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public hearing in salina schedule for sunflower coal plant


salina journal

by michael strand

salina journal

in 2007, kansas was temporarily in the world spotlight when rod bremby, secretary of the kansas department of health and environment, denied a permit to sunflower electric to build a new coal-fired generating plant in southwest kansas.

the decision was so widely watched because it was the first time a permit had been denied because of the carbon dioxide a plant would emit; it declared carbon dioxide a health hazard.

sunflower is once again looking to expand its generating capacity at holcomb, this time seeking to build a far smaller, 895 megawatt plant, instead of the twin 700-mw plants it wanted to build a few years ago.

a public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for wednesday at the kansas highway patrol training center. the hearing will begin at 2 p.m., with a break from 5 to 6:30, then resume until everyone has an opportunity to speak.

during the 2008 legislative session, gov. kathleen sebelius vetoed three different bills seeking to overturn bremby’s ruling, but after she resigned to become u.s. secretary of health and human services, gov. mark parkinson met with sunflower officials and reached a compromise.

included in that compromise, said clare gustin, sunflower’s executive manager for external affairs, was a much smaller expansion, as well as a commitment from sunflower to develop more renewable energy sources.

the plant is a joint project between sunflower and colorado-based tri-state generation and transmission cooperative.

among those opposing the plant expansion is scott allegrucci, executive director of the great plains alliance for clean energy.

allegrucci says that while the new proposal is significantly smaller — and will create less carbon dioxide — most of the objections to the earlier proposal still hold.

this isn’t exporting wheat

allegrucci says the bulk of the power generated by the new plant will be used in colorado, with sunflower customers getting just 10 percent.

he acknowledges that kansas exports lots of stuff, such as wheat, but says this case is different.

“we’re not exporting power,” he said. “sunflower isn’t making power and then selling it on the market — essentially we’re hosting a coal plant for an out-of-state utility … tri-state doesn’t want to fight this fight in colorado.”

and in spite of gustin’s assurances that sunflower is committed to developing renewable energy sources, allegrucci says the expansion would make it more difficult for wind and solar projects to gain a foothold.

“an overbuild of this size would flood our grid with coal-generated electrons, making (renewables) that much less economically feasible,” he said.

why not natural gas?

he also questions why sunflower wants to use coal to power the generators, saying he thinks natural gas would be better for a number of reasons.

“we have natural gas in kansas, and they could be using that and keeping the money in kansas instead of buying coal from montana,” allegrucci said. “even if gas prices go higher, at least the money would be staying in kansas.”

gustin says choosing coal over natural gas is a sound business decision. utilities typically use coal for so-called “base load,” because coal-fired plants must run constantly, and use gas-fired plants — which can be turned off and on almost at will — to handle peak loads only, because gas is more expensive.

“we’re not just biased toward coal,” she said, adding that the expansion is a 30- to 40-year investment, and that the company thinks coal prices will be more stable over that time.

who will buy the power?

allegrucci also says the plant isn’t needed now, even by tri-state, and that tri-state’s own projections say it won’t need the power until 2026.

but gustin says a contract westar has to buy 174 mw of power from aquila expires in 2018, and westar will need to get that power from somewhere else.

allegrucci also said it’s possible the federal government might step in to stop the plant expansion, even if state officials approve it.

in 2007, the u.s. supreme court ruled that the epa could regulate carbon dioxide, and allegrucci said the agency intends to start doing just that beginning in january.

exactly how that regulation will unfold remains to be seen, allegrucci said, adding that the epa has already required one plant in kentucky to use natural gas instead of coal, because it creates less carbon dioxide.

“basically, sunflower is racing to get their permit before january 2011,” he said.

n reporter mike strand can be reached at 822-1418 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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