Politically powerful renewable energy faces a threat in Kansas
05/20/2014 6:26 AM
07/23/2014 1:08 PM
Green energy just might be the country’s new political tough guy.
It has taken on the deep pockets of Americans for Prosperity and won.
It has battled anti-tax powerhouse Grover Norquist and won.
And in Kansas, it came out a winner after a showdown against the powerful Kansas Chamber of Commerce.
Across the country, state legislatures – even in deeply conservative states like Kansas – are turning back efforts to repeal green energy mandates that critics say increase costs for utilities and ratepayers.
Political battles to repeal the mandates have been fought and lost in Ohio, North Carolina and Minnesota.
For three years, Kansas lawmakers refused to eliminate the mandate, although opponents are inching closer to a repeal in a state where even Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, champions wind power.
Twenty-nine states have renewable energy mandates. Bills weakening or repealing the requirements came up in at least nine states this year, including Missouri and Kansas.
So far, no state has repealed the regulations requiring utilities to use renewable energies such as wind or solar for power instead of coal plants spewing greenhouse gases.
Generally, the mandates require utilities to buy some power from renewable resources. The state laws vary. Kansas, for example, requires utilities to generate 20 percent of their power from renewable resources by 2020.
Repealing the mandates has proved to be an uphill fight for otherwise influential conservative groups.
“I can’t think of an industry that is better connected politically in getting favors from the state and federal government than wind energy, ethanol and all the green energies,” said Christine Harbin Hanson, national issues manager for the heavy-hitting conservative group Americans for Prosperity.
Industry observers think Kansas came as close as any state to repealing the rules. Senators supported a repeal that was later blocked procedurally in the House by just three votes.
The issue likely will be revisited in Kansas next year. It also could play a role in this year’s state House elections.
Center of debate
Kansas is evolving into the epicenter of a national debate over the energy standards. The state has emerged as one of the country’s top wind energy producers, ranking sixth in electricity generated by wind in 2013.
“Folks on all sides are watching Kansas closely,” said Kimberly Svaty, who lobbies for the wind industry.
Americans for Prosperity and the Kansas Senior Consumer Alliance spent more than $300,000 trying to repeal the standards this legislative session. The Wind Coalition and Wind Works for Kansas spent about $60,000.
The Kansas Senior Consumer Alliance raised eyebrows at the Capitol because its lobbyist was a former state director for AFP. The group was founded by the sister of Ivan Crossland, chairman of the conservative-leaning Kansas Chamber of Commerce.
Americans for Prosperity ran a mass media campaign trying to tap into President Obama’s unpopularity in Kansas by comparing the green energy mandate to Obamacare.
Some supporters of the mandates worry that if the Kansas law is repealed, green energy regulations will go down elsewhere.
“They have made Kansas their primary target,” said Dorothy Barnett, executive director of the Climate and Energy Project in Hutchinson. “If Kansas falls with this amazing wind resource, (the renewable standards) are just going to tumble down the line.”
Kansas was ripe for the legislation. House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, and Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, sit on the national board for the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which developed model legislation for repeal of the mandate.
The state also is home to Koch Industries. Charles Koch is chairman of the board and CEO of Koch Industries. His brother, David Koch, is executive vice president. The Kochs founded and help fund Americans for Prosperity.
Koch Industries, which owns refining interests, opposes the renewable energy mandates. The company explained its opposition in an e-mail from Philip Ellender, president and chief operating officer for Koch Companies Public Sector.
“Government should not mandate the allocation or use of natural resources and raw materials in the productions of goods,” Ellender said in the e-mail. “History shows that the free market, driven by consumer choice in the type of energy they use, is a far better way to allocate resources.”
Koch’s presence in Kansas helped set the stage for the Kansas debate.
It also came amid a formidable wind energy industry in the state, home to 20 wind farms and a $7 billion in capital investment.
With a foothold in the Kansas economy and champions in various pockets of the state, the wind industry has allies beyond environmentalists interested in protecting the mandates.
Politico recently reported that California billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer planned to drop a small amount of money into the Wichita television market where Koch Industries is based. The ad will poke fun at the Kochs for not debating him about climate change.
The retired hedge fund manager reportedly is putting together plans to spend $100 million – including $50 million of his own money – in this year’s elections campaigning against governors and lawmakers refusing to enact laws protecting the environment.
The wind issue cuts across party lines in Kansas. Many lawmakers see elements of the wind industry in their districts, pumping new money into rural areas benefiting from the construction of wind farms.
Wind farms, for instance, make an estimated $180 million in lease payments a year nationally to landowners, including $8 million in Kansas, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
“State legislatures have seen the benefits, and they see what they risk losing if they don’t have this,” said Jeff Lyng, senior policy adviser for the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University. “Businesses have started. Projects have gone in. People are employed. It’s now a real economy.”
State Rep. Ron Ryckman Sr. of Meade is a self-described conservative Republican. He generally turns his nose up at government mandates.
But he represents Gray County, which has four wind farms. Wind farms paid the southwest Kansas county governments $1.2 million this year. Ryckman voted against repealing the standards.
“Wind energy is very important to my district. They are generating a lot of money,” Ryckman said. “It was a no-brainer for me to help protect the district. It was an easy vote for me.”
Opponents stake their case on the renewable energy requirement increasing the utility rates for consumers. They argue it’s tantamount to a tax increase on ratepayers.
Yet supporters of the law point out that the Kansas Corporation Commission, which regulates utilities, estimated electricity generated by renewable resources accounts for less than 2.2 percent of Kansans’ bills. Supporters say the mandates benefit the state with an inexpensive and plentiful resource that keeps the air clean.
“It really has been a good thing for the state of Kansas and at minuscule cost,” Svaty, the lobbyist, said. “It has proven to be an economic engine for the state.”
Meanwhile, groups like Americans for Prosperity look to be more aggressive in states such as Ohio and North Carolina, where they think the tide can be turned against the mandates.
Hanson thinks there are cracks in the support for the renewable mandates.
“Ohio is telling,” she said, “Kansas is close.”
“We are starting to see a very early emergence of state legislatures that are starting to reject” the mandates, Hanson said. “Talk to me in two years, I think the playing field will look really different.”
Editor's Choice Videos
Join the Discussion
The Wichita Eagle is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.