Monday, December 16, 2013

Renewable energy facing a headwind

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

TOPEKA, KAN. — In 2009, supporters of a bill to require an increase in the use of renewable energy said the proposal would make Kansas the "Saudi Arabia" of wind energy.

Four years later, the political wind is blowing toward repealing or changing the law.

Since 2009, wind energy capacity in Kansas has jumped from about 1,000 megawatts to approximately 2,700 megawatts in 2013, with other projects in the planning stages, according to state figures.

But conservative legislators, many affiliated with a national group that opposes mandated goals for renewable energy, plan to renew efforts from the 2013 legislative session to repeal the Kansas Renewable Portfolio Standard.

The mandate required major utility companies to have the capacity to generate 10 percent of their energy through a renewable source by 2011. It also called for the companies to generate 15 percent of their energy through a renewable source by 2016 and 20 percent by 2020.

State Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, said the RPS has been a success, boosting the development of wind farms, wind industry businesses and transmission lines by establishing a market for wind energy. Sloan, chairman of the House Vision 2020 Committee, serves on several national energy panels.

"The potential is good for further development of our state's wind and solar resources as those transmission lines come on-line," he said. Repeal of the RPS "would send a signal to investors that Kansas is not a good place to invest in meeting the nation's need and desire for renewable energy," he said.

Renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, cut the carbon dioxide emissions from power plants that produce the greenhouse gases that most scientists say causes climate change.

Rabbi Moti Rieber, director of Interfaith Power and Light and rabbi at the Lawrence Community Jewish Congregation, said, "There is a moral imperative to address global climate change." Rieber's group includes religious leaders who push for energy conservation, efficiency and renewable energy.

ALEC opposition to RPS

One group opposed to the RPS is the American Legislative Exchange Council, which brings corporations and legislators together to write model legislation that is then debated in statehouses across the nation.

ALEC's Energy, Environment and Agriculture Task Force has recommended that states pass the Electricity Freedom Act, which repeals requirements that utilities have renewable energy sources. The Act says government mandates to produce renewable energy increase costs to taxpayers while benefitting politically favored industries.

Rep. Dennis Hedke, R-Wichita, and chairman of the House Energy and Environment Committee, held hearings last session on rolling back the RPS. He is also a member of the ALEC task force. Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, and House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, both active leaders in ALEC, have also spoken out against the RPS.

Hedke, a contract geophysicist in the oil and gas industry, says he does not believe in climate change.

The requirement to build wind energy capacity has increased electric bills, he said. "The people on fixed incomes, I guarantee you they feel it," he said.

Hedke also said the giant wind turbines kill birds, including eagles, and that the energy necessary to build wind turbines and solar panels offsets the reduction in carbon emissions.

"Believing you are going to reduce the carbon imprint by using solar or wind is a losing argument," he said. "There is no net reductions in emissions," he said.

Rieber said studies cited by Hedke have all been refuted.

"He is so convinced that there is no such thing as climate change, he wants to prevent, by legislation, any action to address it," Rieber said.

RPS was part of deal for coal-burning plant

But the Kansas Legislature's embrace of the RPS wasn't based on a green vision of the world.

Instead it was part of a controversial deal brokered by then-Gov. Mark Parkinson.

In return for passage of the RPS, Parkinson would help clear the way for Sunflower Electric Power Corp. to build an 895-megawatt, coal-fired plant in western Kansas.

Sunflower got its permit from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, but that plant has not been built, and its future is in doubt.

In October, the Kansas Supreme Court overturned the project's permit, ruling that KDHE failed to apply federal regulations on pollution emissions that had become effective several months before the permit had been issued. In a separate lawsuit, a federal judge ruled that the plant couldn't be built without a thorough environmental review.

Hedke acknowledged that some legislators' anger over EPA's rules and court actions blocking the Sunflower project is part of the move to repeal RPS.

But Sloan said legislators need to maintain a long-term view on energy policy.

"Dependence on one or two forms of generation is shortsighted," he said.

In 2009, Westar Energy, the state's largest electric utility, produced 300 megawatts of wind energy, about 6 percent of its peak load.

Since then, Westar has increased that to approximately 660 megawatts and that will go to 860 megawatts when a wind farm is completed in Oklahoma in the next two years.

That would put Westar over the 15 percent goal in 2016. In addition, Kansas' other major electric utilities, including Kansas City Power & Light, Sunflower Electric Power Corp., Kansas Electric Power Cooperative, Empire District Co. and Midwest Energy are on track to meet their goals, according to a 2013 Kansas Corporation Commission report.

And wind energy faces another political battle. In addition to the fight over renewable energy in the Statehouse, the federal wind production tax credit is set to expire at the end of the year, although any project that has broken ground by the end of 2013 would remain eligible for the break.