Board: Wind power line deserves more study

A proposed $650 million power line in western Kansas — and the future of wind power in the state — got a reprieve Tuesday.

Prairie Wind Transmission, which includes Westar Energy, and ITC Great Plains have proposed a 200-mile, 765-kilovolt line to link western Kansas, Wichita and lines from Nebraska and Oklahoma.

On Tuesday, the board of directors of the Southwest Power Pool, the agency that decides which regional projects get funded, overruled its own staff's recommendation to drop the Kansas project and voted to study it further.

Gov. Mark Parkinson, the Kansas utilities involved and others lobbied or wrote letters in support of the project.

A decision could come as early as the next board meeting, Jan. 26, but more likely will occur in the spring, said Kelly Harrison, president of Prairie Wind and vice president for transmission and environmental at Westar.

The project, called the V-Plan, is key to the growth of wind power in the state, Parkinson said.

"We need new power lines to connect east to west, and north to south — the V-Plan project does just that," he said in a statement. "I am encouraged to see that the Southwest Power Pool has reinstated this critical project to their priority list; my administration remains committed to seeing its ultimate approval in January."

ITC president Carl Huslig echoed that.

"We believe it is important for the state of Kansas and the region to have a project such as the V-Plan under consideration as it pursues the development of its wind resources," he said in a statement.

The power pool's decision is critical to building the project.

The pool, which includes utilities in nine states, has the authority to spread the cost of an expensive project such as the V-Plan over its member utilities, making it affordable to Kansas ratepayers.

Harrison, who attended much of the multi-day meeting, said there was plenty of politics involved in the decision.

Many utilities in the pool don't like or don't believe in wind power, he said. They lobbied to delay approval, saying future demand was too uncertain for a 765-kilovolt line and that a smaller 345-kilovolt would make more sense.

Harrison said he offered a compromise to build the 765-kilovolt line but operate it as a 345-kilovolt for first few years, reducing some upfront cost. A 765-kilovolt line carries six times the power, with less loss, as a 345-kilovolt line.

The board said it will study the line's cost if it carries 7,000 megawatts of electricity, or about 10 percent of the power pool's total power generation, and 14,000 megawatts, or 20 percent.

As a comparison, all of the wind farms in Kansas today have a capacity to generate about 1,000 megawatts. But the potential for energy that could be generated by wind in Kansas is more than 100 times that.

Another alternative is dual 345-kilovolt lines, Harrison said, but they don't have the same capacity as a single 765-kilovolt line.

Those who don't want the 765-kilovolt line aren't looking into the future far enough, Harrison said.

"They don't want to speculate or have a vision about what is needed 20 years from now," he said. "They are only interested in what is needed five years from now."

Harrison said the project should sell itself on its own merits. But Congress could give it a big boost if it approves a National Renewable Energy Standard, which mandates that a certain percentage of electricity nationwide come from alternative sources.

But, he said, for now, they'll keep pushing at the regional level.

"It's another step," Harrison said. "We're basically trying to navigate an aircraft carrier. It takes little movements."