of electricity from solar.

Renew Missouri, a clean-energy advocacy group, supports cooperation between the city and utility but objects to some details of the plan, including the proposed price for solar — just under 16 cents per kilowatt hour.

“With economies of scale and them having learning opportunities of other utilities, it’s disappointing it’s not more lucrative (for customers),” said Phil Fracica, policy organizer for Renew Missouri.

Renew Missouri’s executive director James Owen said he worries that a friendship between Kansas City Mayor Sly James and KCP&L’s president and CEO Terry Bassham means the city won’t push the utility enough.

“Every time we’ve brought up the idea of being aggressive with KCP&L, there’s been some pushback from the city,” Owen said.

The council is scheduled to hear a report Thursday on the feasibility of 10 clean energy goals it outlined last summer.

Minneapolis, which just formally adopted a plan to go 100 percent renewable in the next decade, was among the first large cities to strike a clean energy partnership with local utilities. In 2014, after flirting with the idea of forming a municipal utility, the city partnered with the existing utilities to meet the city’s goals.

Other Midwestern cities including Chicago and Columbus, Ohio have followed suit, establishing relationships with utilities to meet clean energy targets.

Kansas City’s goals make clear that the local government sees itself setting an example and will exhort other institutions and businesses in town to follow it.

The utility sees a role to play in helping the city with at least seven of its 10 goals. For the Energy Star goal, for example, it would provide building energy information. And it would help market energy efficiency initiatives.

“It’s important for us to engage with customers, and to understand what they are looking for from their utility,” said Kim Winslow, director of energy solutions for KCP&L. Collaborating with customers, especially one as large as the city, can increase the odds of customers embracing the utility’s programs, she said.

Although cities haven’t generally gotten involved in regulatory proceedings, Laurent said their endorsements can help to alleviate the skepticism that regulators often bring to new utility projects. Missouri regulators last year rejected an effort by KCP&L to recover costs of electric vehicle charging stations from customers.

Murphey, the city’s environmental officer, called it “pretty remarkable” that KCP&L, which had no wind generation in 2005, will get 25 percent of its generation from wind by 2019. The city council has yet to decide if and how it will move forward with the goals, but Murphey said it’s clear to him that, “There’s been a beneficial convergence of the city and KCP&L going the same direction on energy.”

Karen Uhlenhuth

Karen spent most of her career reporting for the Kansas City Star, focusing at various times on local and regional news, and features. More recently, she was employed as a researcher and writer for a bioethics center at a children’s hospital in Kansas City. Karen covers Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.