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Kan. lawmakers reject lessening green energy rules

Thu, 02/28/2013 - 5:13pm
JOHN HANNA - Associated Press - Associated Press

Kansas legislators aren't ready to back off a state policy requiring utilities to generate 20 percent of their electricity from wind and other renewable resources by 2020.

The Senate voted 23-17 on Thursday to reject a bill postponing the renewable energy requirement for four years, until 2024. The action, which killed the measure, came hours after the House voted 63-59 sending its own legislation lowering the standards back to committee.

The votes in both chambers make it unlikely Kansas will change its standards this year. Critics argued the rules will raise consumers' costs as utilities move away from cheaper fuel for their generators, particularly coal.

But the issue split the Republican majorities in both chambers, with some GOP legislators arguing the standards have made Kansas fertile ground for wind farms. Some of them said changing the standards could hurt such efforts — and the economy in some rural areas.

"It could actually jeopardize some economic developments in the future," said Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, a Hutchinson Republican who voted against the bill and whose district includes a wind turbine manufacturing plant.

Some legislators also questioned whether Republican Gov. Sam Brownback would sign legislation to back off the renewable energy standards. His spokeswoman, Sherriene Jones-Sontag, said he'd carefully consider any bill sent to him by lawmakers but remains committed to expanding the state's wind energy industry.

The state's standards require utilities to generate at least 15 percent of their electricity from renewable resources, starting in 2016, increasing the figure to 20 percent after four years. The rules were set in 2009 as part of an agreement with then-Gov. Mark Parkinson, a Democrat, to allow construction of a new coal-fired power plant in southwest Kansas.

The coal plant's construction is tied up by legal battles, and some conservative Republicans want to rethink the standards. They argue that the state shouldn't tamper with market forces that guide utilities' choice of fuel for their generators.

Both the House and Senate bills would have postponed the 15-percent requirement until 2018. The House measure would have kept it in place into the future.

"This is a pro-ratepayer bill," said freshman Rep. Craig McPherson, an Overland Park Republican. "This is a great opportunity to be able to make an effort to reduce those costs that your constituents are feeling."

At the urging of Sen. Forrest Knox, an Altoona Republican, senators included a provision in their bill requiring the Kansas Corporation Commission, which regulates utilities, to study the cost to consumers of imposing the standards.

Kansas utilities have acknowledged that they're already close to generating 15 percent of their power from renewable resources, and several wind farms have been constructed in recent years.

The state's largest retail electric company, Topeka-based Westar Energy Inc., is not taking a public position on changing the standards.

But the American Legislative Exchange Council, a Washington-based group that promotes free-market policies and brings corporate leaders and conservative state lawmakers together, has drafted model "Electricity Freedom" legislation for repealing such renewable energy standards.

House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican, and Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, serve on the group's national board.

In committee hearings, much of the public support for backing off the standards has come from conservative think tanks such as the Kansas Policy Institute, based in Wichita, and the Heartland Institute of Chicago.

The idea of revising the standards also has the backing of Koch Industries Inc., the multibillion-dollar Wichita-based firm with oil, natural gas and energy products interests, though spokeswoman Melissa Cohlmia said Thursday that legislation "was not a high priority" and noted that the company hasn't testified publicly on it.

"Overregulation, subsidies, and cronyism distort the marketplace and result in higher energy prices for every American," Cohlmia said in an email statement. "We don't think government should be picking winners and losers in the marketplace based on the industries or products it chooses to subsidize."

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The House's bill on energy standards is HB 2241. The Senate's measure is SB 82.

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Online:

Text and Senate vote on SB 82: http://bit.ly/13rRnli

Text and House action in HB 2241: http://bit.ly/15UIbFv

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at www.twitter.com/apjdhanna

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