By now, every child in kindergarten knows that coal-fired power plants spew destructive carbon dioxide into the air. Kansas Gov. Mark Parkinson is way older than a kindergartner, but is he smarter than one?
When Parkinson capitulated to Sunflower Electric Power Corporation and approved construction of a coal-fired power plant in western Kansas, he sucker-punched his predecessor, Kathleen Sebelius, who had mustered the political courage to oppose Sunflower's expansion for a solid two years.
The new governor also gave the finger to thousands of Kansans who had put exceptional pressure on their elected officials to hold the line against a dirty idea.
Parkinson insists that his behind-closed-doors agreement is a win for the environment. Sure, we get some more coal but, the governor reasons, we also get some neat perks, such as more wind-power development and a funky algae experiment.
That's just so much green wash.
Pitch staff writer Carolyn Szczepanski took a few minutes last week to actually look at Parkinson's deal with Sunflower. Someone had to because no one else in the media seemed to be paying much attention.
In a press release, the governor said the deal included an "unprecedented level of carbon mitigation" to reduce the new plant's environmental damage. In effect, Parkinson hopes to make up for the new coal pollution by balancing it out with renewable energy. In a news conference announcing the agreement, he said, "It is entirely possible that the carbon impact of this plant is zero or perhaps even less than zero."
By unprecedented, he meant imaginary.
Recall that Sunflower wanted to build two plants in Holcomb. Parkinson's deal allows just one. His claim of zero-carbon impact means that the governor is counting the nonconstruction of that second plant as a reduction in carbon emissions.
The deal also calls for decommissioning two oil-fired power stations owned by Sunflower in Garden City. The governor's office has suggested that scrapping those old clunkers would save 60,000 tons of carbon a year. Maybe — if they were still in use. But even Sunflower officials admit that the facilities have been inoperable for years.
As for green-energy offsets, all the wind turbines in the world won't suck a single pound of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
The agreement asks Sunflower to burn fuel that includes 10 percent biomass — grass, wood, ag waste. Burning a little biomass instead of some of the coal, the governor says, will spare us from 950,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year.
Except for one little detail. The agreement says Sunflower doesn't have to burn any biomass if doing so turns out to be "technically or economically unviable." Meaning: If biomass costs more than coal, Sunflower doesn't have to do it.
Craig Volland, with the Kansas Sierra Club, ran the numbers and found that, yep, biomass will probably be more expensive than the black stuff. So Sunflower will likely get to take a pass on that.
What else? When the Gov sends us an Excel spreadsheet calculating and outlining the carbon savings of the great deal he's brokering, we're likely — being curious and inquisitive types — to click on the "properties" section to see who prepared the thing.
We're not sure how to break this to you, but the document wasn't produced by Parkinson's office. It wasn't even drafted by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
The author is Wayne Penrod: an engineer for Sunflower Electric Power Corporation.
Beth Martino, Parkinson's spokeswoman, won't confirm that Penrod is the spreadsheet's author. "The offsets were calculated as part of the confidential legal settlement negotiations," she writes us in an e-mail.
OK. Parkinson greased the deal with Sunflower, but it required more than the new governor's signature. Before Sunflower got the go-ahead for its new monster in Holcomb, the Legislature had to sign off on the Comprehensive Energy Bill.
The bill passed overwhelmingly — with only two senators and 18 representatives voting against it.
We can understand their excitement about not having to spend any more time fighting about coal. But how did they miss the big black hole in one of the bill's main provisions?
Let's say you want to produce your own power. So you shell out for a wind turbine or a solar panel and hook it up to your house.Now let's say the equipment produces more electricity than you need. Woo hoo! You can sell that excess back to your local utility. The way to do that in Kansas used to be through a lopsided process called "parallel generation." Customers got stuck with the cost of the meter and shorted on the price of what they sold into the grid. The Comprehensive Energy Bill leveled the playing field with a new system called "net metering." Now utilities have to provide customers with the meter to read the homegrown power; then they have to compensate the customers at a reasonable rate for the power they produce.
But there are a couple of big problems with what the Legislature approved.
First, there's a cap. After buying a measly 1 percent of peak-demand power from citizen producers, a utility — Sunflower, say — can refuse any more homegrown electricity. So even though Kansas has 11,000 megawatts of generating capacity, Kansans will only be able to harness and sell a meager 67 megawatts.
Even worse, the net-metering provision only applies to investor-owned utilities. It doesn't include municipal utilities or rural electric co-ops. That means 551,000 customers of rural and municipal utilities can't get in on the deal.
A cynic might think that the loophole is there at Sunflower's urging. Steve Miller, the company's spokesman, says otherwise.
"We didn't testify on net metering one way or the other," he says. "We never expressed a view, period."
How courteous. Thanks, Sunflower.
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