The public will get its chance next month to weigh in on plans by Empire District Electric Co. to invest in 800 megawatts of wind energy, potentially in Southwest Missouri, and to retire its coal-fired power plant at Asbury about 15 years ahead of schedule.

The Joplin hearing will begin at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 8, in Cornell Auditorium in Plaster Hall on the campus of Missouri Southern State University. The hearing begins with a question-and-answer session led by Public Service Commission staff, followed by the taking of public comments. Witness testimony at the local public hearing will be limited to five minutes per person.

Empire currently has more than 50,000 acres of land under lease in Jasper, Barton, Dade and Lawrence counties and agreements with more than 100 local landowners for wind turbines. Studies show Southwest Missouri has adequate wind to support the project, which would involve several hundred turbines in the region, if economically feasible.

The projected cost of the project is $1.5 billion, to be funded using federal tax incentives in conjunction with tax equity partners to reduce the cost to $700 million.

Some 55 people are currently employed at the coal-powered Asbury plant, which was built in 1970 and produces more than 200 megawatts of energy annually, according to Empire.

Blake Mertens, Empire's vice president of electric operations, said last fall when the plans were announced that efforts would be made to reassign some job positions. The plan calls for closing the Asbury plant in April 2019, while the wind initiative would require hiring 40 to 45 people for technology-based jobs.

In 2015, Empire dedicated a new air pollution control system at the Asbury plant that cost $112 million. The new system was installed to help the plant adhere to new federal standards for mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants that went into effect that year. Although it was completed in 2015, planning for the new system began as long ago as 2010 after it became apparent in 2000 that mercury emissions from power plants would be curtailed, the company has said. The more recent upgrades at the plant were included in a rate increase that went into effect in mid-2015 after being approved by the PSC. That increase raised the bill of Empire's average residential customer by about $8 per month.

Empire has projected the shift to wind power will result in up to $325 million of cost savings on customer bills over 20 years, according to the PSC.

The plan will require regulatory approval by the PSC. David Swain, president of Empire, has said that decision is expected by the summer of this year.

Anyone unable to attend the local public hearing who wishes to make written comments or secure additional information can contact the Missouri Office of the Public Counsel, P.O. Box 2230, Jefferson City, MO 65102; call the OPC at 866-922-2959; or send an email to opcservice@ded.mo.gov. They also can contact the Missouri PSC at P.O. Box 360, Jefferson City, MO 65102; call 800-392-4211; or send an email to pscinfo@psc.mo.gov.

Empire serves more than 150,000 customers in Southwest Missouri as well as customers in parts of Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. Approval also is sought from regulators in the other three states.

Andy Ostmeyer is the metro editor at the Globe. His email address is aostmeyer@joplinglobe.com.

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