Energy efficiency moving to front burner

Utilities might be forced to establish conservation programs

? While state officials fight over coal-fired electric plants and wind generation, another energy issue has been heating up: conservation and efficiency.

After more than a year of consideration, the Kansas Corporation Commission is on the verge of ruling that it has the legal authority to order utilities to establish energy efficiency programs.

It’s a move that utilities, such as Westar Energy, the largest electric utility in Kansas with 673,000 customers, have been fighting even as they ramp up voluntary conservation programs.

But advocates for conservation and efficiency say direction from the KCC is long overdue.

“We are behind, and we have significant opportunities across the state to achieve energy efficiency and conservation,” said Bruce Snead, an energy specialist at Kansas State University and a member of the Kansas Energy Council.

Snead did a report that stated Kansas lacked in a number of areas in funding initiatives aimed at saving energy.

And the Energy Council recently has contracted for a $125,000 study to report on how much Kansas residents and businesses could save through conservation and efficiency. That report is due next spring.

Kansas faces big decision

The focus on conservation and efficiency comes as Kansas nears a watershed moment in energy development.

Sunflower Electric Power Corp. has proposed construction of two 700-megawatt coal-burning electric plants in western Kansas. But environmentalists say the carbon dioxide emissions from the burning coal will add to climate change and health problems.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ administration has been critical of the Sunflower Electric proposal, instead touting the benefits of wind energy.

After a recent speech, Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson said that market forces and the potential of federal government regulation of greenhouse gas emissions will make the production of wind comparable to or less expensive to produce than coal.

“Anytime you open up a new coal-fired plant, you are diminishing significant amounts of progress that you’ve made by wind or by conservation,” said Parkinson, who also serves as co-chair of the Energy Council. “So, a new coal-fired plant should only happen as an absolutely last resort if there are no other alternatives available.”

Steve Miller, a spokesman for Sunflower Electric, disagreed.

“The lieutenant governor is saying we can meet Kansas energy needs with wind and renewable. That is wrong,” Miller said.

For one thing, Miller said, the recent increase in ethanol plants is helping rural communities but also creating a demand for electricity that surpasses what wind can generate.

The decision on whether to grant air permits for Sunflower’s proposed plants near Holcomb is expected to be made this month by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

Draft proposals

Meanwhile, the Energy Council may be pushing the Legislature next year on the conservation front. It will conduct a hearing from 9 a.m. to noon Wednesday in the Capitol on numerous draft proposals.

They include:

¢ Expanding a program to provide weatherization assistance to low-income households.

¢ Funding energy conservation education in schools.

¢ Increasing energy efficiency standards for commercial and industrial buildings.

And the KCC’s staff has recommended that the commission open two more dockets where interested parties could discuss how the commission should analyze the costs versus the benefits of energy efficiency programs and how utilities would recover these costs through their rates.