Westar announces wind deal to meet Kansas renewable-energy rule as debate over repeal looms

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TOPEKA, Kansas — Kansas' largest electric company announced plans Tuesday to buy power from a wind farm under development to meet a state renewable-energy mandate, as legislators prepared for another debate over repealing the requirement.

Westar Energy Inc. said it expects Cedar Bluffs in Ness and Trego counties in western Kansas to start generating power by the end of next year. Westar, based in Topeka, said tapping the new wind farm will increase its capacity to generate power from renewable resources by 200 megawatts, to 1,100 megawatts.

Last year, Westar announced plans to purchase power from a new wind farm in north-central Oklahoma, starting in 2016. The company said by buying power from the Oklahoma and Cedar Bluff farms — which are being built by other companies — it will comply with a 2009 state law requiring wind and other renewable resources to provide 20 percent of each utility's peak generating electricity by 2020.

Some conservatives in the Republican-dominated Legislature still want to repeal the law after unsuccessful attempts during the past two years. GOP Gov. Sam Brownback said during an interview last week that he's open to phasing the rule out after lawmakers convene their next annual session Jan. 12.

The law's repeal has been pushed by the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and conservative organizations like Americans for Prosperity, the small-government group backed by billionaire political donors Charles and David Koch. Their company, Koch Industries Inc., with interests including energy, lobbied for repeal earlier this year.

"That'll be at the top of our agenda," said Jeff Glendening, AFP's state director.

Critics of the renewable-energy rule argue that such mandates drive up the cost of electricity for consumers. They also contend the state shouldn't pick winners and losers in markets.

Supporters of the law counter that there's no evidence it has contributed significantly to higher electric bills and warn that repealing it will discourage investment in wind energy. State Sen. Marci Francisco, a Lawrence Democrat, said the rule is also important with the federal government pursuing stronger air-pollution regulations.

Kimberly Svaty, a lobbyist for the Wind Coalition, said the industry has "never drawn the line in the sand," but said the renewable-energy rule has spurred investment and created jobs.

"The policy stability is really a key component," she said.

Brownback calls himself a strong supporter of wind energy because of its potential on the frequently gusty Plains, but he said in July that he's open to phasing out the state's rule because wind is no longer a fledgling industry in Kansas. He's also called several times for the industry and opponents of the renewable-energy mandate to work out a compromise.

"I want everybody in the room to develop whatever would be considered for a change," he said last week.

Westar spokeswoman Gina Penzig said the utility is not taking a position in the debate, viewing the rule as "a policy decision left up to our state leaders."

"We were motivated by customer preferences and cost," she said.


Online:

Westar Energy: https://www.westarenergy.com/

Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org


Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .

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