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State lawmakers navigate a hodgepodge of energy policy proposals with no clear direction
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Have you ever been on a long road trip with a group of disagreeing passengers? It can be dysfunctional, unpleasant, and definitely jeopardize the journey. Where to go, how fast or how safe to drive, when to stop, what to see, and trip costs may all be controversial variables to fuss over.

This year’s debate on energy policy in the Kansas Legislature feels a lot like a dysfunctional road trip with lawmakers grappling with diverging views about our energy future and proposals affecting electric rates, fuel types, energy transition and utility investment. Underlying the problem is that we have no State Energy Plan to guide us.

Evergy, the largest electric utility in Kansas, claims the state needs more energy generation to meet future power demand. Evergy has proposed House Bill 2527, a “fancy financing” bill to attract investors and developers for a new, fracked “natural” gas-burning power plant, along with legislation to allow full cost recovery for lesser-used coal plants (Senate Bill 455).

Our monopoly utility, Evergy, is acting like a stubborn driver who won’t ask for directions while clearly headed the wrong way, or let anyone else drive (i.e. not let others generate electricity). To add insult to injury, it insists on the most expensive gas-guzzling car, when we could be riding in the relatively fuel-efficient and more comfortable station wagon.

Large business interests such as the Kansas Chamber and Kansas Industrial Consumers Group want to pass SB 455 to add red tape to shutting down fossil fuel power plants, getting in the way of progress and saving customers money. Like Evergy, these groups want to continue down the fossil fuel road despite the warning signs and put profit incentive first, even if it means a more expensive, uncomfortable trip for the rest of us.

We might say the regulators are responsible for the vehicle, so they want a smooth ride on familiar roads in which drivers abide by all the speed limits and traffic laws. Meanwhile, environmental groups are pointing out the need to alter paths based on road conditions and severe weather (i.e. climate change).

Now, imagine that same rocky road trip without GPS or a map.

Kansas still lacks a State Energy Plan to guide policy, even though the state has had a water plan for years. We need a good roadmap that factors in all costs, including effects to public health and our environment, to get us to energy solutions that are low-cost, safe and reliable.

For too long, Kansas has relied on expensive and polluting Wyoming coal when we could be turning more to lower-cost energy efficiency, wind, and solar strategies.

Energy efficiency is often regarded as the lowest-cost and safest energy strategy — even utilities like Evergy agree — but Kansas ranks second-to-last among states in helping its people save energy. Investing in our homes and businesses and reducing our electric bills will reduce the need for new and expensive energy infrastructure expansion, such as gas plants. Today, homes and businesses use solar and demand-side energy savings strategies to help supply our utility with affordable, reliable and sustainable energy.

Our utilities need to do better to receive and reward that support.

Harnessing our abundant wind resource has led to billions of dollars in investment into Kansas, millions of dollars in landowner lease payments, thousands of jobs and reduction of regional energy costs — all in roughly two decades, and surpassing coal as our primary electrical energy source. We could do the same with solar power and energy storage.

Kansas ranks in the top 10 among states in solar potential, yet it is 44th in solar energy generation. Proponents of gas-burning power plants need only be reminded of the fuel-price volatility and gas shortage we experienced in Winter Storm Uri in 2021 (that most of us continue to pay for on our gas and electric bills). Instead, energy storage can provide a fixed-price resource that could firm up the ability of renewables to provide long term, cost effective baseload power.

When it comes to our energy future, we don’t need to know every detail, but we surely need to know what direction to go. Kansas doesn’t need any of the new, pro-fossil fuel energy legislation proposed this year, but we are in real need of an “energy compass” to offer direction for the future.

Unless the energy stakeholders (our passengers in this ride of our energy future) can collectively agree and achieve more certainty on where to go in the journey ahead, the road trip isn’t going to go very well for everyday Kansans. We’re all more likely to end up in a crash.

Zack Pistora is president of the Kansas Rural Center’s board of directors and longtime environmental lobbyist for the Kansas Chapter of Sierra Club. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate.

Zack Pistora