The Kansas Energy Council, a group that advises the governor on energy policy, has put forth a plan for the development of wind power in Kansas. The proposal, which would require enabling legislation, would allow the Kansas Corporation Commission to consider the intangible benefits associated with clean energy as opposed to the large environmental and health impacts (external costs) of burning coal. However this new provision would apply to only 100 MW of Community Scale Wind (projects of 20 MW and smaller) and to one additional 100 MW utility scale wind farm.
It’s true that the KCC is an institutional barrier against the full scale development of wind power, because they currently consider only measurable costs of generating electricity. The KCC is also loathe to second guess the big utility companies’ choice of generating technology. Thus this proposal is well intentioned, but so halting and timid as to be counter productive.
This plan is based on the flawed assumption that all wind power is more expensive than burning coal. This may be true of small scale community wind projects, but it is not true of utility scale projects. This plan would require that community scale wind projects be locally owned, and then asserts that utility scale projects are mostly dependent on large corporate developers (read “out of state”). This is ironic since virtually all of the expensive components of a coal-fired power plant are imported into Kansas along with millions of tons a year of Wyoming coal that will feed its maw for 50 years. The owners of 3/4 of the proposed new coal burning capacity are from out of state.
Two important obstacles are holding up development of wind power in Kansas. One is a lack of transmission lines to bring the power from good wind sites in western and central Kansas to markets located primarily to the east. The other is that Kansas utility companies think that wind power is not reliable, and, anyway, they would rather burn coal like they always have. These problems are also interrelated because the power companies have traditionally been the ones to build new transmissions lines. If the power companies don’t want to use wind power, then they won’t build the new transmission lines we need.
Wind farms would convey very large benefits to farmers, ranchers and the rural communities of central and western Kansas. In the 2005 legislative session the Kansas Chapter worked hard to help pass legislation to create the Kansas Electric Transmission Authority (KETA). KETA now has the authority to issue public backed bonds to build transmission lines if the power companies won’t step forward. KETA needs to proceed immediately to put these facilities into place, and hopefully this part of the problem will be solved.
Our study of wind resources in Kansas indicates that dispersed wind farms in western and central Kansas would make a strong contribution to the grid when reliability is most important, during heat waves. On the few days when the wind is not blowing well, power companies could use their natural gas fired facilities or buy power on the open market, like they routinely do now. Power companies also have the option of instituting strong energy efficiency programs with their customers. In any event, spending $1.3 billion or so on a new coal plant would be like shooting a fly with a cannon. See the fact sheets on our website for a more detailed discussion of this issue.
The proposed cap on the KCC’s authority to consider the intangible benefits of wind power will become a de facto cap on utility scale projects in Kansas. Kansas power companies will use the 100 MW cap as justification for their lack of interest. Since the KCC rarely if ever challenges the utility companies’ choice of generating systems, the public, namely the Sierra Club will have to intervene and file suit to get fair consideration for wind power.
The KEC’s proposal would help get a small amount of community scale wind power installed in the state. The 100 MW worth of these small projects would amount to whopping 0.7% of the state’s electricity production. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the need for a rapid shift away from burning coal toward the use of renewable energy. If it’s the right thing to authorize the KCC to consider the intangible benefits of wind and the real costs of burning coal, and it surely is, then it would be the right thing to proceed without limit to use renewable energy in the state. In other words, scrap the cap!
This plan would also create a bureaucratic nightmare. It would require a wide geographic distribution of this 200 MW of wind power, a procedure which would mainly serve to chop up the total into smaller, less economic projects. There would be meetings to coordinate and vet developers and investors and then proceedings to create a standardized wind contract. Then there would be contract approval standards and specifications for operation, maintenance and warranties. It would take years to get all this worked out, all for a measly 200 MW of wind power.
This plan is a distraction from what really needs to be done. Some politicians will point to the KEC plan as evidence they are actually doing something when, in fact, they are not. Instead Kansas should join 23 other states who have instituted a renewable portfolio standard that simply requires power companies to use a substantial amount of renewable energy. Other states long ago struggled through their baby steps.
We must do something now about global warming, and it makes absolutely no sense to burn more coal. Kansas can contribute by using our vast renewable energy resources. If we do not act we will condemn future generations not only to the environmental and health impacts of burning coal but to an economy based on obsolete technology.