As the city of Independence tries to get a handle on high electric rates and make the city more attractive to business, it continues to juggle any number of big-ticket items.
The City Council is likely headed toward closing the Blue Valley power plant on Truman Road. The city is part of a large power pool that fires up the most efficient plants first and costlier ones only when needed. Blue Valley is seldom needed.
But its capacity is needed because managers have to be ready for the highest of peak-demand days. The plant can go away, but how to do you account for some of that lost capacity?
Solar? Wind? Sure. They’re clean, and the city has embraced then, but they’re only available part time, unlike a coal- or gas-fired plant. For that the reason – the intermittent nature of the source – the power pool gives members only partial credit for solar and wind when tallying up capacity to make electricity.
Batteries could be a game-changer. If you can store power from the winds that blow at night on the plains for use the next day, you have in effect added capacity.
Eric Stoutenburg, chief development officer of AbleGrid in Denver, walked through a good deal of that last Saturday at a forum held by Indy Energy. Close to 40 people attended, and I should point out that Independence is exceedingly fortunate to have a group such as Indy Energy – mainly Brent Schondelmeyer, Roger Hershey and Jason White, all private citizens – to put in the time for research, forums and a website to help the public and city officials work through dense, dry, complex – but important and expensive – issues.
My takeaway from Stoutenburg’s talk was that Independence should start talking now about batteries but by no means rush it. Costs have come down 40 percent since 2015 and are headed lower.
“But as you get into 2020, 2021, it makes sense,” he said.
Some facilities with a critical need for uninterrupted power – hospitals, military bases – are already embracing this approach for their own “microgrids,” he said. Sophisticated manufacturers are doing the same to control costs.
Which raises another issue. What about companies with big electric appetites that leave the grid?
“But the grid is still there,” Stoutenburg said. “So who pays for that?”
He added, “Your innovative utilities sort of want to get ahead of that.”
One big-ticket issue that could save money and help hold down rates over the long term is switching to so-called smart meters. Independence Power & Light would save $40 million to $50 million over 40 years. The system runs with fewer people.
The council could move on this issue as soon as next Monday.
First, some perspective. Half of the country has these, including virtually all of the metro area outside Independence.
“We’re getting into the game very late in the process,” White said.
He took up the concerns some citizens have raised: He said the scientific community hasn’t found health concerns from smart meters to be valid. Fires have been associated with early models, not today’s. Privacy problems seem not to have come to pass.
Still, White, a former City Council member, predicted the city would come up with an opt-out for those not entirely sold on the idea – and that in the end very few would take advantage of that.
Here’s the hitch. Staff recommends a “point to point” system with five towers, fewer people needed and a return on investment in seven years. But many on the council have been leaning toward a “mesh” system of 140 towers and a return on investment of eight to nine years, according to Randy Hughes, recently retired IPL manager of planning and rates. He also spoke Saturday.
“It’s cheaper to deal with. It’s cheaper to operate,” Hughes said, adding, “It’s a slam dunk no-brainer. You want point to point.”
We’ll see what Monday brings. As White pointed out, ratepayers do save money either way.
Mayor Eileen Weir has laid out the big picture clearly and well: IPL needs to be reliable, green and competitive. It’s good on the first, has come on a long way in a short time on the second and is lacking badly on the third. This has to get solved. It’s holding back the development of the city.
Jeff Fox is The Examiner’s editor. Reach him at email@example.com or 816-350-6365. He’s on Twitter @FoxEJC.