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Renewable energy – it’s complicated

Some say it’s simple – wind is free, right? But by that logic about everything is free. Farming is free; throw a seed on the ground and it grows, for free. Oil is just lying in the ground, as is silver and gold. The reality, however, is that harvesting the crop, and planting and cultivating, or finding and extracting oil or metal and refining it, requires significant investment of time, work, and money. The more rare the commodity, the more difficult the harvesting process – the more costly the product.

Wind is, at least much of the time in Kansas, abundant. However, harvesting the energy of the wind requires much land, much highly technical equipment, and long transmission lines to move the energy from rural Kansas to the urban end user. Also, because we like electricity 24/7, conventional electric generation must still be maintained to back up the wind energy. This back up generation must be ready to come on line instantly when the wind dies down – trading the cheapest “base load” generation for the most expensive “spinning” generation.

So, what does wind energy actually cost? The Kansas Corporation Commission, per statute, calculates the cost of the renewable electricity mandate – which is mostly wind. They determined the cost to be only a couple percent of your bill. In order to better understand whether this number includes all the costs, Rep. Dennis Hedke and I met with experts at the KCC last week seeking answers. Specific questions dealt with how the KCC accounts for the cost of transmission, both ongoing costs and the cost of building the new transmission needed to accommodate wind? And also, how the expense of backing up wind is accounted for?

The answer we received is that neither of these costs is accounted for. There was recognition that indeed these are valid costs, paid for by the ratepayer, but determining a realistic estimate of this cost is “highly subjective and controversial” and beyond the resources that the KCC is able to give to this. The staff plainly stated, without counting all the costs, that conventional electric generation is slightly cheaper than wind. However, add in the unaccounted-for costs and the significant government subsidization of wind and, though wind may be free, wind energy is expensive.

I’m guessing that those wind turbines we see along the highways are in reality adding directly to each of our residential utility bills at least one or two hundred dollars per year. The cost to business and industry is much more, and we all pay for that.

After ten years of operation the federal production tax credit goes away. One Kansas wind farm has reached this point and we are seeing the effect – lower production – fewer turbines operating – more turbines in disrepair. And now the feds have altogether ceased to offer the subsidy, so we’ll see no more new wind farms built. The Coffey County wind farm may likely be the last built in Kansas, unless we force more to be built by maintaining the current state mandate, the RPS.

Conclusion: the wind industry in Kansas, its existence and survival, is purely political in nature. It exists only because of government mandate and significant government subsidy. Isn’t it time to move from the political to the analytical? It’s not simple; It’s not free; It’s expensive; It’s complicated.

Forrest Knox
Kansas Senate, District 14