As Mark Schreiber drove the northeast backroads of Emporia, a place he’s represented in the Kansas House for the past four years, he talked fondly of his time working for Westar Energy and the many changes he’s seen in renewable energy since wind turbines were first introduced to the state.
Now the vice-chair of the house committee on Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications, Schreiber, a Republican, sees a distinct need for guidance if renewable energy is going to continue growing in Kansas.
Kansas is one of only eight states in the nation that does not have an energy plan, according to the National Association of State Energy Officials, a national nonprofit composed of state energy officials.
State energy plans aid officials in meeting future energy needs, according to the National Association of State Energy Officials. The plans often shape how much renewable energy is produced in a state and how the renewable projects are funded.
Schreiber plans to introduce a bill to create a task force to build a state energy plan. Schreiber envisions that the task force would be a large group representing all interests, including developers, utilities, unions, oil and gas, advocacy organizations and green energy groups.
Schreiber’s plan would make the Kansas Energy Office an independent state agency that would focus solely on implementing the energy plan. Currently, the Kansas Energy Office is housed under the Kansas Corporation Commission, which regulates utilities.
During the pandemic, Schreiber has been working on the legislation and has openly discussed creating a task force to develop the state energy plan. Still, no other legislators have signed on and committed to the project.
“I’m really going to have to sell it,” he said. “They want more details, and I can understand that.”
In January 2020, Governor Laura Kelly tried to move the Kansas Energy Office to her office to advance the development of a state energy plan, but many Republican legislators, including Schreiber, opposed the move and it failed.
“I felt it might make the energy plan more political,” Schreiber said. “I think there are some positives from a state energy plan, but it needs to be something that’s there all the time, not just when the legislators are there and not changed whenever there’s a new governor or a new party is leading.”
Dorothy Barnett, the executive director of the Climate and Energy Project in Kansas, alongside The Clean Energy Business Council, has long advocated for the State Energy Office to be separate from the KCC.
In August 2020, Barnett wrote an op-ed in the Kansas Reflector, arguing that Kansas needs a state energy plan.
“Across the country, State Energy Office’s play vital roles in implementing their state’s energy plans,” Barnett said. “A state energy plan will enable us to plan for a rapidly changing energy future, capitalize on the economic benefits of the clean energy economy, and enable Kansans to make energy choices that prioritize cost savings and sustainability.”
Evergy, the largest utility, said it would be interested in collaborating on a state energy plan “with the many stakeholders who have a vested interest in our state’s energy future,” said Gina Penzig, Evergy’s communication manager.
“We look forward to providing input if plans are presented to help facilitate that discussion,” Penzig added.
Americans For Prosperity, an influential conservative political advocacy group, said it would wait for more details before taking a position on a state energy plan. One of the the main goals in its 2021 legislative agenda is to lower electric rates for Kansans.
An Iowa Blueprint
Schreiber spoke with Brian Selinger, out of the Iowa Energy Office, about that state’s energy plan, since the states have similar wind resources. Both the ways Schreiber would like to see the energy plan developed and the plan to move the Kansas Energy Office, is out of Iowa’s playbook.
“I think Iowa has taken the right tact to it,” Schreiber said. “I don’t want it to become a list of requirements and mandates.”
Iowa’s state energy plan has become a blueprint for “best practices” across the nation, according to Selinger, as Iowa’s process heavily relied on public input and all meetings, notes and information were, and remain, open to the public.
“We just didn’t want anyone to feel like they couldn’t have a voice or role in the project,” Selinger said. “It was so important for us to be diverse – diversity in our resource mix and diversity in stakeholders… It helps us be more resilient.”
Selinger said the state energy plan has helped Iowa keep electric rates affordable, maximize its renewable resources and invest in battery energy storage, avoiding costly major transmission upgrades.
“We are the state’s energy agency,” Selinger said, adding that they’ve taken an “agnostic” approach, helping groups of all kinds invest in battery energy storage, from utility and industrial sized projects to small projects, partnering with universities and rural electric co-op.
Schreiber said he sees battery energy storage as the next big thing for Kansas, if a state energy plan is created and the right investments are made. It could be the answer to many concerns about the intermittent supply of electricity that solar and wind provide.
With an energy plan, solar could be Kansas’ future
In his Silver Chevy Silverado, Schreiber drove past the Emporia Energy Center, a gas plant built more than a decade ago to keep up with energy demands, and a new wind farm on the left.
Schreiber recalled that when wind energy first came to Kansas, turbines were smaller and people were eager to see how they functioned and how it could be integrated into the electric grid. And people were focused on how the turbines could be made better.
In 2020, Kansas generated more energy through wind than any other state in the country, and has the 4th highest installed wind energy capacity, according to Governor Laura Kelly’s office. This is up from the number two spot for wind energy generation Kansas held in 2019.
Kansas is one of the nation’s 10 sunniest states, with comparable solar potential to Florida and averaging more than 200 sunny days a year, yet ranks 43rd in solar generation. Currently, only 0.23% of the state’s electricity comes from solar.
“I can see solar following in the same path” as wind, Schreiber said. “It’s all about progression. … That’s how we develop things. We don’t find the solution right away, but we get there.”
A few miles north, the Four Rivers Electric Co-op is building a solar farm, with 1-megawatt capacity, a size Schreiber describes as a “good sweet spot.” It’s big enough to generate energy and operation information but small enough so the owners can grow the farm and develop other farms better.
“I hope we can get the support to move the plan forward and get some federal dollars to assist because I think as we are all seeing with the energy landscape, we are changing,” Schreiber said. “I think about those first wind turbines I saw being put in the ground and now look at where we are.”
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