States, utilities building wave for renewable energy

? They may not have been tidal waves, but there certainly were ripples last week on the energy-development front.

There was the announcement that Texas utility TXU was being sold and that plans for 11 new coal-fired power plants had been cut to three. Western governors announced an agreement to reduce emissions to 1990 levels, including mercury and carbon dioxide.

Al Gore won an Oscar for his global warming documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.”

And in Kansas, Westar Energy Inc., announced it was seeking bids for construction of a renewable energy plant capable of producing 500 megawatts of power for its more than 669,000 customers.

Individually, they are incremental steps toward addressing reliance on fossil fuels and cutting emissions. Collectively, they show evidence that the nation may finally be taking global warming and related issues seriously.

“It’s kind of like a wave on the ocean. It might take a while before it gets to Kansas,” said Tom Thompson, lobbyist for the Sierra Club in Kansas.

Finding renewable resources

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius has challenged Kansas to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, setting a goal of having 10 percent of all power generated in the state by renewable sources by 2010.

“We don’t want to end up 15 years from now with 75 percent of our energy coming from coal,” Sebelius said. “We’ve got a great chance to change that. I think those dynamics are well under way.”

If Westar’s plans come to fruition, Kansas will have met Sebelius’ goal.

Westar officials said they decided to reconsider a 2004 decision to put plans for renewable energy on hold. After receiving 17 proposals for plants, mainly wind farms, the company decided that it was too expensive at the time. Instead, the company sought to build a gas-fired plant near Emporia and sought proposals for a coal plant somewhere else.

“We believe its important to evaluate renewable sources, as well,” Westar CEO and president Jim Haines told analysts Friday.

Part of the reason Westar and others are looking at renewable is money. Increased construction costs and high demand for materials have pushed the cost of building coal-fired power plants and other environmental upgrades as much as 25 percent higher than previously estimated.

In addition, new regulatory charges for emitting some chemicals, such as mercury, have made the cost of building wind power more attractive in the past few years.

But looming on the horizon are plans by Sunflower Electric Power Corp. to build three new coal-fired generators at its Holcomb site in southwest Kansas. With the construction of new transmission lines, the power would be sold to a Colorado company to provide power to the Front Range communities.

However, the plans and application for permits from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment have sparked a debate over Sunflower’s plans. Critics from across the country, including several New England states, say the increased emissions of mercury and carbon dioxide far outweigh the benefits.

KDHE held a series of public hearings on the issue and is yet to make a decision on the permits needed to operate the new generators.

Energy in Kansas

Sebelius said she has met with officials of all utilities operating in Kansas and they are committed to seeking renewable energy sources in the coming years. But it’s going to take changes in the market and regulations.

“We can reduce our overall energy consumption by 30 percent,” she said. “That’s a huge reduction.”

Westar’s investment in renewable energy will make it a significant portion of its portfolio. Spokeswoman Gina Penzig said the utility has two turbines at the Jeffrey Energy Center northwest of Topeka, but that’s little more than enough to power a breakroom with reliable power.

And even building 500 megawatts of wind generation will have its limitation. Penzig said analysis of 2006 showed that Westar’s peak demand periods didn’t coincide with the best days of the year for producing wind power.

“The highest demand and output from wind farms were about opposite,” she said.

But despite films like Gore’s, which raise serious concerns about the future of the Earth’s climate and the effects caused by humans, there are skeptics. Legislators have been reluctant to clear the decks for unlimited generation from wind and other renewable sources.

They have openly said the state needs to think about new nuclear generating stations, perhaps expanding the Wolf Creek plant near Burlington. The reluctance to support new wind power hinges on property rights, transmission lines to move the power to customers and how the store the power to run turbines when the wind isn’t blowing.

“That’s pie in the sky and you know it,” said Rep. Don Myers, R-Derby, during a recent hearing on wind power.