Posted on Thu, Feb. 19, 2009
By Steve Everly and Karen Dillon
The Kansas City Star

Some are Frustrated KCP&L Hasn't Pushed Harder to Add Green Energy

Massive turbines lying in the dirt near Dodge City, Kan., have become a striking symbol for Kansas City Power & Light's foray into wind power.

The 32 turbines and 400-foot towers on the ground are worth roughly $50 million - and they have yet to produce a watt of electricity. Instead of providing enough power to supply 15,000 homes, they have become a local attraction for gawkers.

While the utility is pushing to finish its $1.9 billion, coal-fired power plant near Weston, it has not added any wind energy since 2006, raising questions about its commitment to green energy. The utility got national attention two years ago for signing a landmark agreement with the Sierra Club calling for wind power and other green steps.

Since then, though, officials have given various reasons why they could not add more renewable energy, including a difficult financial market. The utility last week announced that it was slashing its dividend in half and cutting other expenses.

Despite such challenges, KCP&L has said that it will build all the wind energy it has promised.

"We are 100 percent committed to the Sierra Club agreement," said spokesman Chuck Caisley.

Other utilities such as Westar Energy Inc. have continued to boost their wind power. In fact, Westar has tripled the amount of KCP&L's wind-energy capacity.

That has frustrated many who thought that KCP&L would push harder to add renewable energy.

"Some of their expenditures appear to have a higher priority and renewable energy appears to be down on the list," said James Zakoura, a lawyer who represents commercial electricity users in another case that called for KCP&L to have more renewable energy.

A Sierra Club spokeswoman said her organization also had concerns about KCP&L's progress, but it thought the utility still intended to fulfill the agreement.

KCP&L said it was meeting its obligations for renewable energy required in a plan approved by Kansas and Missouri regulators in 2005, as well as the Sierra Club agreement.

The utility built 100 megawatts of wind power in 2006, but so far not the second 100 megawatts that some regulators expected. KCP&L, however, argued to regulators that a second wind farm was to be built only if deemed prudent by the utility - and so far, the utility said, that was not the case.

The Sierra Club agreement calls for an additional 100 megawatts of wind power to be built by 2010, and 300 more megawatts by 2012.

In a conference call last week with analysts, a KCP&L executive said the utility had agreements that "preserved flexibility" to build the promised wind energy in 2010, although no decision had been made to proceed with construction.

Caisley said this week that KCP&L would continue to look at options, but it would build the additional wind power required by the Sierra Club agreement.

That agreement came about after several lawsuits by the organization to stop construction of the coal plant. KCP&L agreed to develop wind power and other measures to reduce greenhouse gases, and the Sierra Club dropped its legal actions.

The Sierra Club said the utility has complied with parts of the agreement, including helping push through a Kansas net-metering law that allows alternative energy to be sold to utilities by individuals.

Melissa Hope, the club's associate regional representative for Missouri, said KCP&L was uniquely positioned to take advantage of funding in the federal stimulus package designated for renewable energy.

"Hopefully that will weigh on their ability to move forward with clean energy and efficiency," Hope said.

But the Sierra Club agreement has lost some of its luster because other utilities that have no similar accord have made greater strides in building wind power.

Westar officials decided in 2007 to add more renewable energy to their mix of generation. By the end of 2008, they had 300 megawatts of wind power.

Westar last week announced that it was requesting bids for 500 megawatts of additional wind energy. Nearly half the additional capacity would be online in late 2010 and the rest in 2013.

The utility has postponed building a coal-fired power plant, saying that wind power, energy efficiency and a natural-gas power plant will supply electricity during peak summer months.

"We've been able to put off for several years a baseload plant," said Greg Greenwood, vice president of generation construction for Westar.

KCP&L has taken a different approach.

It planned years ago to build an 850-megawatt, coal-fired plant and reached out to others, including environmental groups, for support. Regulators approved not only the coal-fired plant but environmental upgrades to existing power plants and 200 megawatts of wind power.

KCP&L in 2006 opened a l00-megawatt wind farm near Dodge City. This month it provided an update to Missouri regulators, saying that financing was still an obstacle to building more wind power.

"KCP&L continues to monitor market conditions and will update the commission (Missouri Public Service Commission) if the company determines it has become prudent to proceed with a 2009 project," the utility said in the filing.

Regarding the Sierra Club agreement, KCP&L executives in the conference call last week said that "definitive plans" to move ahead with more wind turbines had yet to be made.

The turbines are near KCP&L's wind farm. They have been there since just after Thanksgiving.

Caisley said the utility was storing them there and had some options. It could store them until it decides to build another wind farm or sell them to someone else. A better wind deal could come along, he said.

So far, the turbines have become as big a draw as the ones that are erected, said Ken Domer, the mayor of Spearville, site of the wind farm.

"There's a lot of people who just drive by to look," said Domer, who added that some have come from as far away as eastern Kansas.

The sections of turbines and towers are lined up in rows and watched by 24-hour security.

"Nobody's going to steal anything "cause it's too big," Domer said. "You sure couldn't put it in the trunk of your car or in a pickup."

Kermit Froetschner, a farmer who has wind turbines operating on his property, said the new ones are about 3 miles from where the utility had planned to erect them.

"Before they just took them right to the site and the crane put them up," Froetschner said. "I would hate to think how much it will cost to load them up and move them."

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