Credit: Stuart Seeger / Flickr / Creative Commons

NextEra Energy is securing land for a solar-plus-storage project near Kansas City that would be one of the largest of its kind in the country.

The world’s largest renewable energy developer is acquiring property in Kansas for a mega-project that would combine hundreds of megawatts of solar and storage capacity.

A spokesperson for NextEra Energy confirmed the company is seeking land near Kansas City for a project that could include up to 500 MW each of solar and storage capacity, making it among the largest such projects in the country.

“Amazing,” said Zack Pistora, who represents the Sierra Club in Kansas. “It’s one thing to have a solar farm that spans 3,500 acres. But the storage is the real game-changer in my mind.”

NextEra Energy, a Fortune 500 company headquartered in Florida, already operates seven wind farms in Kansas. Spokesperson Conlan Kennedy said the company zeroed in on the site in eastern Kansas for several reasons. It offers a good solar resource, transmission and roads, and available land.

The project is in the early stages of development. The company is trying to acquire land outside the town of Gardner, a suburb on the furthest outskirts of Kansas City. It’s also shopping for customers for the power but wouldn’t disclose details.

Utilities can use storage in a variety of ways, said Phil Clement, who directs projects in Nebraska for the company. It allows them to reduce or shift peak demand so they don’t have to turn to inefficient, dirty and costly generation. They can charge the battery with cheap wind or solar power when it is plentiful and discharge it when power is in greater demand and fetching a higher price. And it can help solve or reduce the intermittency challenge from variable renewables, he said.

“The argument always has been with these intermittent resources that we still need gas plants and coal to cycle on and off,” Pistora said. “We don’t need that any more with this level of storage. It drives home to me that we are entering the end of the fossil fuel era when it comes to electricity.”

Kimberly Svaty, public policy director for the pro-renewable Kansas Power Alliance, said she expects Evergy and a number of communities in the Kansas City region to seize the opportunity for more renewable power.

“You have a lot of communities in the Kansas City area that are taking steps related to climate change and renewables,” she said. “I think it’s well placed in that sense.”

Twelve municipalities and three counties have subscribed to Evergy’s option known as Renewables Direct. It provides renewable energy that subscribers will use to run their operations.

Evergy also is assessing whether to speed up the closing of some of its fossil-fueled plants and to replace them with more renewables. The company serves about 1.6 million customers in the eastern half of Kansas and much of western Missouri.

After a challenge in January from an unsatisfied shareholder, Elliott Management, Evergy compiled a “Sustainability Transformation Plan.” In general terms, it outlines ambitions to shift more quickly away from coal and toward more renewable generation. The company currently obtains about 27% of its power from renewables, primarily Kansas wind, and 66% from coal, oil and natural gas. It has committed to eliminating 80% of its 2005 emissions by 2050, and is considering adopting a goal of an 85% reduction by 2030.

When asked if the company is interested in purchasing NextEra’s new solar power and storage, spokesperson Gina Penzig declined to comment.

Continually tumbling prices for both solar and storage projects are likely a major factor in NextEra’s timing, Clement said. Renewable generation first gains momentum in areas with high electricity prices like California, for example. In regions with much lower prices, the cost of solar has to fall further before it can be a viable competitor to traditional fossil-fueled generation. That balance, Clement said, has shifted here.

Utilities and their customers also might feel a need for some balance, he said. Having loaded up on the region’s abundant wind energy, some customers might feel “oversupplied with wind” and want to complement it with solar and storage.

“They don’t want to put all of their eggs in the proverbial wind basket,” he said.

Grid operators also play a role in the growth of storage — and especially big storage, Burwen said.

“We’re seeing these battery storage projects go larger and larger,” said Jason Burwen, vice president for policy at the Energy Storage Association.

LS Power recently energized the world’s biggest battery, a 250-megawatt project in San Diego. Florida Power and Light expects to assume that title in 2021 when it activates the 409-megawatt battery it is now developing.

A few weeks ago, power company Vistra Corp. received the nod to expand the storage unit at its natural gas-fired Moss Landing power plant in California from 400 MW to possibly as many as 1,500 MW.

NextEra is also pursuing a 423-megawatt solar project in Nebraska. It has acquired land rights and now is waiting to find a buyer and to hear what the Southwest Power Pool would charge for a connection to the grid. That figure is critical in developing renewable projects.

Clement said that although it’s not now in the plan, storage could become a part of a Nebraska solar array as well. NextEra always builds solar projects “with storage in mind,” he said.

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.