Coal plant compromise may be in works

? A utility, legislators and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ administration appear to be closer to a deal involving two proposed coal-fired power plants in southwest Kansas.

They provided no details Friday. But they’ve said for weeks that they’ve been having discussions about plans by Sunflower Electric Power Corp. to build the plants outside Holcomb.

The $3.6 billion project has been blocked by Sebelius’ administration over concerns about the plants’ potential carbon dioxide emissions.

Two weeks ago, Sebelius acknowledged conversations that she described as “an exchange of information.”

But Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson, co-chairman of an energy policy council, said Friday: “We are hopeful we can reach an agreement.”

Parkinson declined to comment on the goals of the ongoing discussions, saying a public discussion of specifics would hinder the talks.

Sunflower spokesman Steve Miller also wouldn’t comment about the substance of the discussions but added, “I believe there’s just an air of cooperation going on.”

House and Senate members have said they’re working on comprehensive energy legislation dealing with Sunflower’s plans. But their proposals still are being drafted, and bills won’t be introduced until at least next week.

Many legislators want to overturn a decision in October by Rod Bremby, state secretary of health and environment, to deny an air-quality permit for Sunflower’s project. Bremby said the state couldn’t ignore the dangers posed by global warming, which many scientists link to CO2 emissions.

Republican legislators have criticized Bremby’s decision, but so have some of Sebelius’ fellow Democrats. Many lawmakers view the Sunflower project as vital economic development and crucial to making sure Kansans have reliable power as their demand for electricity grows.

“I would prefer that we would be able to have a settlement to this issue without having to go through the legislative process,” said Senate President Steve Morris, a Hugoton Republican and strong supporter of the project that’s in his district. “I don’t have a sense that we’re there yet on that.”

Sunflower wants to build two, 700-megawatt plants next to an existing coal-fired plant it operates.

The Hays-based utility, owned by six small, rural electric cooperatives, has about 400,000 customers. The 1,400 megawatts of capacity would be enough to meet the peak demands of 700,000 households, according to one state estimate.

Most of the new power would flow outside Kansas. Sunflower’s partners are Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association Inc. of Westminster, Colo., and Golden Spread Electric Cooperative, in Amarillo, Texas.

“If we have the strategies in place to protect the environment, we should export electricity,” said House Minority Leader Dennis McKinney, a Greensburg Democrat. “It’s as good as exporting Boeing airplanes. It’s a value-added product that brings a lot of money back to the state and generates a lot of jobs.”

But like Sebelius, Parkinson questioned whether Kansas should commit to meeting other states’ need for generating around-the-clock “baseload” which is the normal continuing flow of power.

“The reality is that we have to have baseload energy capacity in Kansas,” Parkinson said. “The message that we have consistently said to them and everyone else is that we are completely supportive of creating baseload power for Kansas users.”

Parkinson also reiterated the administration’s position that Kansas needs to increase its use of wind power and aggressively promote energy conservation.

“Kansas has been a coal state for the last 100 years,” Parkinson said. “We are fundamentally changing that model, and when you do that, it creates some reverberations. We’re slowly doing it, and we’re making progress.”

Parkinson declined to say whether the discussions have involved allowing a scaled-down version of Sunflower’s project.