Kansas Farms Are Battleground In Latest Renewable Energy Fight

Mar 11, 2015

Grant Bannister came to testify before the Kansas Legislature this week, traveling to Topeka from Alexander, in Rush County, population 65.

Bannister said his family had a typical Kansas farm — mostly wheat, some cattle. But he was addressing the Senate Utilities Committee about an entirely different income source.

“I grew up in rural Kansas, a simple farm boy,” Bannister said. “Now I'm selling wind energy to Yahoo.”

Bannister’s family joined with OwnEnergy, a New York-based community wind farm company, to build the Alexander Community Wind Farm, which is expected to provide about $7.3 million in revenue to Rush County farmers and ranchers.

The farm is set to go online this year and the energy buyers already include the Kansas City Board of Utilities and Yahoo, the internet search company .

Bannister said the project might not have been possible without the state’s renewable portfolio standards (RPS), and asked senators to reject the latest in an annual line of attempts to end the standards.

“Wind energy is one of the few bright spots in rural areas’ economic activity right now,” Bannister said. “I’d ask that it not be impaired."

The RPS, passed in 2009, requires that state utilities glean 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by next year and 20 percent by 2020.

The biggest beneficiary of the mandate has been the wind industry and, by extension, communities in the mostly agrarian central and western part of the state where the wind blows hard and consistently.

Opponents of the standards have tried for years to have them repealed, arguing that they represent an unfair distortion of the free market. About $500,000 was spent lobbying on the issue last year, resulting in a House vote that fell three tallies short of approving a phase-out of the standards.

This year’s bill would end the standards as of Jan. 1, 2016. Its success will depend largely on the votes of Republicans who represent rural areas like Rush County.

The state’s largest and most influential agricultural lobbying groups have come down on opposite sides of the RPS repeal bills, Senate Bill 253 and House Bill 2373.

The Kansas Livestock Association, which represents ranchers and feedyards, submitted written testimony saying it has a “long history of favoring free market policies and discourages government policies that interfere with market principles.”

The livestock association’s 5,600 members include hundreds of dairy farms and dozens of feedlots, two of the most energy-intensive sectors of the agriculture industry.

Aaron Popelka, the association’s vice president of legal and government affairs, also wrote that favoring renewables over other fossil fuels caused higher electricity prices for the group’s members.

“While wind may be free, the infrastructure and land used to generate and transport the electricity is not,” Popelka said. “As a result of the RPS mandate, wind energy was given a guaranteed share that supplants potentially lower-cost generation.”

The Kansas Corporation Commission, in past reports, has estimated that the RPS requirement raised most ratepayers’ costs by 1 or 2 percent.

The position of the state’s other agriculture lobbying giant, the Kansas Farm Bureau, could not be more different.

Kansas Farm Bureau, which represents 40,000 farmers and ranchers, not only urged legislators to oppose the repeal of the RPS, it supports extending the mandate to 25 percent by 2025.

Ryan Flickner, the bureau’s senior director of public policy, wrote that the development of wind energy spurred by the mandate had been an economic boon for rural Kansas especially.

“It has created numerous opportunities for production and construction jobs, it has produced a revenue stream for our members as well as other landowners around the state, it has developed maintenance jobs at wind farms and it has shaped our state into being a leader in the renewable energy industry,” Flickner said.

While Kansas Farm Bureau also represents dairy farmers and feedlots, the bulk of its members are crop farmers and ranchers, some of whom have been able to lease their land for wind turbines.

Mark Richardson, a farmer from Hutchinson, said the state should retain the RPS. Richardson said his family has depended on non-farm income for years in the form of oil and gas royalties, but they’re now down to one well.

Wind, Richardson said, is the next logical source of supplemental income to keep rural communities going as aquifers used for irrigation deplete.

“It is easy to recognize how valuable wind energy is becoming to the rural Kansas economy,” Richardson said, “and especially valuable to western Kansas, where water resources are diminishing.”

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