Wind energy enthusiasm picks up force

Kansas has plenty of natural resource but little infrastructure

? You don’t need a weatherman to know that Kansas has enough wind to be a major producer of wind-generated electricity.

The problem is getting that power to the marketplace via transmission lines that are now in short supply.

“The state needs transmission lines to move power from wind farms in the West to markets in the East,” said Rep. Tom Sloan, a Republican from Lawrence.

A new governmental body has been established to increase energy transmission in Kansas.

The Kansas Electric Transmission Authority was adopted by the Legislature and signed into law earlier this year. Sloan was one of the authors of the legislation.

The seven-member authority can plan, finance, develop and even maintain electric transmission lines. It is authorized to contract with another state agency to issue bonds approved by state leaders for building electric lines and has the power of eminent domain.

“It is one more part to encourage transmission,” Sloan said. “So we can capitalize on wind assets, and sell low-cost coal and nuclear power to other states.”

It could also improve the nation’s energy self-sufficiency and the state’s economy, he said.

The Council of State Governments, an organization that includes members of legislatures and executive and judicial branches from states across the nation, recently recognized the Kansas legislation as a model for how electric transmission lines might be developed in other states.

Opponents leery of costs

But while utilities and even environmental groups have supported the proposal, some are frightened by the scope of the authority and concerned about who will eventually pay the tab for any new transmission lines, which could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

“We’ve certainly jumped into the deep end on this,” said David Springe, consumer counsel for the Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board.

Though the transmission authority is not yet functioning, Springe said, on paper the authority has powers that seem daunting. The authority is made up of the chairs and ranking minority members of the House and Senate utility committees, and three appointees chosen by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. Sebelius’ office said she would name her appointments next month.

“What this particular entity ends up doing, if anything, I don’t know. How will it go about it? Don’t know. Who will make decisions and why? Don’t know. But I do know who is going to pay for it, and that’s us,” the public, Springe said.

Electric customers who benefit by the transmission lines will be charged the development costs, the law says. But Springe questions whether the benefits will be equal to the charges.

He said the strategy of the state trying to spur transmission development represented a change in philosophy – instead of building transmission lines to ensure there is a reliable flow of energy on the federal power grid, the authority could build lines as potential economic development projects.

If the state thinks it’s a good idea to build transmission lines, shouldn’t taxpayers foot the bill, Springe asked, “instead of hiding it in utility rates.”

Wind pressure

But pressure is building to develop wind energy. The Sebelius administration has set a goal for utilities in Kansas to have 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy installed by 2015. This would amount to about 10 percent of the state’s current electricity generation capacity.

Donna Johnson, a renewable energy consultant and president of Pinnacle Technologies in Lawrence, said she was unsure what effect the new authority would have on energy development in Kansas.

There is only one operating wind farm in Kansas, near Montezuma in the southwest part of the state. But Sloan and others say that western Kansas needs more transmission capability to expand wind energy.

Short-term costs of developing transmission lines may be offset by the long-term benefits of possibly lower power rates because of a diverse mix of energy sources, Johnson said.

“Something needs to be done, but it always comes down to who pays for it,” she said.