Kansas utility will try again for coal-fired power plants

LAWRENCE | A western Kansas utility is planning to push again next year for legislative approval of two proposed coal-fired power plants, and environmentalists are preparing for the debate.

Sunflower Electric Power Corp. wants to build the plants outside Holcomb, in Finney County. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' administration has been blocking the plants for more than a year over their potential carbon-dioxide emissions.

During their 2008 session, legislators approved three bills to clear the way for the plants, but Sebelius vetoed each one. Sunflower spokeswoman Cindy Hertels told the Lawrence Journal-World that the company "certainly" will try again once the 2009 Legislature convenes Jan. 12.

"It's all going to depend how the bill is crafted," she said. "We are hopeful. We know we have a lot of support."

Sebelius spokeswoman Nicole Corcoran said Monday that the governor hasn't modified her position against construction of both plants and limits on the power of the secretary of health and environment. Secretary Rod Bremby denied an air-quality permit to Sunflower in October 2007.

And Sierra Club spokeswoman Stephanie Cole said her group is ready for a renewal of the debate.

"We have been making efforts to educate our state leaders on the importance of clean energy and making a transition away from carbon-intensive fossil fuels," Cole said, adding that the public supports this position.

Bipartisan majorities in the Kansas House and Senate have supported the project, which is expected to cost $3.6 billion and is viewed by many lawmakers as economic development. Supporters also emphasize the potential for 1,500 construction jobs.

But opponents question whether Kansas needs the two plants to meet its power needs. The plants would provide 1,400 megawatts of generating capacity, enough to meet the peak demands of 700,000 households, according to one state estimate. Sunflower and a sister utility, Midwest Energy Inc., serve about 400,000 customers in 55 Kansas counties.

Sunflower wants to sell about 86 percent of the new power to two out-of-state electric cooperatives that are helping finance the project: Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association Inc. of Westminster, Colo., and Golden Spread Electric Cooperative of Amarillo, Texas.

Meanwhile, supporters question whether Bremby had the authority to deny the air-quality permit over CO2 emissions. The state has no written standards for greenhouse gas emissions.

Bremby's decision sparked multiple legal challenges from Sunflower, its partners and its allies. Three are before the Kansas Supreme Court and last month, Sunflower filed a federal lawsuit.