Economy

Kansas wind industry isn’t waiting for EPA court drama to blow over

Kansas’ abundant wind power was poised to help the Sunflower State and several surrounding neighbors comply with new federal requirements to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, however, those federal rules are on hold until the legal issues surrounding them are resolved. And the uncertainty following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia has scrambled calculations on how the court would ultimately decide the case.

Kansas was at once suing the Obama administration over the rules and developing a plan to comply with them, and now some state lawmakers are pushing to freeze that work.

Meanwhile, utility companies and electric power grid operators serving the state continue to expand wind power, thanks to the extension of a federal tax credit, regardless of what happens to the rules.

Kansas has the second-biggest wind power potential in the country, behind Texas. It ranks sixth among states in wind-power capacity.

“Wind energy remains quite strong,” said Tom Kiernan, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association, an industry organization. “It makes sense for states to move forward.”

Kansas was among nearly 30 states that sued the Environmental Protection Agency to challenge the Clean Power Plan, which would require the states reduce their carbon-dioxide emissions one-third by 2030.

Although Kansas is one of only a few states to generate more than 20 percent of its electricity from wind, it remains a heavy user of coal, which generates about 60 percent of the state’s power. The state imports virtually all of that coal from Wyoming.

Kansas generates about a third of the wind power in the Southwest Power Pool, which oversees an electricity transmission grid that covers 14 states. And there’s room for more.

“Going forward, we expect to continue to see growth in wind resources,” said Lanny Nickell, vice president of engineering at Southwest Power Pool, a regional transmission organization.

With an expanded network of transmission lines in the region, other states, including Missouri, can plug into Kansas’ wind energy resources to meet their own needs as well.

“We haven’t fully tapped into the potential that our region provides in terms of renewable energy,” Nickell said.

Wind energy was the fastest-growing source of new power-generating capacity last year, surpassing solar and even natural gas.

The industry got a boost in December, when Congress passed a spending bill that renewed a tax credit for wind energy production through 2019.

In January, Westar Energy, the largest utility in Kansas, ordered 122 turbines for a 280-megawatt wind farm in western Kansas. Siemens, which has a 300,000-square-foot factory in Hutchinson, Kansas, will build, supply and service the components of the wind turbines.

The same month, renewable energy appeared to get another lift when a federal appeals court declined to block the Clean Power Plan. Wind energy was expected to help the states comply.

However, the Supreme Court put the brakes on the plan in a 5-4 ruling Feb. 9. The death of Scalia a few days later created additional uncertainty, because the conservative stalwart had provided the decisive fifth vote.

The rule’s fate may hang on whether President Barack Obama names a successor to Scalia before the next president takes office.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is scheduled to hear the case in June, but the case may not be resolved until sometime next year.

“I don’t want to say it’s a lock,” said Michael Goggin, senior director of research at the American Wind Energy Association, who gave a presentation to the Kansas Corporation Commission the day before the Supreme Court stayed the rules. “We’re optimistic.”

While the legal challenges work their way through the federal courts, some state lawmakers in Kansas have pushed to freeze the state’s development of a compliance plan.

In a letter to the state corporation commission Feb. 11, Republican state Sen. Rob Olson of Olathe and Rep. Dennis Hedke of Wichita requested that the agency cease all activity related to the rule and its implementation.

The Kansas Senate passed a bill with that requirement the same day by 37-2. The state House has yet to vote on the measure.

Hedke said he and his House colleagues were working on changes to the bill that would allow state agencies to continue their communication over the Clean Power Plan while keeping compliance activity to a minimum, with an eye toward what the courts would decide.

“We’ll be watching it very carefully,” Hedke said. “It’s going to be a case of just trying to properly observe the landscape and react accordingly.”

If Kansas were to cease complying with the Clean Power Plan, it would join other states that have already done so, including Wisconsin and Michigan.

But if the Clean Power Plan is upheld and those states aren’t ready to comply, the EPA could force its own requirements on them, something that utilities would prefer to avoid.

“It is not helpful to have more uncertainty in the process,” Goggin said. “They could be risking falling behind other states that are moving forward.”

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis

Wind power

Top states (megawatts of installed wind power capacity)

Texas (17,713)

Iowa (6,212)

California (6,108)

Oklahoma (5,184)

Illinois (3,842)

Kansas (3,766)

Source: U.S. Department of Energy

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