Posted on Sept. 04, 2008
By David Martin
The Pitch

Kansas City Power & Light

is starting to act like a progressive utility company

Power companies earn their bad reputations. A front company for Sunflower Electric Power ran newspaper ads implying that people who opposed their coal-plant expansion were friends of terrorists and dictators. In Cass County, Aquila built a gas-fired plant without the proper permits, leading a judge to rule that the $140 million plant must be torn down. (Missouri legislators later intervened on Aquila's behalf.) St. Louis-based AmerenUE paid a $10 million penalty after a hydroelectric dam broke in 2005.

Quietly, however, a utility in our midst, run by a donor to John McCain, is acting downright progressive.

Last year, Kansas City Power & Light signed what was called a landmark agreement with the Sierra Club. This past spring, KCP&L fought for legislation in Jefferson City that would encourage power companies to produce less energy. KCP&L also supports a ballot initiative requiring the state's investor-owned utilities to move toward renewable sources.

Can it be? Can a company that answers to Wall Street and burns tons of coal be a friend of the environment?

I took away that impression two weeks ago, after attending a forum sponsored by Missouri State Rep. Beth Low. Environmental issues framed the agenda. Assembled in a conference room at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Low and a group of green constituents sat in a circle and talked about legislation the media mostly ignored.

There was a bill, for instance, to pay gas and electric companies for starting energy-efficiency programs. The bill would allow utilities to pass along "prudently incurred expenditures" to rate payers. The alternative for utilities with profit motives, such as KCP&L, is to simply cram more electricity into homes and business. That means more power plants, which means more pollution.

Many environmentalists at the forum supported the bill. "You can't penalize a power company for doing the right thing," said Phelps Murdock, president of Bridging the Gap.

A Republican, state Sen. Delbert Scott, introduced the bill; several Democrats signed on as co-sponsors. "It seemed like a pretty simple concept," Scott tells me, "but I'm from Lowry City, so...."

All kidding aside about being rustic, the idea ran into trouble with manufacturing companies. Big industrials GM, Ford, Anheuser-Busch with lobbying power to match, went to work on lawmakers. The bill never got out of committee.

Scott walked away from the debate sensing that the manufacturers wanted to look for energy savings on their own. The bill, he says, is "kind of in no-man's land at the moment."

As Scott and his co-sponsors learned, lawmakers can be slow to accept new ideas. That's why a group called Missourians for Cleaner Cheaper Energy is going directly to voters. A measure mandating that utilities derive 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2021 may be on the ballot this fall.

The effort got a boost in April, when KCP&L endorsed it. At the time, Melissa Hope, the Sierra Club's Missouri development director, called KCP&L a "leader in the region."

Just three years earlier, KCP&L and environmental groups had been at each other's throats. In 2005, when KCP&L was seeking approval to build a new coal-burning plant near Weston, Sierra Club members protested outside a shareholder meeting. Michael Chesser, CEO of Great Plains Energy (KCP&L's parent company), said the plant was necessary to meet future demand. Environmentalists said the plant would spew mercury and carbon dioxide just so KCP&L could make money selling electricity on the wholesale market.

But by 2007, the Sierra Club, KCP&L and concerned Platte County residents were wearing party hats. KCP&L had agreed to offset the new plant's global-warming emissions by investing in energy efficiency and renewable power sources. The Sierra Club said the agreement would serve as a model for future cooperation between utilities and greens.

KCP&L's willingness to compromise took shape in an energy plan the company completed in 2005. Like other utilities, KCP&L was trying to figure out how it could supply electricity to a plasma-TV world. "Consumption is not going down," KCP&L spokesman Matt Tidwell tells me. "It's going up."

A KCP&L wind farm in Dodge City, Kansas, was up and running by 2006. The company also pledged to spend $420 million reducing emissions at its existing power plants in Kansas and Missouri.

Make no mistake, coal is still the main fuel that powers KCP&L's plants. Iatan II, the company's new coal-fired plant in Weston, is scheduled to open in 2010.

At the same time, KCP&L has gone out of its way to entice people to buy less of its product. It installs programmable thermostats in homes at no cost. Tidwell says these energy "optimizers" can reduce electricity bills by 25 percent. "We're pretty well-known in the utility industry for being more on the progressive side on these things," he adds.

KCP&L hasn't gone all namby-pamby. Chesser, the CEO, gave $2,300 to Mitt Romney and John McCain last year. He has suggested that KCP&L may pursue a nuclear facility at some point. (AmerenUE has already filed an application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which makes Missouri greens really nervous.)

Still, Chesser, who joined Great Plains in 2003, hasn't been afraid to get involved in left-leaning endeavors. In June, he took part in Mayor Mark Funkhouser's symposium to talk about economic development in the urban core. In addition to subsidizing flashier events such as the Plaza Lighting Ceremony, KCP&L focuses its giving on street-level operations, including Bridging the Gap, the Full Employment Council and the Boys & Girls Clubs. "Since we're a big company, it's important to give back," Tidwell says.

Of course, KCP&L's greatest gift to environmentalists would be a commitment to alternative energy that reformed oilman T. Boone Pickens might envy. But in these parts, the wind blows only so hard.

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