Sunflower Electric CEO to retire in '12

TOPEKA — The president and chief executive officer of a western Kansas utility that hopes to build a coal-fired power plant plans to retire early next year.

Earl Watkins Jr. says he'll leave the top management job at Sunflower Electric Power Corp. in January 2012, after holding the position more than seven years. In leading the Hays-based electric cooperative, Watkins became highly visible in political and legal disputes over the utility's plans to add at least one new coal-fired plant next to an existing one outside Holcomb, in southwest Kansas.

He and then-Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson struck a deal in May 2009 to allow the construction of one new coal-fired plant, gaining legislative support for initiatives to promote wind and other renewable forms of energy. Sunflower had wanted to build two new coal-fired plants outside Holcomb, but saw that project blocked by the state; legislators who supported the project in turn had stymied "green" policies favored by Parkinson and his predecessor as governor.

News of Watkins' planned retirement has surprised some backers of Sunflower's $2.8 billion project, and they praised his leadership of the company. But Watkins also received credit for pushing Sunflower to promote renewable energy from a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club, despite its strong opposition to the new coal plant.

Watkins said he told Sunflower's board of directors in August that he planned to step down. The utility hasn't formally announced his departure, though a listing of the opening is posted on PowerJobsDirect.com, an industry jobs-search website, with an application deadline of April 29.

"I want to spend time with family, and — as silly as it sounds — travel," Watkins said.

Sunflower's board named Watkins the cooperative's CEO in June 2004, after he'd served as an executive vice president and general counsel. Sunflower, formed by six western Kansas cooperatives, supplies power for about 400,000 Kansans.

U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp said the new coal plant will be Watkins' legacy. Huelskamp, a Republican elected last year in the 1st Congressional District of western and central Kansas, was a strong supporter as a state senator of Sunflower's attempts to build new coal-fired generating capacity.

"Earl would be the first one to say it's a western Kansas project, and he played a big role in it," Huelskamp said. "Hopefully by the time he leaves, we'll be digging, moving earth."

The plant's capacity would be 895 megawatts, enough to meet the peak demands of 448,000 households, according to one state estimate. Three-quarters of the new capacity, or 695 megawatts, would be reserved for a Sunflower partner, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association Inc., of Westminster, Colo. That's a sore point for many critics of the project, though supporters say exporting electricity is as beneficial as exporting beef, wheat and other agricultural commodities.

Supporters also have argued that the new plant will lead to an upgrade of transmission lines, making it possible to move large volumes of wind-generated power as well. They contend Sunflower's technology will be advanced and clean enough to serve as a model for the industry.

"He helped us overcome a number of obstacles to get there," said state Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton.

Environmentalists argue that Sunflower's technology isn't as advanced as portrayed and that the "green" legislation enacted following Parkinson's agreement with Watkins won't offset the damage done by additional greenhouse gas emissions. The Sierra Club has asked the Kansas Court of Appeals to overturn a state Department of Health and Environment air-quality permit issued in December for the new plant.

Yet Sierra Club spokesman Stephanie Cole said Monday evening that Sunflower has been a significant part of gains in renewable energy in Kansas. She said at times, Sunflower led other utilities in commitments to wind-generated power, most notably agreeing to purchase power from a wind farm outside Salina.

"There is no question we've had our disagreements with Sunflower related to the Holcomb coal plant expansion, but Sunflower deserves credit for their commitment to Kansas wind energy," Cole said. "While the coal plant dispute has been combative at times, Sunflower has upheld a high level of professionalism and respect towards Sierra Club and its members throughout the debate."