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Image credit above: Illustration of the proposed solar farm at the Kansas City International Airport. (Courtesy | Kansas City Aviation Department)
In early 2023, an unprecedented municipal solar farm investment at the Kansas City International Airport will make national headlines and big news is expected to surprise and delight Kansas Cityans.
A request for proposals to build solar panels adjacent to the city’s KCI runways will close Jan. 25, 2023, Kansas City Manager Brian Platt said. The developer of the facility will be determined shortly.
“We think this is the largest airport solar array and municipal solar array,” Platt told Flatland in an exclusive interview, adding that “we’ll define the structure by 2023.”
“We need to be big, bold and aggressive with our solutions,” Platt said.
Brian Platt, Kansas City City Manager. (Courtesy | Greg Pallante)
The project is expected to push Kansas City to the top of the list for companies looking for locations to open facilities in sustainability-focused regions to help attract a young, idealistic workforce, particularly high-tech, social media and information services companies.
“It puts us on the short list absolutely,” Platt said.
In addition, Platt said, “We hope this lowers energy costs for everyone.”
News of the solar farm is expected to come as the city prepares to break the ribbon on its new $1.5 billion terminal in KCI early next year.
“There will be a lot of conversations about our airport over the next few months,” Platt said.
A giant solar development in KCI will help address climate change, he said.
This would have the added benefit of insulating Kansas City residents from power outages caused by distant weather disasters, such as the early February 2021 freeze that caused power outages in Texas.
A year ago this week, Flatland was the first news outlet to report Platt’s plan to build a 300-megawatt solar farm on a 2,000-acre site in the city’s KCI.
Since then, research and meetings with energy experts have encouraged the city to increase its solar energy ambitions to 500 megawatts on 3,100 acres in KCI. To give you an idea of the size, that’s more than three-quarters the size of Prairie Village, Kansas.
That 500 megawatts would power about 70,000 homes, or about a third of Kansas City. Platt called it “astronomical amounts of green energy.”
Development is likely to continue in two directions.
Initially, relatively small-scale solar power will serve as a “proof of concept” to help develop the city’s energy experience and fine-tune plans for a wider second track. The first phase will be a smaller, community-scale solar project built south and west of the airport and on its runways.
Platt said the second path would require building the balance of 500 megawatts and could take a decade.
Economically, Platt said, “in theory, it could pay for itself.” This means that the money generated from the sale of solar energy will pay for the investment required to install, commission and operate the solar equipment.
“We hope it’s cost neutral,” he said.
“There will be a lot of conversations about our airport over the next few months.”
Brian Platt, Kansas City City Manager
Now, as it was a year ago, Evergy, the local electric utility, remains largely mum about the prospect of such a major effort in its backyard that could upend Evergy’s business model, which dates back to 1881.
Platt said he would be neutral on whether the city would continue to own solar and sell the solar power to Evergy, or whether Evergy would acquire the solar generation after the city develops it.
Another possibility is that a third party would buy the solar project and then sell the electricity, though it’s unclear whether that would require changes to Missouri law and utility regulations.
Flatland asked Chuck Caisley, Evergy’s chief customer officer, as he and Platt and his team discussed solar energy in KCI, the following three questions:
1. How much total solar generation does Evergy have today and what is your target for 2025 and 2030?
2. Could Evergy be interested in, and using, the 500 megawatts of new solar generated at KCI sometime in the next decade?
3. The City is neutral on whether or not to own the solar generation to be created at KCI. Does Evergy want to have it? Does current law allow a third party to enter, own and operate a solar facility the city is developing at KCI?
Evergy responded through a spokesperson: “Chuck is unavailable. We are considering the tender offer.”
In a follow-up email, Evergy spokesman Andrew Baker listed several smaller solar projects it’s involved in — one 3-megawatt project, another 1.2-megawatt project, and 25 additional projects Evergy owns or has assets of 6.5 megawatts.
Evergy plans to add 2,290 megawatts of solar power by 2041 — so perhaps a fifth of that could come from the proposed KCI solar development.
Meanwhile, generating electricity by burning coal is considered a major source of greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to ongoing climate change.
According to federal government statistics: “Coal provided 74% of Missouri’s electric grid generation in 2021, the second-highest share of any state behind only West Virginia. “Missouri consumes about eight times more energy than it produces.”
Evergy has announced plans to decarbonize by 2045.
Not wanting to wait twenty years for this achievement, Kansas City is now implementing its own robust sustainable energy agenda.
To accomplish this, Kansas City works with key regional energy agencies such as the US Department of Energy, DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Southwest Power Pool (SPP). The Southwest Power Pool is a regional transmission organization mandated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to ensure a reliable power supply, adequate transmission infrastructure, and competitive wholesale electricity prices.
The Southwest Energy Pool, contacted by Flatland, said of the planned 500 megawatts of solar in KCI: “If this resource were connected to the transmission grid, SPP would fully study its impact based on variables such as location, generation capacity, conditions in the surrounding system, etc.”
SPP experts and its spokesmen could not be reached for further comment.
A year ago, former US mayor Emanuel Cleaver told Flatland: “We’re already in line to have a big airport. But if it’s a 21st century airport with proven solar technology, it can be infinitely bigger.”
Flatland contributor Martin Rosenberg is a Kansas City journalist who created and hosts the US Department of Energy’s Grid Talk podcast about the future of electricity.
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