After months of debate and legislative battles, Sunflower Electric Power Corp. will be allowed to build a new, coal-fired power plant in Southwest Kansas. Trace the history of the disagreement and look back on how we got here.
Topeka In a stunning development, Gov. Mark Parkinson and Sunflower Electric Power Corp. on Monday signed an agreement over the coal-fired electric power project that has strangled Kansas politics for nearly two years.
Under the deal, Sunflower Electric will reduce the size of its proposal from two 700-megawatt coal-fired plants to one 895-megawatt coal-burning plant in southwest Kansas.
The agreement includes mitigation projects aimed at reducing the carbon dioxide footprint of the plant and is contingent on the Legislature adopting green energy provisions pushed by Parkinson during the current wrap-up session.
Combining the mitigation and green energy proposals, Parkinson said, “It is entirely possible that the carbon impact print of this plant is zero or perhaps even less than zero.”
If enacted, the proposal would end a political standoff that started in 2007 when Kansas made international news after the state’s Health and Environment secretary, Rod Bremby, rejected the project because of concerns about carbon dioxide emissions.
Supporters of the plants were furious and pushed through legislation to try to force Bremby to allow the project, but former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius vetoed those bills four different times.
She criticized the plants as polluters that would add to global warming, while most of the power from the project would go to out-of-state customers. She had offered to let Sunflower build one 660-megawatt plant, but Sunflower and its main partner, Colorado-based Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, said that wasn’t economically feasible.
Sebelius’ lieutenant governor, Parkinson, was one of the project’s staunchest critics. But last week, Sebelius was named secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, elevating Parkinson to the governor’s job.
Almost immediately upon taking office, Parkinson said he reached out to see whether there was room for negotiation with Sunflower.
At a news conference Monday, standing beside Sunflower Electric’s president and CEO, Earl Watkins, Parkinson said the proposed deal would be “a win-win for the entire state” because it would produce jobs while establishing in law renewable energy standards and encouraging wind development.
Watkins was just as effusive.
“This project will be the cleanest project from virtually every emissions perspective, especially from a CO2 perspective,” he said.
Opponents not persuaded
The Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club said it was disappointed in the deal.
“Today, Kansas took a big step backward. We cannot build new coal plants and claim to want to slow global warming at the same time,” the group said in a statement.
Tom Thompson, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, said the organization would evaluate the agreement closely before deciding what to do about it.
State Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, also expressed concerns. “We need to be reducing the amount of electricity we are getting from coal,” she said. The Lawrence City Commission had opposed the project.
But state Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, said he was encouraged by the developments.
“My initial read of this agreement is that this is very good news for the state of Kansas,” Holland said.
Combines coal, wind
Under the deal, Sunflower Electric would build an 895 megawatt coal-burning power plant that would emit 6.672 million tons of carbon dioxide each year. That is down from the proposal to build two 700-megawatt plants that would have emitted 11 million tons of CO2 per year. Kansas would still only use 200 megawatts of power, while the remaining 695 megawatts would be sent to other states, primarily Colorado.
As proposed, the project will include offsets to reduce CO2 emissions by 3.016 million tons per year.
These offsets include developing 179 megawatts of wind energy; achieving renewable energy standards; using 10 percent of biomass fuel; development of two transmission lines for the western grid, which can be used to transmit wind energy; decommissioning oil-fired power units in Garden City; and development of a biodigester to capture methane, and an algae reactor.
The agreement is contingent on passage of a comprehensive energy package that includes making federal clean energy air standards the guidance for state regulations; renewable portfolio standards; net metering; energy efficiency; state vehicle fuel economy standards; expanded authority for the Kansas Electric Transmission Authority; and compressed air energy storage.
Jobs needed, some say
Holland said the estimated 1,500 jobs created by construction of the plant combined with the additional wind energy that will result from the project made it worthwhile.
“The one plant deal is contingent on passage of a comprehensive energy plan by the Legislature, and we also come away with an additional 180 megawatts of wind as well as transmission lines that can link our Kansas wind farms to the western U.S. grid,” he said.
But Francisco said another provision in the energy package that Parkinson wants would allow more electric cooperatives to opt out of oversight of the Kansas Corporation Commission.
“That would be reducing protections for individual members of cooperatives,” she said.
Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, House Republican leaders and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce praised the deal.
Should the Legislature enact the energy package and Sunflower receive state permits, it may still face opposition on the federal level, where President Barack Obama has signaled a willingness to regulate CO2 emissions.
But Sunflower’s Watkins sounded optimistic, saying, “If there is federal legislation that comes out that puts a burden on a coal plant, I’d rather have a coal plant that is the most efficient, least emitting coal plant,” he said.
He said construction on the plant could start in a year to 18 months, and then take four years to complete.
Parkinson and Watkins signed the agreement to dissolve a federal lawsuit Sunflower filed against the state.