15 years later, Kansas leads in wind power instead of pollution

August 15, 2020 7:00 am

Opponents of the Holcomb power plant rally in Lawrence, circa 2007. (Submitted by Robert F. Sommer)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Author Robert F. Sommer lives in Olathe.

In a year such as this, it’s understandable that two notable Kansas mile markers would slip by with little fanfare.

On April 16, 2020, the United States Energy Information Administration reported Kansas now produces more energy from wind (41% percent) than coal (33%).

Weeks earlier, on March 27, Sunflower Electric Power Corporation’s permit to build a new 895 megawatt coal-fired plant in Holcomb expired.

As the global climate crisis accelerates due to carbon emissions, we Kansans can pride ourselves on choosing wind over coal. However, we came perilously close to a disastrous path that would have made Kansas one of the largest contributors to atmospheric greenhouse gases in the United States.

Had it been built, that Holcomb plant alone would have poured an estimated 11 million tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere annually for the plant’s entire 40- or 50-year life.

But the original proposal was even worse.

Fifteen years ago, Sunflower filed an application to build three 700 megawatt pulverized coal-fired boilers in Holcomb, for a total of 2100 megawatts of electricity.

This proposal set off a political firestorm in Kansas that raged for much of the next decade. Sunflower had support in the Statehouse from most Republican legislators, who controlled both chambers, and in the early years at least, a likely, if reluctant, nod from Democratic governor Kathleen Sebelius.

But greenhouse gases don’t respect state lines, so eight attorneys general from states across the country voiced their opposition to the project in a December 2006 letter to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. They estimated these three plants, combined, would emit as much 1 billion tons of greenhouse gases before they were retired.

The AGs’ letter also signified recognition by government leaders that the Holcomb plants not only posed health risks to humans but would contribute to the “environmental damage associated with global warming.”

The Sierra Club’s Kansas Chapter had been tracking Sunflower’s interest in adding to its fleet long before this hat-trick of utility plants was proposed. As early as 2002, a Sunflower subsidiary known as Sand Sage LLC proposed building one 600 megawatt plant, but then had the misfortune to engage the ill-fated Enron Corporation for support and the plan fizzled.

Bill Griffith, who chaired the Kansas chapter’s executive committee from 2004 to 2007, learned about the Sand Sage project while attending Utility and Energy Committee meetings in the Statehouse.

In September 2006, responding to the new coal-plant trifecta, Griffith announced at a news conference in Topeka the Sierra Club would oppose construction of any new coal-fired plants in Kansas.

“There is a paradigm shift occurring in this country on energy issues due to climate change,” Griffith said. “It is not only a health issue but a moral issue as well, and we cannot allow new coal plants to be built to exacerbate this crisis.”

Griffith’s call to arms met with support from organizations throughout the state, including unions, health care workers, tribal leaders, faith groups and the NAACP.

The Kansas Sierra Club had little money and few resources, but it did have an impassioned and informed membership that understood the climate threat posed by Sunflower.

The magnitude of that threat also attracted nationwide attention and support from the national Sierra Club to organize and litigate.

Over the years that followed, the Sierra Club sponsored rallies, letter-writing campaigns and meetings to raise public awareness, but its most effective role may have been in state and federal courts.

The U.S. Supreme Court laid the groundwork for legal action in Massachusetts v. EPA, which found that carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases were subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act.

Then-secretary of KDHE Rod Bremby relied on this ruling when, in October 2007, after a bitter and rancorous year in the Statehouse and across Kansas, he denied Sunflower the permits, saying “it would be irresponsible to ignore emerging information about the contribution of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to climate change and the potential harm to our environment and health if we do nothing.”

Gov. Mark Parkinson would soon undercut the KDHE secretary in a deal with Sunflower executives and Republican leaders to build one 895 megawatt plant — a deal that excluded climate experts and Democrats from the room — but the Sierra Club and its coalition partners played the long game of litigation and attrition, and finally succeeded in stopping this plant from breaking ground.

Now, in 2020, Kansas is a national leader in wind power.

But the match of opposition struck 15 years ago by the small and underfunded Sierra Club lit the fire of statewide activism that prevented an environmental disaster.

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Robert F. Sommer
Robert F. Sommer

Robert F. Sommer won the 2019 Thorpe Menn Literary Excellence Award for his essay collection, "Losing Francis: Essays on the Wars at Home." His recent publication, "Zombie Power Plant," traces the Sierra Club’s role in the effort to stop the Holcomb coal-fired utility plants.