Lawrence leaders oppose lawmakers’ ‘Energy Choice Act,’ saying it would hurt city’s renewable energy goals

photo by: AP File Photo

A row of 260-foot-tall wind turbines churn out power at the Smoky Hills wind farm near Lincoln, Kan. Saturday, Jan. 26, 2008. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Lawrence city officials say a bill that Kansas legislators are referring to as the “Energy Choice Act” is an attempt to limit local governments’ ability to move toward more renewable energy sources and combat climate change.

Last year, Lawrence joined other communities across the nation by setting specific goals for renewable energy use, with the ultimate goal of powering the entire city with all renewable energy by 2035. The Energy Choice Act, or Senate Bill 24, was introduced earlier this month with the backing of natural gas companies.

Both the City of Lawrence and Douglas County submitted testimony against the bill, while the local provider of natural gas, Black Hills Energy, is actively supporting it. Jasmin Moore, the sustainability director for the city and county, said that based on testimony from supporters of the bill, it seems to be in direct response to the city’s 100% renewable energy goal and an attempt by the Legislature to erode the city’s choice.

“This bill seems to be another attempt to limit the decisions that local governments can make, especially when the community of Lawrence has said that environmental sustainability is a value and that reducing our emissions is a value,” Moore said.

The bill prohibits any requirements that “impact a customer’s use of energy.” It states in part that a municipality shall not impose any ordinance, resolution, plan or any other binding action that prohibits, limits, “discriminates against,” or has the effect thereof, the use of a public utility based on the energy source.

In a letter supporting the bill sent to the Senate Utilities Committee, Black Hills Energy General Manager Jerry Watkins said that “preserving energy choice” was critical for Kansans and that eliminating natural gas would affect its customers financially.

“Senate Bill 24 protects that choice in state law, providing certainty for Kansans that natural gas remains a viable option in their homes and for their businesses,” Watkins wrote. “This legislation provides a statewide approach to energy policy and would ensure governments do not restrict the direct use of natural gas in Kansans’ homes and businesses.”

Watkins goes on to specifically reference the renewable energy goals Lawrence laid out in its ordinance last year. He said that while Black Hills is committed to working with the city and other communities it serves to address sustainability goals, it believes natural gas is an important part of a sustainable energy future.

Sen. Mike Thompson, the chair of the Kansas Senate Committee on Utilities, said in an email to the Journal-World that the bill was not “solely” in response to Lawrence’s ordinance. Thompson said the sponsor of the bill is the Kansas Gas Service and that they have the support of others in the energy sector. Thompson noted the relatively low cost of natural gas and said that the worry is that if prohibitions on energy sources spread in a patchwork fashion across the state, there will be fewer gas customers to spread the costs around, and that could eventually make gas more expensive and less accessible. He said the committee is discussing which utilities the bill will affect, and that work on the bill would continue next week.

“I think the common goal is to provide a uniform statute that will ensure everyone has the choice of energy sources and types that they wish to use,” Thompson said. “It does not make sense to limit energy choices as all that would do is drive up electrical rates unnecessarily at a time when the demand for electricity is continuing to grow.”

The city’s ordinance, adopted in March of last year, divides the city’s efforts toward 100% renewable energy into incremental steps. The ordinance calls for the city to use 100% renewable energy for the electricity needs of its municipal operations by 2025 and for electricity citywide by 2030. By 2035, the ordinance calls for all energy sectors citywide to use 100% renewable energy.

Moore said if the legislation became law, it would limit the city’s ability to meet its ultimate goal of using all renewable energy for all energy sectors citywide. And Moore said the city was not alone in this potential obstacle. She said the bill has similar language to bills that have been introduced in other states, including Missouri, and could also be related to impending federal changes to energy policy under the administration of President Joe Biden.

“This is definitely an organized effort that is nationwide, and seems to be an attempt to try to get ahead of local governments who are setting some more aggressive goals when it comes to renewable energy,” Moore said.

In a letter to the committee, Mayor Brad Finkeldei said that the City of Lawrence was opposed to passage of Senate Bill 24, both on home-rule principles and based on renewable energy goals the city is striving to implement. Finkeldei said also that the bill would prevent cities from incentivizing or even encouraging energy efficiency or renewable clean energy.

“Instead of restricting cities like Lawrence, in perpetuity, Kansas can position itself to be a leader and invest in this growing renewable economy,” Finkeldei said.


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