Empire’s wind plan well-received at public hearing; Majority of testimony supports plan despite concern for rates
Despite concerns about the early retirement of a coal-fired power plant, impact on rates, and effects on migratory birds and other wildlife, the reaction at a Thursday night public hearing on the Empire District Electric Co.’s plan to more than triple the amount of power it gets from wind was overwhelmingly supportive.
Of the 15 individuals to give testimony at the hearing, which was held in Plaster Hall’s Cornell Auditorium at Missouri Southern State University and attended by an estimated 100 people, only three expressed opposition to the plan, mostly surrounding its effect on ratepayers.
The rest who spoke praised the company and its plan to generate approximately 800 megawatts from wind power beginning in 2020. While some of the supportive comments came from representatives of environmentalist groups such as Renew Missouri and Moms Clean Air Force, private individuals who live in the area lauded the company’s plan as “visionary.”
“Wind turbines do not emit emissions whatsoever,” said Steven Seely, an area cattle rancher who said he believes the cost of environmental regulation will likely increase over time, potentially driving up the cost of coal generation. “What would it save five years down the road, what would it save 10 years down the road?”
The event began with a question-and-answer session with representatives from Empire, the Missouri Public Service Commission staff and the Office of Public Counsel, before the public had the opportunity to weigh in on the record. The PSC will decide whether the $1.5 billion plan continues. The company plans to pursue an equity partnership that would take advantage of $800 million in federal tax incentives for the project, making Empire’s total investment $700 million.
The role of the PSC’s staff in regulatory proceedings is to look out for the general public interest, including shareholders and communities. The OPC specifically examines the effect on ratepayers and attempts to ensure that rate cases, acquisitions or other plans will not have a negative impact on them.
Residents raised concerns in the question-and-answer session about environmental studies on the effect of wind turbines on the area’s population of birds, bats and bees. Blake Mertens, Empire’s vice president of electric operations, said environmental studies performed by third parties will be conducted and considered as part of the case’s regulatory proceedings.
Peter Edwards, city attorney for the city of Joplin, which has filed to intervene in the case but has not formally taken a position, spoke during both the question-and-answer and direct testimonial portions of the hearing. He expressed concerns about the company’s plans to continue with electric rates that reflect the cost of environmental upgrades made to Empire’s Asbury coal plant, even though the plant is to be retired in the spring of 2019 – more than 15 years early – under the proposed wind plan.
Costs associated with upgrades to the Asbury power plant were built into rates approved in mid-2015 by the PSC in Missouri. That increase raised the bill of Empire’s average residential customer by about $8 per month. Empire has said expensive upgrades are due to be made to the plant in the coming years, meaning even with the money it has spent on the site in the past seven years, it makes more economic sense to close the plant and pivot more heavily toward wind power.
In response to Edwards, Mertens said the company has accounted for the Asbury costs currently reflected in rates in projecting savings of more than $300 million over 20 years. Empire says a dramatic flip in market forces has made it far more feasible economically to generate wind power as the cost continues to drop.
Empire District Electric officials estimate the costs for generating power with coal at Asbury are about $38 per megawatt-hour, but would be close to $24 with wind.
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