After rolling blackouts, Kansas lawmakers reconsider a statewide energy plan

Titus Wu
Topeka Capital-Journal
State Rep. Mark Schreiber, R-Emporia, looks at notes as he listens during a hearing Tuesday on his bill that would create a statewide energy task force.

Early last week, a historic cold front swept through multiple states including Kansas, causing rolling blackouts as demand surged from folks keeping warm in freezing temperatures while supply dropped as the cold affected wind turbines, coal stacks and natural gas pipelines.

The event has renewed interest in the need to create a statewide energy strategy, and a bill moving through the Legislature happened to have great timing.

While state Republicans turned down Gov. Laura Kelly's move to create a statewide energy office last year, they looked at forming their own task force Tuesday, which would be required to create a statewide energy plan by end of January 2023.

"They approached it from an economic development, not from a rate standpoint or a climate standpoint, even though those may be affected at some point with the plan," said Rep. Mark Schreiber, R-Emporia, who said the bill started as a conversation with Iowa's energy office. "The key driver ... is someway to bring capital into the state. That's what I would hope be the same thing for Kansas."

The task force, according to a bill draft, would be comprised of six ranking lawmakers of two legislative committees dedicated to utilities.

Various energy and lobbying groups would also be able to send in a member for the task force. That includes the state's largest utility, Evergy; the Kansas Electric Cooperative Inc.; Kansas Municipal Utilities; Kansas Gas Service; the Kansas Independent Oil and Gas Association; the Climate and Energy Project; Renew Kansas, from the biofuels industry; the Kansas Economic Development Alliance; the Kansas Farm Bureau; and the Kansas Power Alliance, from the wind energy industry.

An energy economics expert appointed by the governor is included as well. All other members of the task force, such as those representing state agencies, are non-voting members.

Notably, of the voting group, only a minority is dedicated to advocating on behalf of renewable energy, which some pointed out while pushing for expansion of membership.

"I'm concerned that with such a large representation from fossil fuel interests, and also several members of the commission, of the task force, are explicit climate deniers, that the conversation would be stacked toward an all-of-the-above energy conversation that we've had for far too long in Kansas," said Rabbi Moti Rieber of Kansas Interfaith Action.

"Having this diverse opinion creates a stronger plan, a more inclusive plan," countered Schreiber, vice-chair of the Kansas House's energy and utilities committee.

Per the legislation, the created energy plan would have to address ways to stimulate economic development, enhance energy efficiency, build up electric vehicle infrastructure, bring forth new energy technologies and "promote diversity of the resources that supply energy to and within Kansas while promoting affordability for consumers and protecting the environment and the state's natural resources."

There is no direct mention of climate change. The closest was that recommendations had to "project future energy supply and demand and the potential impacts of supply shifts, geopolitical risks and uncertainties, technological changes and other factors that affect short-term and long-term energy needs."

"I would really love an explicit commitment to taking climate into account as we plan our energy future," Rieber said.

Zack Pistora of the Kansas Sierra Club listens Tuesday to a hearing for a bill that would create a statewide energy task force.

Regardless, environmental groups came out in support of the plan, saying the state has gone too long with no one direction on energy development. Kansas is one of about eight states with no statewide energy strategy.

"Kansas can be a leader in this energy transition, and we ought to be. We are blessed with the natural resources to provide for renewable energy," said Zack Pistora of the Kansas Sierra Club. "I want everyone here to really pause and think about what we saw last week," referencing the rolling blackouts.

Many asked for an earlier deadline for the energy plan of July 2022, fearing efforts could be complicated by reelection campaigns after July.

Only the Kansas Industrial Consumers Group came out in opposition to the plan, arguing that the state already had made much progress on energy transformation and that utilities wouldn't simply agree with the task force's recommendations anyway.

"What it's going to do is build a roadmap for investments that Kansas needs. That translates into a green light for utilities to spend more money," said the group's Paul Snider. "All that is paid by Kansas consumers."

He also said there was little to no emphasis in the bill on making electric rates low and competitive.

Schreiber said he wanted to make it clear this wouldn't result in mandates but rather encourage a statewide look at potential capital investments.

If the bill passes, the Kansas Corporation Commission estimates an annual cost of $220,000 for hiring staff to facilitate and coordinate the meetings and subject material. An additional $33,700 from next fiscal year would be needed to pay legislative members on the task force as well as other expenses.