Sunday, March 2, 2014

Battle over renewable energy ahead in legislative session

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

KANSAS CITY, KAN. — Demands from conservatives to jettison Kansas' renewable energy standards died down by halftime of the 2014 legislative session, but like the Kansas weather, that could change at any moment.

Asked if the effort to repeal renewable energy goals was dead for 2014, Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, responded. "Oh no. The session is just starting."

Wagle added, "It's still a viable issue that people are concerned about. Typically the big issues are debated in the later half, so I wouldn't be surprised to see us debate that sometime soon."

The Kansas Legislature adjourned last week for a brief break after the deadline for bills to win approval in at least one chamber. There are exceptions to the rule, but during the weeks before the deadline no movement was made on a proposal to get rid of what is called the Kansas Renewable Portfolio Standard, or RPS.

Approved in 2009, the RPS 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.

Opponents argue the requirement to build wind energy capacity has increased electric bills and benefited politically favored industries.

They are backed by the influential American Legislative Exchange Council, which brings corporations and legislators together to write bills that are then proposed in statehouses across the nation.

Wagle and House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, are both active leaders in ALEC and have spoken out against the RPS, as has state Rep. Dennis Hedke, R-Wichita, chairman of the House Energy and Environment Committee and member of ALEC's energy task force.

The Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity also oppose RPS. Americans for Prosperity is a nationwide organization that describes itself as "advancing every individual’s right to economic freedom and opportunity." It supports cutting taxes and government spending and was founded by Charles and David Koch, who run Wichita-based Koch Industries.

Supporters of the RPS say it has been a rousing success in putting Kansas on the wind energy map, creating jobs and development.

Jason Ball, president of the Hutchinson/Reno County Chamber of Commerce, said the RPS gives Kansas an advantage when vying for renewable energy companies. He said the RPS helped Hutchinson land Siemens Wind Energy, which employs 330 people.

And, he said, the Kansas Corporation Commission reported that only 1.7 percent of the increased cost in energy experienced by Kansans can be attributed to the RPS.

"Policies such as the Renewable Portfolio Standard support companies that currently provide jobs in Kansas, and it keeps Kansas competitive when recruiting new employers and investment to the region," he said.

And RPS supporters point to a poll that showed 91 percent of Kansans support using renewable energy and two-thirds of voters would support increasing the state's renewable energy law even if it meant a $1 to $2 increase in their monthly energy bill.

The poll, released by renewable energy supporters, surveyed 600 registered Kansas voters in January and had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Wagle said repeal remains alive. "There have been a lot of communications with chairs and leadership in the House and Senate and governor's office. Everybody is talking," she said.