Jan 13, 2020 11:39 AM

Why Kansas CO2 emissions are at lowest level in 40 years

Posted Jan 13, 2020 11:39 AM
A wind turbine rises over Kansas. Brian Grimmett / Kansas News Service
A wind turbine rises over Kansas. Brian Grimmett / Kansas News Service

By BRIAN GRIMMETT, Kansas News Service

WICHITA, Kansas — As global carbon dioxide emissions break records, Kansas is headed in the opposite direction — reducing emissions for 10 straight years.

Kansas’ decline is largely due to the rapid adoption of wind energy and a slow move away from coal powered electricity. That is to say: Kansas produces less carbon dioxide, or CO2, the powerful greenhouse gas that’s released into the atmosphere when we burn fossil fuels and is a major driver of climate change.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, Kansas emitted 58.2 million metric tons of CO2 in 2017. That’s good enough to make Kansas only the 31st largest emitter in the U.S.

While it’s below the national average, on a global scale: “Kansas, if it were its own country, would be one of the top 60 CO2 emitters,” said Joe Daniel, an energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

So, when Kansas sees a reduction in emissions like it has in the past decade, it matters, he said.

The decline began in 2007, when total CO2 emissions in Kansas peaked at nearly 80 million metric tons.

Where CO2 comes from

So how did the state reduce its annual CO2 emissions by as much as the entire country of Bolivia so quickly? Three graphics explain it all.

First, it’s helpful to know the source of Kansas’ CO2 emissions. In 2017, about half of total CO2 emissions came from burning fossil fuels, such as coal and natural gas, to create electricity. The rest was mostly from burning gasoline and diesel in our cars and trucks.

The recent reductions aren’t transportation-related, because, despite more efficient and cleaner burning engines, additional people and cars have offset the difference. In fact, total transportation emissions in Kansas have barely changed in the past 40 years.

That leaves electric power generation.

The decline of coal

As the graph shows, energy-related CO2 emissions began to plummet in the mid-2000s. Specifically, it’s emissions from coal-fired power plants.

While some of the reductions are likely due to plant upgrades and federal environmental regulations that forced coal plants to clean up what was coming out of their smoke stacks, it’s mostly because plants burned less coal.

Coal plants in Kansas only produced about 20,000 gigawatt hours of electricity in 2018, compared to an average of about 35,000 gigawatt hours during the 2000s.

Daniel said the decline is largely due to economics. With the fast growth of cheap wind-generated electricity in Kansas, it’s become less profitable to run coal plants.

“I don’t think a month has gone by where I haven’t read a study about the poor economics of either coal plants, or coal mines, or the companies that invest in those properties,” Daniel said.

The rise of wind

About 36% of all electricity produced in Kansas is from wind, the highest percentage of any U.S. state.

Twenty years ago, there was no such thing.

Part of the rapid growth of the industry is obvious: You wouldn’t put a wind turbine in a place with no wind, and there’s a lot of wind in Kansas.

Plus, federal and state tax incentives encouraged developers to jump into the market.

And it’s increasingly cheaper to build a wind farm.

Just this year, Kansas saw four new wind farms come online, adding enough capacity to power 190,000 homes for a year.

“Will we see four wind projects come online every year for the next five years? No,” said Kimberly Gencur-Svaty, director of public policy at the Kansas Power Alliance. “But I do think we’ll probably continue at a pace of where we’ve averaged the last 20 years, which is a project or two.”

How low can it go?

Ashok Gupta with the Natural Resources Defence Council said the move to renewable energy and subsequent decrease in CO2 emissions will be vital to reducing the impacts of climate change.

But, he wondered if it will be fast enough, especially in states that have a lot of wind.”

“We should be going by 2030 to pretty much carbon-free electricity,” he said.

While some states like Colorado have begun to adopt 100% renewable energy goals, Kansas has not. Even if Kansas were to get to 100% renewable energy, there’s still the nearly 20 million metric tons of transportation emissions to worry about.

Achieving a clean electrical grid will also be key to reducing those emissions, Gupta said, even if it also means another, different shift in the way things are currently done.

“We have to start making sure that our transportation and our buildings are moving to all electric,” he said. “That’s the strategy for the next 10 years.”

Editor's note: This story was corrected  on Dec. 30 to show the coal plants produced gigawatt hours of electricity, not megawatt, and that there are 20 million metric tons of transportation emissions, not 20 metric tons.

Brian Grimmett reports on the environment, energy and natural resources for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett or email him at [email protected] The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

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Jan 13, 2020 11:39 AM
Kan. sees shortage of psychiatrists, other mental health providers
Kansas community mental health centers say job vacancies for doctors and therapists sometimes stay open for years.  Celia Llopis-Jepsen / Kansas News Service

By NOMIN UJIYEDIIN
Kansas News Service

TOPEKA — It typically took Walt Hill more than a year to recruit a psychiatrist to northwest Kansas. Now he doesn’t even bother.

Instead, the executive director of the High Plains Mental Health Center relies on out-of-state doctors willing to work remotely, treating patients through video conference.

For years, the center has used remote appointments with local psychiatrists to reach patients in far-flung corners of its coverage area, which spans 20 largely rural counties.

But recently, Hill said, it’s been almost impossible to find psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses to do even that. He’s had to turn to providers who conference in from Kansas City, Texas and Tennessee.

Like the rest of the United States, Kansas is seeing an increase in patients seeking mental health treatment. But the state can’t find enough doctors, nurses and therapists to treat them. Providers say the problem is worse in the state’s least-populated rural areas, where clinic jobs can stay open for years at a time. 

“Fewer and fewer individuals are going into these professions,” Hill said. “We’re seeing a demographic challenge, a crisis coming.”

One measure from the federal government suggests only nine of the counties in Kansas have enough psychiatrists, and they’re mostly in urban areas: Johnson, Wyandotte, Shawnee, Douglas, Harvey, Sedgwick, Marion, McPherson and Miami counties.

There are 431 psychiatrists actively licensed to practice in Kansas, according to the state’s Board of Healing Arts. One calculation by the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates the state needs 53 more to meet its needs.

The state’s community mental health centers, like the one Hill manages, face a particular challenge. The centers treat people regardless of their ability to pay. Some say they’ve had to absorb more patients since the state-run mental health hospital in Osawatomie reduced its admissions drastically.

Hill said High Plains Mental Health Center hasn’t experienced that so much. But as reimbursement rates from insurance companies have stagnated, the center has had to raise its base fees to cover costs.

The center sees 6,000 patients a year, about half of whom need medication. Some have to wait as long as six weeks for an initial appointment with a provider.

“It’s stretched. Some people do have to take on a lot more cases,” he said. “That is just way too long for people to have to wait.”

Hiring issues

In some ways, telemedicine has helped, said Greg Hennen, executive director of the Four County Mental Health Center in Independence. But it’s also made it worse.

“It’s a very nice resource, but it’s also hampered our capacity to recruit because people can work from their living room instead,” he said. “People don’t have to relocate to deliver services.”

Hennen’s center has been trying to recruit a psychiatrist to serve as medical director for two years. Only two people have applied for the job. One couldn’t get his license and the other decided he didn’t want to live in southeast Kansas.

The location is a hard sell for many candidates.

“We do have some people that are not interested because it’s an hour and a half to drive to Tulsa or Joplin or two hours to Kansas City,” he said. “They just want to be a little closer to the cultural offerings of a big city.”

Pay is an issue, too. Neighboring states like Nebraska and Colorado can afford to pay medical staff and therapists partly because they expanded Medicaid coverage. That can mean more of their patients have health insurance. Oklahoma and Missouri have federal funding from another source: the Excellence in Mental Health Act, a program Kansas never applied for.

The result is that other states have hired providers away from Kansas. Hennen said one experienced therapist left his center to work across the border in Oklahoma for a $20,000 raise.

Meanwhile, he has three openings for therapists. And he hears regularly from schools and other community organizations that they’re hiring, too.

“If I was actually going to answer the demand,” Hennen said, “ I could hire another five on top of those three.”

For Lisa Southern, executive director of Compass Behavioral Health in Garden City, hiring nurses is the challenge.

She has hired nurse practitioners on a temporary basis through the National Health Service Corps, which repays student loans in exchange for a few years of work. But it’s hard to get people to stay in southwestern Kansas. Many qualified nurses just end up going back home, she said.

The center paid a recruiter $20,000 to find a qualified nurse. But in 18 months, they only had two applicants. Even those nurses decided not to take the job because they didn’t want to move.

“It’s not about the agency. It’s not about the population we serve,” Southern said. “It is simply about people wanting to live in a different area than where we are.”

Solutions

The Garden City center hasn’t had any trouble recruiting therapists. That’s because aspiring social workers in the area can earn a master’s degree at the University of Kansas or Washburn University.

“That is our saving grace for therapy staff,” Southern said. Her center has also offered scholarships for staff to get their master’s degrees.

The centers that Hennen and Hill run have also paid for master’s degrees for nurses who agree to come back and work at their centers.

In an effort to recruit and retain more staff, Gov. Laura Kelly raised salaries for employees at Larned State Hospital, a state-run mental health facility, in early December. The vacancy rate at the hospital is 57% for RNs and 73% for LPNs, said a spokeswoman for the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services. The hospital does not track vacancies for psychiatrists or therapists. The state’s other mental health hospital in Osawatomie has 14 vacancies for RNs and none for psychiatrists or therapists.

In 2017, to attract more psychiatrists to rural areas, Kansas passed a law that added psychiatry to the state’s medical student loan program. The program helps pay for tuition and other expenses in exchange for the student practicing primary medicine in the state’s less populated counties after graduation.

It’s too early to tell whether that’s encouraged more medical students to choose psychiatry and practice in Kansas, said Dr. William Gabrielli, head of psychiatry at the University of Kansas School of Medicine, the only medical school in the state.

But as attitudes toward mental health treatment change, Gabrielli is optimistic more students will feel encouraged to do psychiatry residencies in rural areas.

“It’s really where they do their residency training that helps them put down roots and that keeps them in those locations,” Gabrielli said.

Typically, doctors are reluctant to go to rural areas because they prefer not to practice alone, Gabrielli said.

“If you go out and be a lone practitioner in a rural part of the state, you have no partner,” he said. “You have nobody to help cover for you. You have nobody to bounce cases off of.”

Plus, psychiatry is one of the lower-paying medical specialties, which means it’s a hard draw for medical students, who can rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans. The problem is exacerbated by an aging population of psychiatrists who are retiring, Gabrielli said.

Ultimately, he said, doctors go into the field because of intrinsic motivations.

“Most of the people that pursue psychiatry as their medical specialty are not focused on maximizing their incomes,” he said. “They’re focused on taking care of the people.”

Nomin Ujiyediin reports on criminal justice and social welfare for the Kansas News Service.  Follow her on Twitter @NominUJ or email [email protected]