A recent press release raised questions about how much the Kansas City Council knows about renewable energy—even though the city promises to deliver big on new carbon-free measures with its Renewable Energy Resolution.
The city promises to supply “100% carbon-free electricity” to all municipal buildings by the end of next year, and the announcement made headlines.
Councilman Scott Taylor introduced the resolution, which passed unanimously at City Council last month.
“No way,” said UMKC environmental science senior Carrie Merritt.
The undergraduate research assistant specializes in global climate studies.
Merritt recently presented her research on carbon dioxide emissions at a Missouri conference.
“It sounds awesome, and I hope this is true,” she said. “But to be 100% carbon free so soon sounds overly optimistic.”
Kansas City’s Renewable Energy Resolution is one of the first tangible city plans in the United States to go carbon-free. But to claim electricity is produced without carbon requires a complex process.
First, the energy must come from a renewable source. Other stages of generating and distributing the electricity cannot emit carbon either.
The scientific term for carbon-free energy is called “carbon net neutrality.”
“If the city builds wind and solar farms and has the city buildings directly hooked to this renewable grid, then yes, I would say the electricity is 100% carbon free,” Merritt said. “But it is costly if the source is not local, making me think it is highly unlikely, and especially within such a short time frame.”
According to the resolution, the city plans for Kansas City Power and Light (KCP&L) to source all the clean electricity. Taylor also said the plan includes a new local wind farm, built by KCP&L.
But even if the utility company is able to build the farm and make it operational between now and next December, it is uncertain whether the farm can function as the sole source of electricity.
“Renewables are generally not yet capable of providing uninterrupted electricity,” the KCP&L website says, “So they can’t be relied upon to serve our customers all of the time.”
Taylor was not able to be reached for comment.
R.J. Jubber is the manager of operations at Westar Energy, a utility company in Kansas. Westar’s wind farms contribute to the Southwest Power Pool, the same pool used by KCP&L.
“It’s not really physically possible to use the exact electrons produced from a wind farm through the grid,” he said.
A grid refers to the utility’s transmission process.
Jubber explained that sourcing carbon-free electricity from a utility company “is more of an accounting practice.”
He said participating consumers purchase renewable energy credits. By buying the electricity with these credits, participants do help the environment in the long run.
However, renewable energy sourcing through energy credits would mean the city is purchasing “carbon offsets”—an entirely different concept than achieving carbon net neutrality or 100% carbon-free electricity.”
“The one thing buying the credits does accomplish is they allow utility companies, like KCP&L, to build new wind farms,” Jubber said. “The companies know that customers are willing to pay for the added cost.”
KCP&L currently sources 43% of its electricity from coal, but mixes that with many renewable sources, like wind farms and hydroelectric plants.
Dr. Fengpeng Sun, UMKC assistant professor and nationally renowned climate scientist, was careful to state the city’s ambitious objective was not impossible to accomplish, but he did express surprise at the timeline.
“That’s very aggressive.” Sun said. “Technologically speaking, that would be very challenging to achieve within the next 20 months.”