City officials explain why Lawrence didn’t take Westar’s offer of wind energy

photo by: Associated Press

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)

Some Lawrence residents are asking why the city of Lawrence didn’t take an offer from Westar Energy to power the city’s energy needs exclusively with wind energy, especially given that the wind rate is cheaper than what the city pays now.

Lawrence resident Michael Almon told the Lawrence City Commission at its meeting Monday that the city should invest in wind power for economic reasons, but also because of the city’s concern for the environment.

“That’s why this community is the blue bubble in the red sea,” Almon said. “We live by our values; we also live by fiscal responsibility, but the values are equally if not more (important).”

City staffers said they had been in the process of reviewing Westar’s offer but had not been able to determine — before all the wind energy was spoken for — whether it was a good idea, according to a city staff memo to the commission. It has been about six months since Westar announced the limited availability of wind energy, and Almon said he thought the topic should have been brought to the commission for consideration long before now, when it was already too late. City staff had prepared a presentation on the topic as part of Monday’s meeting agenda in response to comments recently made by Almon and another Lawrence resident.

In July, Westar announced that it would allow some of its large-demand customers, including Lawrence, to purchase wind energy at a fixed rate for the next 20 years. Lawrence — which operates dozens of buildings, as well as multiple water treatment facilities, sewer plants and pump stations — was not among the municipalities, universities and other entities that took Westar up on the offer.

Westar had 200 megawatts of wind power available from the planned Soldier Creek Wind Farm that will be operational by the end of 2020, according to a news release from Westar. Westar would offer a fuel charge of 1.8 cents per kilowatt hour for a 20-year term as part of the agreement. The reservations of wind energy were available on a first-come, first-served basis, and all the energy has now been allocated — Douglas County, Manhattan, the University of Kansas and Kansas State University being among those to sign wind-energy agreements with Westar.

The city doesn’t currently have a figure for how much it paid for energy in 2018, but the city paid 10.8 cents total per kilowatt hour in 2017, according to information that Sustainability Director Jasmin Moore later provided the Journal-World. Moore noted that the fuel rate Westar offered on wind energy, of 1.8 cents per kilowatt hour, is only a portion of the total bill. She said the average cost of the city’s fuel charge for the last five years was 2.1 cents.

Moore said the city used about 33.8 million kilowatt hours of energy in 2017 and about 34 million in 2018.

Municipal Services and Operations Director Dave Wagner told commissioners Monday that the city’s energy needs and use were complex and the city has been working with the company Black & Veatch to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the proposed Westar contract. The city provided the commission a timeline of the city’s review of the offer, which thus far had not involved the commission. Wagner said that while the analysis wasn’t done in time for the Westar offer, the city would be more prepared in the future.

“We just didn’t have the understanding, at least in my mindset, to pull that trigger at that point in time,” Wagner said. “To understand really what the impacts would be long term (and) short term, whether it was a benefit or whether there could be some negatives to that long-term commitment. So I think we’re learning from that.”

Commissioner Jennifer Ananda asked what would have been the risk of the city signing up for the wind-energy agreement. Wagner responded that perhaps a better renewable energy source would become available within the span of the 20-year agreement but that the city would then be committed to wind energy. He added that the agreement could also prevent the city from using other renewable energy sources, such as bio-gas or solar.

Currently, electricity purchased from Westar Energy for city operations is generated from a mix of power sources, according to information provided to the Journal-World from KCP&L and Westar spokeswoman Gina Penzig. She said that about half of the electricity is from emission-free sources — nuclear and renewables — and the other half is generated from natural gas and coal. She said electricity from renewable sources, primarily Kansas wind farms, generally provides about a third of the power for Westar customers.

Ananda, Commissioner Matthew Herbert and Mayor Lisa Larsen all said it was frustrating that the topic hadn’t come to them sooner and that the discussion was happening when action could no longer be taken. Larsen said it would have been nice to know about the proposed Westar agreement but that she doesn’t think the commission would have had enough information to make an informed decision.

“Yes, we need to move forward and we will; there’s no doubt in my mind, but we need to make sure we do it in a manner that spends our dollars wisely,” Larsen said.

City Manager Tom Markus responded that the public comments about the process had struck a chord with him and that in hindsight he wishes that he would have provided a report to the commission earlier to let the governing body know the review was underway. He said he thought that going forward city staff would need to pay more attention to such notifications.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article did not specify that the rate offered by Westar for wind energy is a portion of the total energy costs. The story has been updated to reflect that.


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