Once it becomes more feasible to store excess wind and solar energy for use when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining, renewable energy will not just be less expensive to produce, it will be consistent and reliable, as well.
That will be “the aha moment,” and it will likely happen within our lifetime, said Mike Morley, director of corporate communications for Midwest Energy, a customer-owned electric and natural gas cooperative, serving 93,000 customers in 40 counties in central and western Kansas from its headquarters in Hays.
“One thing we’re looking at closely is battery storage,” Morley said. “There are several competing technologies out there that can store electricity at utility scale right now. As that technology improves and as those costs come down, the whole calculus could change.”
In the meantime, and perhaps even after that, the power grid will still need backup generation capacity in natural gas, coal and nuclear power to reliably meet demand when renewables can’t, said Cindy Hertel, communications manager for Sunflower Electric Power Corp., also based in Hays. She said in energy production, as in an investment portfolio, it’s best to have variety.
Sunflower Electric, a company formed in 1957, provides wholesale generation and transmission services for member distribution cooperatives in central and western Kansas. Among Sunflower Electric’s member cooperatives are Prairie Land Electric Cooperative, headquartered in Norton, which serves about 24,000 customers in 18 northern Kansas counties, and Western Cooperative Electric Assoc., based in WaKeeney, which has about 12,000 meters in 13 counties.
“Wind and solar are not the answers to everything,” she said. “That’s important for people to know.”
Increasingly, however, they are the power sources that make the most economic sense.
“I think it’s clear that wind has benefited customers all across Kansas. It’s been growing really fast. We’ve been able to learn to utilize it to its full potential,” said Brandon Sack, clean energy development manager for Evergy, a utility company that powers about half of the state, including Saline and Ottawa counties. In June, Evergy customers were utilizing more than 3,500 megawatts of electricity produced by wind turbines. By the end of the year, that number is expected to surpass 4,300 megawatts.
“By the end of 2021, we plan to be over 4,500 megawatts of wind,” Sack said. “We plan to grow from where we are now to having 1,000 megawatts come online over the next year and a half.”
Renewables represent 27 percent of the company’s energy mix. In 2020, 40 percent of Evergy’s electricity is generated in coal-fired plants. Natural gas plants provide 26 percent, and nuclear power accounts for 7 percent.
Evergy recently announced a 2050 goal of reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent from 2005 levels. By June, a 45 percent reduction had already been achieved, Sack said.
“Evergy just surpassed 65 million megawatt hours of wind production,” Sack said. “That would power Arrowhead Stadium for 753 years.”
Hertel said Sunflower Electric is supportive of renewables.
“We’re building, but we’re also very cognizant of reliability and economics,” she said. “Up until recently, we hadn’t built solar because it wasn’t economically sound.“
In April, Sunflower Electric began purchasing power from the state’s largest commercial solar installation – 86,000 panels with the capacity to produce 20 megawatts of power. The location of the newly completed solar project about two miles southwest of Johnson City in Stanton County was selected because construction of additional transmission lines would not be required.
“One of the reasons solar is really good is it actually is more on peak for us,” Hertel said. “Wind blows most in the winter time during the night, and our peak use is daytime summer – July and August – when wind blows the least. Even though we live in Kansas and it seems like the wind blows all the time, it in fact does not.”
The month before the Johnson Corner Solar Project began commercial production, Sunflower Electric allowed a permit to expire that had been acquired for a planned expansion of a coal-fired power plant at Holcomb. The Finney County project, first proposed in 2005, faced stiff opposition from environmental groups. Ultimately, though, it was the decreasing costs of renewable energy, as well as natural gas, that made those options better for meeting members’ long-term needs for generating reliable, affordable energy, Hertel said.
“Sunflower Electric’s Board of Directors always has and continues to analyze existing resources and emerging technologies to make sure the right resources are included at the right time in our generating fleet,” she said.
According to Sunflower Electric’s website, about 16 percent of its power supply is currently generated by renewables, including wind, solar and hydroelectric resources. Nearly 55 percent comes from natural gas, and coal-fired plants produce about 29 percent.
Currently, 106 megawatts – which averaged out to about 30 percent of the electricity Midwest sells to its customers – is sourced from Kansas wind, Morley said. The cooperative started buying wind energy in 2008 with a power purchase agreement with Smoky Hills. In 2016, a contract with a wind farm in Kingman County more than doubled capacity. About 1 percent of Midwest Energy’s power supply is hydroelectric, and the balance is generated at the Goodman natural gas-powered plant or purchased under contract from Evergy.
Morley said in 2000 as wind energy began to be introduced in the region monitored by the Southwest Power Pool (SPP) – the authority based in Little Rock, Ark., that makes sure supply of electricity balances with demand in Kansas and 13 other states – Midwest Energy built a natural gas-fired generation plant called the Goodman Energy Center in Hays. That plant can be fired up quickly in the event renewable energy sources are not producing well.
Because renewables are an intermittent source of power, Morley said grid operators must consider demand for electricity and forecasted weather patterns, so preparations can be made when an alternative power source is needed.
“The SPP has gotten very sophisticated in how they do their modeling and forecasting,” he said. “It’s not just a matter of turning everything on and flipping switches on and off. They have some very sophisticated algorithms that look at weather patterns and wind patterns. Wind developers are quite savvy in where they locate their projects, as well. There’s a lot of engineering and a lot of smart effort that goes into renewables and their integration into the grid.”
Hertel said all energy resources are bid into the SPP’s Integrated Marketplace, and the SPP determines which units to run each day to reliably meet energy demand. If it’s a windy day but a wind turbine isn’t moving, one possible reason is it might have been locked by the SPP to balance supply and demand.
Wind and solar resources are steadily providing more of the energy used by homes and businesses included in the SPP region. In 2014, wind and hydroelectric resources accounted for only 13 percent of total demand in the SPP, and about 60 percent was served by coal-fired power plants. That year, 19 percent was served by natural gas. Five years later in 2019, renewable resources were meeting 33 percent of the SPP’s total demand, with natural gas at 25 percent and coal at 35 percent.
Morley said more change is coming. Currently, there is a lot of talk in the industry about developing micro-grids, where a city block or a subdivision might have solar panels on houses and a battery for power storage, he said. However, at present, micro-grids would still need backup from a larger power grid to be reliable, he added.
“So, you still have to maintain that infrastructure – the wires, transmission lines – even if you only use it one day a year,” he said. “There’s still a high capital cost with maintaining infrastructure. It’s hard to convince people who own solar panels that that expense is needed.”
Hertel said at peak times on windy days, hundreds of times more energy is produced in the area than is needed locally.
“We have a lot of wind that could be exported – we don’t need it all here,” she said. Hertel said Sunflower Electric led a region-wide discussion about cost allocations for transmission projects, arguing that the bulk of the cost should be paid by people who use the power. She said while only 3.9 percent of wind generation stays in the company’s service territory, currently local rate payers are asked to shoulder 67 percent of the cost of transmission projects. Recommendations for changing the payment structure of transmission projects that meet certain criteria are being reviewed by SPP’s committees.
Morley said transmission capabilities are a limiting factor for further development of renewables in the area, and that’s not a problem that’s easily solved. He said the more landowners involved, the more opportunities for concerns to arise.
“Transmission is tricky because you have people who have a bond with their land and anything that disrupts or is new on that land changes it,” he said. “It’s their land. They want to keep it the way it is. Routing transmission is difficult for any utility company. When we do it, we try to be sensitive to the property owner’s needs and desires and balance that against the cost of the project.”
Hertel said other challenges of wind and solar production are the land mass they require, impact on wildlife and disposal of retired turbine parts and solar panels, which do not have the longevity of fossil fuel plants.
However, Hertel said she thinks in the future, Sunflower Electric’s use of renewables is likely to grow.
“Planning for the future in an industry with so many variables (e.g., state and federal regulations, economic upturns or downturns, emerging technologies) is extremely complex,” she said.