It’s a natural resource Kansas always seems to have ready on hand and never come close to running out of: Wind.
That being so, it should come as no surprise that as the debate over Sunflower Electric Power Corp.’s proposal to build three 700-megawatt, coal-fired power plants at the company’s Holcomb site has intensified over the last few weeks, the possibility that wind could be used as an alternative to coal has begun to circulate.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment has been deciding on whether to grant the Hays-based utility company an air quality construction permit for the three plants Sunflower is planning to build in a partnership with Tri-State Generation and Transmission of Westminster, Colo., and Golden Spread Electric Cooperative of Amarillo, Texas.
Originally, KDHE planned to hold two public hearings, one each in Garden City and Topeka, and accept written public comments on the company’s proposal until Nov. 30, but the state agency added on another hearing in late October to be held in Lawrence and then extended the comment session to Dec. 15.
Although Sunflower’s three-plant proposal has seen an extensive amount of support in Finney County, mainly based on the economic prosperity it would bring to the area, the plan recently has encountered some intense opposition in other parts of the state.
The opposition crystalized last week in Topeka as an estimated 100 people gathered at the state Capitol to rally against Sunflower’s plan and ask Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to place a moratorium on all state environmental permits for coal-fired power plants.
In turn, some of those opposed to Sunflower’s plan have suggested the company look into other, alternative forms of energy production, mainly wind-powered turbines.
“It’s not a pipe dream,” said Pete Ferrell, who owns a 8,000-acre ranch near Beaumont with a 150-MW wind farm. “Western Kansas could really get a breath of fresh air with this.”
While the idea may sound appealing on its surface, especially in a state like Kansas, where the wind seems ubiquitous, there are several problems with the proposal, said Steve Miller, Sunflower’s director of external affairs.
The first misconception, Miller said, is that there is enough wind to provide enough electricity for the company’s customer base.
“Wind is simply not a generating technology that meets the baseload demand,” Miller said. “There is no utility that has ever or could ever use wind for its baseload customers. You can use wind for your intermediary or peaking (customer) loads. I know a project expecting wind generators to (act) as a substitute for coal generators is not realistic. Wind doesn’t blow all the time. It blows the most in June, when we need it the least and it blows the least in August, when we need it the most.”
A baseload demand is the minimal amount of electric power a utility company must provide at all times regardless of customer demand at the given time.
Citing recent statistics from the Kansas Wind Energy Association, Miller said wind usually blows between 35 to 40 percent of the time during an average year in Kansas.
Since wind can’t generate an adequate amount of electricity, the need for coal or gas is not likely to disappear anytime soon, Miller said.
“No matter the amount of money we dedicate, we’ll always need to have gas or coal on stand by in case the wind goes down,” Miller said. “There is nothing the matter with wind … the secret is how to use all the resources available to provide those services at a low price. The big dilemma is, ‘How do you do that?'”
With global warming emerging as a more controversial, mainstream issue, using any kind of alternative fuels, particularly those that do not emit carbon dioxide (CO2) or other fossil fuels to generate electric power has gained popularity,
The idea that there is not enough wind to generate a large amount of electrical power is a fallacy, said Ray Dean, a professor emeritus of electrical and computer engineering from the University of Kansas, although other kinds of energy will be needed when the wind isn’t as powerful.
“In the U.S., there is a lot of capability for wind power,” Dean said. “There’s enough to provide three times as much electricity as is (currently) needed in the U.S.”
In other words, there would be enough wind power left over to generate electricity that could be used in other mediums, such as automobiles, Dean said.
Under Sunflower’s current plan, constructing the three plants while likely cost $3.6 billion altogether, with each plant expecting to take 42 months to build.
Dean recently has put together his own plan, in which a 100-mile long and four-mile wind project would be built along U.S. 50 in western Kansas, which would manufacture enough electric power to make up for the energy produced by Sunflower’s three coal-fired plants.
“That is what would be appropriate if we wanted to replace the whole system,” Dean said. “(But) I think the whole system is more than anybody needs … We’re overbuilding capacity here.”
Some form of gas-powered electric facility still would be needed as a system back-up, Dean said, to make up for any lulls in wind.
Based on calculations he has seen recently, Dean said the cost of the wind turbine project likely would come out to $5.6 billion.
According to Sunflower’s calculations, Miller said Dean’s plan would cost three times as much as the company’s current proposal, equaling out to $10.8 billion.
With the project’s price tag that much higher, those costs would have to be passed on to consumers, Miller said, which would have to be approved by the Kansas Corporation Commission.
Although customers obviously would be displeased with a substantial rate increase, Miller said it’s highly unlikely the situation would ever come to that as the chance the KCC would ever approve such a costly project is almost nonexistent.
“Any decision we make will have to be approved by the (KCC). … If they don’t deem what you’ve done is reasonable and prudent, they won’t let you recoup those (costs),” Miller said.
Once all public comments have been gathered, including from the three public hearings, KDHE will summarize the issues, respond to them and issue a public document.
Depending on how many public comments are received, it could take KDHE officials anywhere from two weeks to two months to put the final document together.
At that point, KDHE officials will make a decision on if and when to issue the permit.
The following area governing bodies and entities have passed resolutions in support of the project and sent written support to KDHE: Finney County Commission, Finney County Economic Development Corp., Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce, Garden City Commission, Garden City Community College, Garden City Public Schools (USD 457), Holcomb City Council, Holcomb Public Schools (USD 363), Lakin City Council and the Kearny County Commission.
By Scott Bershof
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