The public will get a chance this week to weigh in on the Liberty Utilities-Empire District proposed 600-megawatt wind farm for Southwest Missouri and Southeast Kansas.
The Missouri Public Service Commission has scheduled a local public hearing on the issue for 6 p.m. Wednesday in Plaster Hall’s Cornell Auditorium on the campus of Missouri Southern State University.
Members of the PSC staff as well as representatives from the utility will be on hand to answer questions about the plan, and attendees also will be able to offer their own comments on the matter to be considered by regulators.
The role of PSC staff in regulatory proceedings is to look out for the interests of all parties, including ratepayers and company shareholders, before the five-member PSC. The Missouri Office of Public Counsel, which also is involved in utility filings, is a state organization charged with advocating for ratepayers.
Blake Mertens, vice president of operations for electric for Liberty-Empire, characterized the project as being in the “permitting phase” and said they expect a final order on the proposed plan from the PSC in the coming months, potentially in April. The project has already gotten some earlier approvals, but the utility has not yet received full clearance to go forward.
“(We’re) trying to meet initial milestones to allow detailed engineering and a detailed contracts to be let, but that project is progressing forward,” Mertens said. “And those are to be completed by the end of 2020, so by Dec. 31 of 2020 to get the full production tax credit.
“The projects are on a very similar path, plus or minus a month or two on where they are from a construction-phase perspective,” he said.
Since Liberty-Empire first announced its plans in October 2017, regulators have questioned various aspects of the project and the parties have continued to negotiate, which ultimately resulted in the scaling back of anticipated generation from 800 to 600 megawatts, as well as delaying the closure of Empire’s coal-fired plant in Asbury.
Depending on the efficiency of each of the turbines, hundreds of them will be built in the region.
Scaling back the production dropped the price tag of the project from $1.5 billion to $1.1 billion. Liberty plans to have a tax equity partner finance half of that cost and will also use federal tax credits to assist with the financing. That has also meant, though, a reduction in the amount the company estimates it will save with the plan. Liberty first estimated it could save more than $300 million over 20 years by switching production from fossil fuels to wind but now says the savings will be more like $170 million over the same timeframe.
Sites for the turbines will be split between two spots in Southwest Missouri and another in Southeast Kansas. The two sites in Missouri, which will generate 150 megawatts each, are being called King’s Point and North Fork Ridge, and turbines will exist in parts of Jasper, Dade, Barton and Lawrence counties. The utility has tens of thousands of acres under lease for the turbines, although only part of that land will be used.
The other half of the company’s wind production will take place in Neosho County, Kansas, north of Parsons.
Mertens said the site in Neosho County is roughly 50 miles from Empire’s service territory, which he said is not a significant distance with respect to transmission and costs of transferring the power.
Jillian Curtis, associate communications and media coordinator, said the project will have an additional impact on the areas where the turbines are installed. She said the turbines will mean hundreds of temporary construction jobs in the area. Mertens said those will be split between site preparation work that can be done by any contractor or construction company and would likely be done locally, and the more specialized construction and installation of the turbines themselves, which may be outsourced to a company with experience building them.
The utility has also said it is compensating landowners – mostly farmers – for use of their property where the turbines will be built.
Empire’s power generation was approximately 95 percent coal as recently as 1997, but the utility has said its wind farm proposal could reduce that amount to 21 percent by 2023. While a reduction in coal-burning has environmental benefits, the economics of renewable energies are the driving factor for the proposal, according to the company.
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