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Wind talk nearly stops in Oberlin

A regionally-grown proposal to provide renewable energy to the city of Oberlin nearly died a painful death Thursday evening.

But just as Oberlin Mayor Joe Stanley was prepared declare its death, it was snapped back to life – at least temporarily – by a motion from Councilwoman Marcia Lohoefener, quickly supported by Rhonda May.

Minutes later, the entire council voted unanimously to proceed with discussions with Goodland-based Sunflower Wind to provide wind, hydrogen and methane power – all produced locally – to the city.

It took nearly two hours of discussion, in addition to drawn-out discussions during the course of two previous meetings, to prolong the issue, which had appeared to be dead for lack of a decision.

Sunflower Wind representative Brice Barton had all but said his company needed something right away or the deal would be over. In fact, he thanked the council for its offer of a letter of intent to work with the company, but said it simply wasn’t enough.

That letter of intent, he noted, easily could be overturned with the election of new council members.

After nearly two hours of discussion Thursday, council members said that was all they were prepared to offer.

“Is this going to die for lack of a motion?” Stanley asked.

That’s when council members agreed they didn’t like the idea of turning a cold shoulder on a local company offering to provide locally-produced electricity to the region.

If the proposal died at the feet of the council, Barton said, the project likely would die.

“If the city wants to continue a dialogue with us, we need some sort of reassurance that you want some dialogue,” he said.

In the end, the council voted to continue discussions and hire electrical engineer Joe Herz, Burr Oak, to help form an agreement.

How those discussions will shake out is anybody’s guess, considering the biggest stumbling block to the proposal was Sunflower Wind’s request for a right of first refusal for them to match any proposal from another electricity supplier.

Currently, the city purchases the bulk of its power from the Western Area Power Administration and the rest from Hays-based Sunflower Electric. That WAPA power is considered a gem because of its below-market price and because it is all renewable, coming from federal hydroelectric projects. That power is under contract through 2024.

Oberlin also has the capability to produce electricity to meet peak demand or when power is not available on the open market.

Sunflower Wind is proposing to provide all of Oberlin’s power needs, replacing even the WAPA power.

Sunflower Wind is proposing to install about 20 wind turbines in an area northeast of Oberlin, capable of producing about 50 megawatts of electricity.

In addition, he said, they plan to build a facility that can produce four megawatts of power from hydrogen and anywhere from five to 25 megawatts of “methane, depending on who we can partner with,” Barton said.

The methane and hydrogen facilities are alternative, renewable sources of power generation and would provide the base load when the wind is not blowing. Both also are unproven technologies on a large scale.

Sunflower Wind also has approached St. Francis and Sharon Springs about providing electricity. St. Francis has passed on the offer.

At Thursday’s meeting, Herz railed at Sunflower Wind’s inclusion of the right of first refusal in the contract they submitted to the city.

In fact, when discussion turned to the possibility of hiring him to help with negotiations, he said he’d have nothing to do with that portion.

“If the city asked me,” he said of being hired, “this right of first refusal would have to go out. If that’s part of it, then you would have to find someone else. I would encourage you to have a competitive process.”

“If there’s a right of first refusal, there’s no competition,” said Bob Johnson, manager of engineering and energy services for Sunflower Electric.

The proposal’s right of first refusal, he said, would give an advantage to Sunflower Wind, and could keep others from even submitting a contract.

Concern also was voiced about dealing with a company that has no background in production or distribution of electricity. Sunflower Wind also apparently plans to build its owns wind turbines, although Barton would not say where they would be constructed.

By Mike Corn

Hays Daily News

21 September 2007