Published March 15th, 2021 at 4:00 PM
Nearly 70 years ago in a newly formed suburb of Kansas City, Kansas City Power & Light Co. built what it thought was a vision of the future — an all-electric home full of the latest technology.
“It was advertised as the lazy man’s paradise,” said Johnson County Museum Curator Andrew Gustafson.
The house was a showpiece meant to sell electricity and the prospect of an all-electric future. It had outlets every few feet, buttons in the bedroom could turn on and off lights throughout the house, and it even had a fireplace, fake of course, powered by an electrical motor that simulated the sights and sounds of a crackling fire.
“So flick of the switch and your television appears,” Gustafson said. “It’s not hooked up now, but it originally would have turned on, as well, after that painting goes back.”
The TV behind the painting gimmick feels dated now, but another, less sexy feature of the home is even more relevant today: An electric heat pump.
At the time, heat pumps were basically unheard of. Today, they’re seen as a way to eliminate the need for natural gas and the climate warming emissions that come with it.
In many ways, Kansas has been a leader in clean energy development since that time. Most obviously, it’s harvested the low-hanging fruit — wind. The open plains also make massive solar energy farms a real possibility.
But other states are catching up and Kansas is one of only a handful of states without an energy plan. Some people think that’s a big mistake.
“There are opportunities there, but if they’re going to compete with neighboring states that have similar endowments — similar wind quality, similar solar quality, maybe a little bit closer to the cities — they’re going to have to probably take proactive steps to be as attractive as possible,” said Jesse Jenkins, a researcher at the Andlinger Center for Energy and Environment at Princeton University.
He recently helped craft some guidelines for getting the U.S. to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
The models don’t predict what will happen, but they offer potential pathways the country could follow to hit that target.
The suggestions focus on plans for generating energy where it’s cheapest. Wind from the Great Plains, solar energy from the Southwest and so on. In several scenarios, Kansas lags behind states like Missouri and Iowa which are closer to energy hungry population centers.
But Jenkins said that’s where state policies, goals and incentives come in. Kansas, with its abundant wind, solar and agricultural resources, could play a larger role and retool itself for the new energy economy.
Except … Kansas doesn’t have any plan. And it far exceeded the only goal it ever had — 20% renewable energy by 2020.
“A plan can show people outside the state that, ‘Hey, we’re serious about this,’” State Rep. Mark Schreiber, a Republican from Emporia, said. “We want to be part of this transition.”
Schreiber introduced a bill this year that would have demanded the state create a state energy plan. The bill died. A year earlier, the Legislature killed Gov. Laura Kelly’s plans to remake the state’s energy office.
“There’s some fear out there that this is going to be some new expensive ‘Green New Deal’ kind of thing and the stop arm comes up,” he said.
In the past, the Legislature tried to limit the growth of wind farms. This year, it’s considering a bill that would tell local governments they can’t ban natural gas hookups in new buildings. That’s generated criticism from environmentalists.
“We need to be talking about how to, A: get Kansas fully integrated into the clean energy economy that is upon us and, B: how do we deal with climate changes that are happening in Kansas,” said Rabbi Moti Rieber, a climate activist and executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action. “Claiming that climate change isn’t real and tilting against wind turbines is not going to get us there.”
Without state guidance, major corporations end up dictating climate and energy policy in Kansas. For now, that’s led to a lot of wind energy (Kansas has the fourth most installed wind in the country). But it’s also fostered long-running battles that have slowed solar energy development.
Even without state intervention, Evergy, the state’s largest electric utility, does have an emissions goal. It wants to reduce its total emissions 80% by 2050, a far lower goal than the growing list of states with 100% clean energy pledges. Evergy also has zero public plans to close any of its coal or natural gas power plants in the state.
Rieber said if Kansas continues to be dragged into the clean energy economy rather than seeking it out, it’s going to lose business to other states.
“Every moment that we don’t do that is a wasted opportunity,” he said. “Both for our economic development and actually for the well-being of our citizens.”
Brian Grimmett reports on the environment, energy and natural resources for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.