Fight Looms Over Kansas Renewable Energy Standards

Jan 27, 2015


Environmental activists and wind industry representatives in Kansas are girding for another fight over the state's renewable energy standards.
Credit Westar Energy

Rep. John Whitmer says he didn’t follow the ongoing debate on whether to repeal the state’s renewable energy standards before he arrived in the Legislature this month.

But as a new member of the House Energy and Environment Committee, Whitmer said he anticipates being immersed in the debate soon. 

“Oh, I’m sure we’ll hear about it,” he said with a laugh. “I’m sure it will come up.”

Whitmer, a Republican from Wichita, was among lawmakers on House and Senate energy and utility committees who recently got briefings from a host of energy sector lobbyists and government officials who regulate the industry.

There have been no bill hearings yet, but environmental activists and wind industry representatives are girding for another fight over the state’s renewable energy standards and possible efforts to delay the state’s compliance with new rules from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that seek to curb carbon emissions.

The emissions have been linked to global climate change, which has implications for human health , including illnesses related to heat and poor air quality.  

The renewable portfolio standards (RPS) that legislators passed in 2009 require Kansas utilities to glean 20 percent of their electricity from sources like wind, solar and biomass by 2020.

Utility companies have been steadily climbing toward that goal ahead of schedule. But groups like Americans for Prosperity — which is tied to Wichita brothers Charles and David Koch, who made billions in the oil and natural gas industry — have said the standards distort the free market and should be scuttled.

Three years of efforts to repeal the Kansas standards culminated last year in a house vote that fell three short of phasing them out. 

New House makeup

The 2014 elections included all 125 House seats, but the resulting body is much the same: Republican-dominated but split between Republicans who believe the standards are an unfair government manipulation of the energy market and those, particularly from wind-producing counties, who believe promoting renewable development has been good for the state.

Lobbyists on each side are trying to pin down where the new House members stand.

“I’m not a big ‘government-interfering-in-the-marketplace’ guy,” said Whitmer, who campaigned as a conservative. “My general inclination is, ‘Why is the government messing in incentives?’ But what is it, 19 percent and it’s 1 percent away? There’s a pragmatic (argument). I’d have to hear some more about it.”

Rep. John Carmichael, a Democrat from Wichita who also sits on the energy committee, said he thinks a bill to end the renewable standards probably will advance out of committee again. But he doubts it will go further than that.

“Obviously the (energy) committee has been reappointed in a fashion that favors reporting out repeal of RPS,” Carmichael said. “As to whether the composition of the full House will lead to repeal of RPS, I doubt it.”

Kimberly Svaty, a spokeswoman for the Wind Coalition, which represents several wind industry interests, said her group hopes legislators will focus on the state’s budget crisis this year instead.

“There’s certainly the recognition that the state is currently experiencing a pretty difficult, challenging time ahead and perhaps lawmakers should stay focused on addressing those economic issues first and foremost without getting into any of those sideshow issues,” she said.

The standards have been a successful policy for the state, Svaty said, driving billions of dollars in wind energy investments that have helped push utilities to within a single percentage point of their 2020 goal five years early.

During a committee hearing last week, Rep. Craig McPherson, a Republican from Overland Park, asked Svaty if the wind industry’s success means the RPS should end.

“Is there a point we kind of say, ‘Job well done’?” McPherson asked. “We’re currently at 19.4 percent; the renewable energy portfolio standard takes us to 20 percent. When we get to that 20 percent do we say, ‘OK, we’re good. We don’t need to have these artificial market constraints; the wind industry is alive and vibrant’?”

Svaty said that’s a conversation the Legislature could have, but having the standards in place sends a message to the wind industry that the state remains committed to renewable energy.

Changing them could jeopardize the sense of regulatory certainty that drove innovation and expansion of a wind industry that will be key to the state meeting the new EPA emission guidelines, she said.

State or federal plan?

The Kansas House passed a resolution last year condemning the federal plan, after removing language that denied the existence of human-caused climate change.

Moti Rieber, a rabbi who heads Kansas Interfaith Power & Light, an organization of environmentally minded religious leaders, said he fears legislators will attempt to block the Kansas Department of Health and Environment from forming a plan to meet the EPA mandates.

He said they could order legislative review of any state plan, direct KDHE to wait until any litigation over the mandates is over before developing a plan or simply bar KDHE from forming a plan.

“We basically don’t want them to interfere in any way with KDHE’s ability to develop a state plan,” Rieber said. “If we don’t have a state plan, we’ll have a federal plan, and none of us want that.”

The Senate Public Utilities Committee heard a briefing last week on the EPA rules —  known as 111(d) for their place in the Clean Air Act — from state officials who said they doubted that any plan, state or federal, could meet the emission reduction targets.

A state plan is due in the summer of 2016 and initial reductions must begin in 2020.

“That 2020 goal is a real challenge, because a lot of changes would have to be made,” said Tom Gross, the chief of KDHE’s air monitoring and planning division. “Changes in power generation, transmission, you name it, all tend to take more time than the time we have.”

But Gross said he’d still prefer that the compliance plan remain within the purview of the state rather than the federal government.

Rieber said his group thinks KDHE and the Kansas Corporation Commission are “significantly underestimating” how much the state can reduce its emissions by using energy more efficiently.

“Oh, and climate change is a real thing,” he added, “and we should do our part.”

Retaining the state’s renewable standards also fits that philosophy, Rieber said. “We trust that if (repeal) comes up again, it will get the same result it got last year, which is the policy will be upheld.”

Sen. Rob Olson, a Republican from Olathe who chairs the Senate Utilities Committee, advocated repealing the standards last year but said last week he is “not looking for any changes either way” on it this year.

He does, however, want his committee members to be prepared to debate the standards and other energy issues.

“Right now we are just re-educating the committee, to make sure if we have some major issues before us — if the RPS comes back, or if we’re dealing with 111(d) or any other issues like that — that the committee has all the answers before we get to debating,” Olson said. “Just to make a better debate on the floor, and a better debate in committee.”

Andy Marso is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.