State line big factor in coal plant proposals

TOPEKA, KANSAS - The question often comes up when discussing the proposed coal-burning power plants in western Kansas: If most of the electricity is for people in Colorado, then why not build the project in Colorado?

Or as some have put it: Why should Kansas get all the pollution and almost none of the power? It's a key question as legislators and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius wrestle over the proposal by Sunflower Electric Power Corp. to build two 700-megawatt plants near Holcomb.

The Sebelius administration rejected the $3.6 billion proposal, citing concerns with the project's annual emission of 11 million tons of carbon dioxide and its effect on climate change. Pro-coal lawmakers are pushing bills in the legislature that would reverse that decision. Although Hays-based Sunflower Electric is behind the deal, one of the 700-megawatt plants will be owned by a Colorado company, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association.

Under the plan, Tri-State would transport the electricity back to Colorado or its customers. And the other plant will be co-owned by Golden Spread Electric Cooperative of Texas and Sunflower, with all that electricity going out-of-state except for 200 megawatts for Kansans.

Lee Boughey, a spokesman for Tri-State, said the reasons for locating its plant in western Kansas are complicated but make financial sense. Tri-State, which serves 1.4 million customers over a 250,000-square-mile area, decided it needed a plant to provide electricity to its customers in eastern Colorado to keep up with growth demands.

Expanding Sunflower's existing Holcomb facility "offered us an economy of scale," Boughey said. Sunflower already has a 360-megawatt coal-burning plant near Holcomb.

"By working together and sharing a facility, we increase the reliability to our members and Sunflower's," Boughey said.

But since Tri-State has coal-burning plants in western Colorado, wouldn't it make more sense to expand that facility and transport the energy to eastern Colorado? Boughey said it wouldn't. He said there are "transmission constraints" that prevent moving power from western Colorado to eastern Colorado.

"We need to build a more robust transmission system in eastern Colorado. We are proposing 1,000 miles of lines in eastern Colorado," he said.

But some environmentalists in Kansas have said the reason Tri-State wants to build in Kansas is that it would never be able to win the necessary permits for more coal-burning facilities in the more environmentally tuned political climate of Colorado.

Last year, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter issued a climate-change executive order aimed at reducing global warming pollution by 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Utilities are required to increase renewable energy.

"Colorado is now fully committed to a 'green' energy future across all sectors," said Bruce Driver, an attorney and consultant for Western Resource Advocates, an environmental law and policy center.

"It seems unlikely that the state of Colorado would look favorably upon one or more large new sources of CO2 in the state when state policy is markedly to reduce these emissions well within the lifetime of any new pulverized coal unit," Driver said.

A 750-megawatt coal-fired plant owned by Xcel Energy is under construction in Pueblo, Colo. However, that plant went forward after Xcel agreed to a host of environmental concessions, including adding more stringent pollution controls.

In addition, Xcel recently vowed to replace two older, coal-burning plants in Colorado with a more efficient natural gas facility, reduce electricity demand by nearly 700 megawatts through enhanced energy efficiency, and add 1,050 megawatts of renewable generation.

Jake Meffley, an energy advocate with Environment Colorado, said, "There is a lot of resistance in building any coal-fired plants in Colorado. Generally, people have assumed that placing it in that location (Holcomb) would be easier than Colorado."

But state officials say Colorado has not shut the door to further coal-burning plant development.

"There is no prohibition on constructing coal-fired power plants in Colorado," said Martha Rudolph, director of environmental programs for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

"Coal is a concern, as any fossil fuel is." And Tri-State's Boughey noted that his company is developing a site for a future power plant near Holly in southeastern Colorado.

That could be a coal-burning plant, but those plans may be years away, he said. Of the proposed Sunflower plant, Boughey said it represented state-of-the-art technology and would be among the cleanest coal-burning plants in the country.

"We could get that project permitted in many states, including Colorado," he said.


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