Missouri Utility Closing Coal Plant, Adding Wind Generation

A Missouri utility has filed an application with the state’s Public Service Commission (PSC) to build a $1.5 billion wind power project and accelerate the closure of a coal-fired power plant. Empire District Electric Co. on October 31 asked the PSC to approve its plan, citing cost savings for customers of more than $300 million over 20 years.

The company estimates its costs for continued coal-fired generation at the 213-MW Asbury Generating Station in Asbury, Missouri, would be about one-third higher than the cost for wind generation. Empire has filed plans with regulators in Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma to add 800 MW of wind power generation capacity. The company said it has lease options on 40,000 acres of land in southwest Missouri where it could build wind farms.

Empire, an investor-owned utility based in Joplin, Missouri, and a subsidiary of Liberty Utilities Co., serves about 215,000 customers in those four states.

In an email to POWER, David Swain, the utility’s president, said “We are pleased to put forward this initiative which demonstrates an innovative approach to reduce energy costs for our customers, while supporting our region by investing locally.”

The company upgraded the Asbury coal-fired plant in 2015 to comply with emissions rules, and company officials said another $25 million in upgrades, including a new landfill, would be required to keep the plant operating into 2019, when it was scheduled to be closed. The new plan would eliminate those additional costs. That scheduled 2019 closure is 15 years earlier than the plant’s original operating timeline. The company said about 55 workers at the coal plant would be affected by the closure.

The PSC must rule on the new plan by June 30, 2018. Empire officials on Tuesday said the wind farm project would include an equity partnership that would use $800 million in federal tax incentives, putting the company’s investment in the plan at $700 million. The utility uses some wind power through power purchase agreements, but has said it can further cut costs by building its own wind farms in the region.

Empire needs to complete the plan by 2020 before the tax incentives expire.

Julie Maus, the utility’s director of corporate communications, said in an email to POWER that the  transition from coal-fired power to wind power would save Empire’s residential customers $10 each month on their electric bills starting in 2020.

Blake Mertens, vice president of electric operations for Empire, told reporters on October 31  that modifications to the coal plant were planned in 2010, when “natural gas prices were double to triple what they are today and wind energy was double to triple [today’s cost]. With these drastic changes in the market, we’ve decided to re-look at our generation portfolio and find the best solution for our customers going forward.”

Empire said coal-fired generation made up 95% of its portfolio 20 years ago, but the new plan would reduce that figure to 21% by 2023.

Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).