LAWRENCE — Closing the city’s coal-based power plant will be the first step toward holding the state’s largest utility company accountable for keeping green energy goals, climate change activists said at a Tuesday demonstration.

The Sierra Club partnered with local organizations for the rally outside City Hall to show city officials how much local support there is for closing the Lawrence coal plant.

Demonstrators hope to have the city pass a resolution asking Evergy to keep its original promise to stop burning coal in the Lawrence plant by 2024, as well as have the city intervene in utility planning.

Sam and Zack Raugewitz, both teachers, attended the demonstration with their 15-month-old daughter.

“We want our daughter to have a future with a clean, safe environment,” Sam Raugewitz said. “We need to start moving toward cleaner energy sources.”

“The goal here is recognizing clean energy is good for the state economy,” Zack Raugewitz added. “It’s good for the people who live here.”

The two were surrounded by dozens of other Kansans who lined the streets outside City Hall for the rally.

Demonstrators hold signs in support of closing the Lawrence coal-fired power plant during a Sept. 13, 2023, rally. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

Haskell Indian Nations University sophomore Georgia Blackwood clutched a sign that read “Evergy: Keep your promise, close the coal plant.” 

“This really is a societal failure,” Blackwood said. “Corporations just have too much power within everything and they’re not checked.”

Evergy pledged two years ago to shut down Lawrence coal operations by the end of this year and invest in 350 megawatts of solar power.

However, the utility publicly reversed course in June, releasing an alternative plan that won’t add any solar power until 2026 and will keep the Lawrence coal plant open until 2028. In 2028, one unit will be fully shut down and the other one will remain available for natural gas operations in times of high demand.

In a news release on the decision, Evergy officials blamed the reversal on increasing demand for electricity and changes in U.S. electric grid requirements, among other factors. Officials said the utility would keep the same goal of reducing its carbon emissions by 70% by 2030 compared with 2005 levels and reach net zero emissions by 2045.

“Evergy is committed to leading a responsible energy transition while keeping affordability and reliability at the forefront,” said Evergy president and CEO David Campbell in the news release

Sierra Club lobbyist Zack Pistora said the demonstration was really a catchall reaction to several of Evergy’s recent actions, including proposed rate increases.

“We’re dealing with the continued threat of climate change and the need for clean energy,” Pistora said. “We’re upset about the rates and Evergy’s proposal to take $218 million from Kansas ratepayers when we know our most polluting and our most costly form of energy is Wyoming coal fire.”

The investor-owned utility, which serves about 1.6 million customers in Kansas and Missouri, asked to raise rates in April, following a five-year moratorium on rate increases.

The proposed $218 million rate hikes would raise monthly bills by $14.24 in several regions of the state, and are in conflict with a recently released Kansas Corporation Commission cost analysis. KCC staff determined the utility actually should lower rates in the Kansas City area and only slightly increase rates for the rest of the state.

Manhattan resident Diane Barker said she paid almost $500 in Evergy bills one month last winter.

“That’s not sustainable,” Barker said.

Nancy Muma, chairwoman of the University of Kansas Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, and a Sierra Club member, worked to circulate a petition asking city officials to urge the KCC to close the coal plant.

“I’m old — it’s OK. But future generations, we have got to do something for them,” Muma said. “We made the mess. It’s our responsibility to clean it up and to push for clean energy, something sustainable.”

“The whole idea of all these toxins, it’s something I know all too well,” Muma added.

At the time of the event, the petition had garnered about 400 signatures.

Pistora emphasized the cost of coal plants. He said shifting to green energy would be ultimately more affordable as well as better for the environment.

Pistora wants city officials to hold Evergy accountable for their green energy goals in the area.

“We’re not upset at you guys,” Pistora said, referring to city officials. “We just want you to do more.”