Published October 29th, 2021 at 12:52 PM
Kansas City is considering putting a massive 2,000-acre solar farm on city land at Kansas City International Airport, creating one of the largest solar power installations in the nation.
The project would generate up to 300 megawatts of power, enough to serve city power needs plus the energy needs of city residents.
“It’s not a question of if but how we are going to proceed,” said City Manager Brian Platt.
Mayor Quinton Lucas and Platt traveled to Washington recently to brief the area’s congressional representatives and the U.S. Department of Energy about its vision for KCI solar.
Such an effort would provide a strong boost to city efforts to land World Cup soccer games in 2026 because FIFA strongly weighs a community’s sustainability efforts in its site evaluation process, Platt said.
It also could make the city an even more compelling site as it courts new companies to the city, he said.
“It enhances, absolutely, our attractiveness in lots of ways,” Platt said.
To provide an idea of the scope of the city’s plan, consider Denver International Airport. DIA was one of the first airports to install solar power back in 2008, with the panels proudly arrayed on the roadway approaching its soaring tent-like terminal. It is currently expanding its solar capacity to 34 megawatts.
KCI in one fell swoop would install 10 times that capacity.
City officials will study its options in coming months and be ready to issue a request for proposals in 2022. It is already moving to secure the help of the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado. while conducting that evaluation. NREL is managed by MRIGlobal, a long-time fixture near the Country Club Plaza.
Kansas City-based Evergy, as well as solar developers around the nation, could be interested in developing the project, particularly if Congress in coming days passes the Biden Administration’s infrastructure package, which includes hundreds of billions of dollars of incentives for renewable energy, Platt said.
The project would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take up to four years to build. The panels would be to the west and south of runways on vast swaths of land currently sitting idle.
A new $1.5 billion terminal is being built at KCI that, alongside a major renewable energy project, would make the airport an important gateway to the region. It also would be a major lure for young tech workers looking to relocate to an affordable and sustainable community, Platt said.
Chuck Caisley, chief customer officer at Evergy, said, “We are always open to partnering opportunities for economic development and renewables in Kansas City.”
Evergy would probably prefer to develop the solar farm itself and add the asset to its rate base, which is used to calculate consumer power bills.
Alternatively, a third party could develop the solar facility and sell it to Evergy or sell its solar power to Evergy.
The utility and the city have already worked together placing solar panels atop upwards of 60 city administrative buildings, police and fire stations, water and highway installations. Evergy installed half of them.
These early efforts already put Kansas City among the top handful of city governments in America today using solar power for city operations, said Chris Hernandez, city spokesman.
Frank Caro, chief of the energy practice group at the Polsinelli PC law firm, said, “You’d think Evergy would like to get all over it (KCI solar) like they did for the electric charging of vehicles.”
Evergy has been one of the most aggressive utilities in the nation building out EV charging stations across the city in anticipation of a coming wave of EV purchases.
Ed Peterson, a former Johnson County commissioner and mayor of Fairway, said the Midwest has been slow to embrace solar renewables compared to, say, California, but that may now change.
“The airport is the gateway to the community,” he said. “A first rate progressive energy development there sends the message that this is a community moving forward.”
Julia Hamm, the president and CEO of the Smart Electric Power Alliance, based in Washington, said, “300 megawatts is quite a large project – that’s exciting. I don’t expect it to be unique for long but it certainly is on the leading edge.”
Hamm said that increasingly cities are developing new strategies to cut their greenhouse gas emissions as America and the world attempt to address the ravages of climate change.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” she said of the KCI proposal, “given the wave of carbon free energy commitments as cities are beginning to set their targets to get carbon free. They need to develop action plans.”
Kansas City aims to be carbon free by 2040, Platt said.
Kansas City and KCI may be launching the solar project at exactly the right time, said Ashok Gupta, senior energy economist at the National Resources Defense Council who is based in Kansas City,
“The amount of federal money that is going to come to solar is huge,” Gupta said. “Solar developers are going to be looking for solar projects.”
The city does not have to pay to make this happen, he said.
In fact, by assembling a large parcel of city land for solar power, the city would enable developers to control one of their largest project costs, Gupta said. In return, the city will be in a powerful bargaining position to get low-cost, clean power both for itself and city residents.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, the former city mayor, said: “We are already in line to have a great airport. But it could be infinitely greater if it’s a 21st century airport with the proven technology of solar.”
Martin Rosenberg is an energy journalist based in Kansas City and hosts the “Grid Talk” podcast on the future of electricity.