Tag Archive for: renewable energy

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written by MEC’s Buildings Department program manager, Mary English

On January 5th, 2023, Kansas City’s largest utility, Evergy, announced plans to update the Hawthorn coal-burning power plant with a solar field1. This will be a 10-MW solar array which on average can power roughly 2,000 single family homes a day. This move is seen as a hopeful sign for activists pressing for Hawthorn’s closure. 

This a textbook example of the term that has been gaining traction in recent years: environmental justice. The plant’s potential closing, if it happens down the road, falls right in line with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) definition which in brief is: “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” 

The Hawthorn plant is located next to neighborhoods with lower incomes who have borne the brunt of power generation and other industries’ negative impacts on the metro’s air quality. There is much more work like this in our region and around the country that needs to be done. (For a fantastic, if irreverent, report on some other examples of environmental justice wins and losses see the Last Week Tonight with John Oliver episode broadcast in May on this subject 2.) 

However, as I like to say, these are “no-brainer” examples of immediate changes needed for a more fair and just society for our entire region. There are many other ways our fellow residents suffer from environmental injustices, however, that are hidden from view from those not directly involved in this subject through work or activism.  

One such example presented itself in a recent policy argument in one of the cities that make up our metropolitan area. And as our metropolitan’s city-center – Kansas City, MO – is in the middle of a similar policy discussion currently, I want to talk in more detail of how this is relevant to the discussion over environmental justice. 

I’m talking about the policy decisions over upgrading building energy codes. Kansas City, KS, just passed a “new” energy code. New being in quotation marks because—due to the residential portion of the codes passage being heavily amended—it’s safer to classify it as “Meet the New Code, Same as the Old Code.” 

Recently I discussed the many ways better energy codes positively impact our work and home lives 3. Since writing that piece, Kansas City, KS, decided to punt any marked improvement to their residential energy code, taken from the 2018 iteration of the International Energy Conservation Code 4 (IECC) (fortunately, the amendments in the commercial code were removed).  

Their reasoning was based on the fear-based excuse that it will price lower income earners out of buying a home. (Since both Missouri and Kansas are on the “home rule” law, every city council in our metro area is in charge of picking their own building codes. Currently, better mostly unamended 2018 IECC codes have not produced this problem in both Columbia, and St. Louis, MO. New-home building permit-pulls in both of these cities have risen since the codes’ passages, in fact 5.) This argument, however, is prevalent; and can be a winner with policymakers because it packs an emotional punch related directly to the American Dream. 

I want to expand on this idea. The American Dream as defined by this reasoning is all about owning your own home, apparently, even if said home is built with out-of-date technology and therefore not as durable, comfortable, and healthy as it could be for the residents. The code that Kansas City, KS, just passed, like most of the rest of our metro area’s cities, is based on a home-building process that is decades old. Following this argument that everyone should be able to buy a house, why don’t we just throw up some wood slats and tar paper like they did in the olden days and call it good?  

We don’t, of course, because it’s a ridiculous notion. Updating the energy code incorporates what we know now about how building efficiency is connected to human health and mental well-being. It’s not enough just to have four walls, a ceiling and roof and call it good. We must make sure that our structures are not also making us sick and poor. As humans have made great technological advancements over the last 100 years, we’ve incorporated them into minimum building standards as part of the social contract with the citizenry.   

And that—the social contract—is really what Environmental Justice means to me: keeping this important contract up to date and fair for all. When people are driving over our bridges, riding roller coasters, eating packaged food, just to list a few, they are doing so with the understanding that the laws protect them from injury or death. (And yes, bad energy codes in the most extreme examples can lead to both of these things 6) 

Environmental justice means that the social contract should apply to everyone—not just those that can afford a custom-built home that fixes all the flaws contained in the current energy code in our region. Roughly half of our residents are renters. Don’t they deserve a home that isn’t prone to mold growth and discomfort due to poorly installed insulation and insufficient ventilation?  

And if you want to argue that home buyers matter more for some reason, then why should they be subject to buying a “ready to wear/ off the shelf” new home that has been built with out of date and flawed technology? People don’t generally think about the health and safety aspects of homebuying because they assume policymakers and administrators have their backs covered in relation to the boring stuff. 

And yes, insulation and air sealing are boring. As an industry professional for 15 years, trust me, I get it. I have audited hundreds of homes in this metro area—many built under the same old technology that is still alive and well in most of our townships—to have just a small portion of homeowners follow through and pay to upgrade their houses. They’d rather have new kitchen cabinets or light fixtures. A home is an emotional extension of ourselves and most of us have only so much money to spend on upgrades. Insulation is going to be picked last if the house is seemingly livable enough with a few space heaters and added blankets in the TV room. 

For families with children that suffer from childhood asthma caused by energy inefficiencies, however, and who don’t have the means to choose from a list of home upgrades, where is their signed social contract to the American Dream? 

It could be right here in Kansas City if we had the will to implement solutions for our buildings’ occupants. As I type this, the news that a new climate mitigation spending package may finally be put before Congress for passage has broken. It includes the largest climate action spending in American history. This is great news for our cities that are trying to right the wrongs of discrimination, inequity in our infrastructure spending, and neglect of previously redlined neighborhoods in general.  

With this funding in mind, here is my dreamed-up short list of solutions: 

  • KC area municipalities should all pass at a minimum the unamended 2018 IECC or, better yet, 2021 commercial and residential codes. 
  • Implement a minimum energy performance standard for our commercial buildings 7 —including multi-family residential—with a deadline to reach a threshold of energy performance. 
  • Create a funding process to help homeowners with lower incomes spend money on the boring stuff like insulation, air sealing and better HVAC systems. Additionally, this process should be kept simple and accessible (too many of these types of programs in the past haven’t been.) 
  • Modify any tax laws to eliminate gentrification or landlord abuse through raised rents, as money gets poured into revitalizing previously neglected communities. 
  • Indirectly related: increase the minimum wage to something to live on with dignity and respect in a 40-hour work week. 
  • And, finally, invest in jobs training to create a work force that can be there to do all the work contained in the above solutions.  

 

When 2020 was upon us in full force and we all went indoors to sequester ourselves to work and live 8 we were experiencing a what is called a collective trauma. Many of us lost loved ones. And there was a window into our fellow humans’ suffering and those whose situations were worse – or better off – than our own.  

But there was a sense that we were entering a new era for the better perhaps. Our offices closed, pollution dropped and you could actually smell the fresh change in the air. The conversation around buildings turned to health, building management, and ventilation.  

That time has come and gone unfortunately as we’ve been pushed back into business as usual. The deep class divide remains unchanged and buildings are just one way that divide manifests. Energy code will not impact the ability to own a home. It impacts the ability to live and work in a healthy environment though. 

Kansas City could be a leader among cities on how to update the social contract with its citizens by offering better buildings, which goes along with cleaner power generation, infrastructure, and thus cleaner air.  

To me, that means Environmental Justice really can just be called Justice. Living with decent, healthy and equitable shelter should be considered a civil right, in my humble opinion. 

But what does “Environmental Justice” mean to you?  

 

Update: note that an earlier version of this blog incorrectly stated that Hawthorne plant was being shutdown by Evergy. This was inaccurate. It is a plant that environmental justice advocates have been requesting get on the list of plants to be closed. The solar array that Evergy is building is next to Hawthorne, but it does not preclude Hawthorn from being close permanently. 

Footnotes

1 https://www.powermag.com/evergy-to-build-solar-array-at-kansas-city-coal-power-plant-site/ 

2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-v0XiUQlRLw 

3 https://metroenergy.org/2022/06/energy-codes-for-our-future/ 

4 https://codes.iccsafe.org/content/iecc2018 

5 Public data received from codes departments in these cities. 

6 https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/families-sue-buildings-owners-bronx-fire-killed-17-people-rcna15384 

7 https://www.imt.org/st-louis-passes-first-building-performance-standard-in-the-midwest/ 

8 Wellnot all, some of us were luckier than others. Our healthcare providers and grocery store labor to name twowho kept up their end of the contract by working through brutal shifts and dangers to their health pre-vaccinedidn’t get to shelter in place. But that is another, albeit related, blog 

 

We are funded by readers like you. Even $5 helps expand clean energy access.
Your donation helps scale new technologies—tools that are public-ready, but only utilized by people of moderate affluence at a minimum. Clean-energy technology is a game changer, not only for the planet, but also for small businesses and low-income households. Thank you for helping to broaden clean tech's horizons.

written by Kansas City Regional Clean Cities Coalition director David Albrecht

Like many technologies, the windmill is nothing new.  People have been using the wind to grind grain and pump water for over a thousand years.  If not for the windmill, there’d be no Netherlands as we know it.  Settling America’s plains states during the 19th Century would have been nearly impossible.  But the use of wind to generate electricity at scale is new, going back only about 30 years.  In that short time, this evolving technology has produced the biggest single leap in renewable electricity output since the Age of Dams in the early-to-mid 20th Century.

In theory, generating electricity from wind is simple.  Air moves over the turbine blades, generating lift and setting the system in motion.  The shaft on which the blades are mounted rotates.  In doing so, it spins a magnet inside the generator’s windings, producing electricity.  Turbines can be direct-drive systems, but most use gearboxes to speed up their blades, since higher RPMs generate more efficiently.  The electricity produced by the turbines hits the grid and powers everything from toasters to cities.  Simple, no?

The Where Of American Windpower

Well, not quite.  There are more than a few complications.  Wind is generated by the sun’s heating of Earth’s surface, which is uneven.  Geography, climate and terrain add more variability.  Result – the wind blows reliably only in certain regions.  In America that means the Midwest , especially the Great Plains.  That’s why Texas leads the country in wind energy capacity, with Iowa, Oklahoma, California (outlier!) and Kansas in spots two through five.  And that’s why eight contiguous states in the southeast to date have zero installed capacity.

Onshore, the strongest winds blow in thinly populated states far from power-hungry big cities.  Transmission lines can cost millions of dollars per mile, and they’re not always popular, locally or politically.  And as the seasons change, so does the wind.  On the High Plains, America’s wind power sweet spot, output falls during the hottest months, when electrical demand for cooling spikes, rising again during winter.

Upsides – Income & Jobs

However, there are multiple benefits to wind.  Unlike coal or uranium, the wind is free.  Building turbines means leasing land.  Those leases bring in between $5,000 and $8,000 per unit per year to farmers or ranchers, though they can also limit construction and access by landowners. Turbine maintenance means turbine techs.  More than 7,000 Americans are already working in this fast-growing sector, with median pay of nearly $53,000 per year.

Efficiency keeps improving.  In much of America, the higher off the ground, the stronger the wind.  Taller turbines are taking advantage of that fact.  Between 2000 and 2018, average turbine height jumped nearly 100 feet, with bigger units providing more power.  And the environmental benefits of wind energy are substantial.  Beyond the carbon embedded in building and installing the systems, electricity from wind is carbon-free.  As markets for clean energy credits grow, and clean energy demand grows, so does the financial case for wind.

Rapid Growth And What’s Next

For all these reasons and more, wind’s growth has been simply explosive.  In 1990, wind provided 3 billion kWh, or about 0.1% of all electricity.  10 years later, it had doubled, and was still stuck at about 0.1% of the market.  Total share in following years:  2005 – 0.4%; 2010 – 2.3%; 2015 – 4.7%; 2019 – 7.3% – the same year that wind overtook hydropower.

But this intermittent (though clean) energy source has limits.  Surpassing those limits means going to sea.  That’s because offshore wind potential in the United States is about twice the nation’s current electricity demand.  But offshore wind power is almost non-existent here, with exactly one site currently up and operating.   Beyond that, grid upgrades and the addition of large-scale energy storage are going to be necessary for wind energy to make its next big jump.

We are funded by readers like you. Even $5 helps expand clean energy access.
Your donation helps scale new technologies—tools that are public-ready, but only utilized by people of moderate affluence at a minimum. Clean-energy technology is a game changer, not only for the planet, but also for small businesses and low-income households. Thank you for helping to broaden clean tech's horizons.

Tag Archive for: renewable energy

Volunteer April 19th at Project Living Proof

Join Metropolitan Energy Center (MEC) staff and board for a hands-on Volunteer Day at Project Living Proof (PLP), a real-life example for sustainable urban living nestled in the heart of Kansas City. Want to make a difference during Earth Month? This is your perfect outlet. Let’s roll up our sleeves and build a better future together.

Reserve Your Spot Now

We encourage early registration as volunteer spots are limited.

RSVP for the Morning Session



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See you at Project Living Proof!

Why Volunteer?

You can drive impactful environmental change. This volunteer event is a unique opportunity to apply your skills towards PLP’s demonstration of energy efficiency and green urban living. It’s a chance to be part of a community of like-minded professionals dedicated to leveraging their expertise for the greater good. Create a tangible impact on our environment by helping this project build awareness of sustainable practices in urban settings.

Volunteer Activities Include:

  • Enhancing PLP’s landscape and accessibility with gravel and sand adjustments around paver walkways.
  • Preserving wooden walkways and a backyard gravel terrace through water sealing and board replacements.
  • General maintenance and cleaning to ensure PLP continues to shine as a model of green urban living.
  • Power-washing steppingstones and walkways to restore their luster.

Project Background

Between 1904 and 1914, the William Rockhill Nelson estate developed the homes along today’s Emanuel Cleaver II Blvd. A century later, MEC transformed one of those homes into Project Living Proof, demonstrating the practicality and beauty of sustainable living. With modern energy-generating equipment and energy-saving features, raised vegetable beds, fruit trees, and native flora, PLP is more than a house—it’s a statement on achievable green living in urban environments.

Join Us

Whether you’re a seasoned professional or an enthusiast in sustainable building and design, your contribution is invaluable. This is more than a volunteer day—it’s a collaborative effort between caring people that paves the way for a greener, more sustainable Kansas City.

Please Note: Clicking “Add to calendar” below will not reserve your volunteer spot. RSVP using the gray buttons above.