Two controversial coal power plants that would serve Gunnison County, along with other parts of the the west, were stalled last week when the final operational permit for air quality was denied by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. The decision marks the first time an air quality permit has been denied in the United States based on carbon dioxide emissions.
The power plants were the center of local debate after Gunnison Valley citizens spent several months last spring attempting to persuade local electricity distributor Gunnison County Electric Association (GCEA) not to extend their contract with Tri-State Generation and Transmission, the entity proposing the coal plants. Tri-State is the primary power supplier of GCEA. The GCEA board went on to sign the contract.
On Thursday, October 18, Kansas Department of Health and Environment director Rod Bremby made the announcement denying the air quality permit for Sunflower Electric Power Corporation's coal power plant project. Sunflower Electric is a partner of Tri-State in the construction of the two proposed coal power plants.
The two plants were to be constructed adjacent to an existing coal power plant in Holcomb, a small town on the plains of western Kansas.
The plants were scheduled to begin construction next year and be operational by 2012. Tri-State recently abandoned plans for a third coal power plant in southeast Colorado, planned to be built by 2019.
In a written statement, Bremby said, “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.”
Tri-State and GCEA officials say Holcomb residents and even the state's own researchers were in support of the coal power plants, which they say would incorporate advanced emissions technology and support the local economy.
Some environmental advocates believe the Midwest will be much better off in the long run without additional coal plants. “This is going to have lasting rewards for the region's air, water, economy and climate,” says director of Environment Colorado Matt Baker of the air permit denial.
Western Resource Advocates energy policy director John Nielsen says Kansas' denial of the air quality permit shows the growing disillusionment with using coal as an energy source. “It's going to save Tri-State's ratepayers from having to shoulder the burden for dramatic rate increases that would have been necessary to pay for the Kansas plant.”
However, representatives of GCEA and Tri-State are skeptical about any savings.
Tri-State spokesman Jim Van Somren says, “It's a blow. This is a disappointing turn of events.” Van Somren says one of the biggest hits to the cooperative's budget is the cost of purchasing power outside its own generation field. Tri-State is forced to purchase outside energy when the existing coal, oil and wind generation plants do not create enough electricity during peak usage, particularly during ski season, Van Somren says.
Van Somren says the cooperative is committed to providing reliable energy and not leaving the grid black. In 2006 the company spent $247 million on energy from the open market to fill the gap. This year they have budgeted for $346 million.
GCEA board member Lou Costello, who is also the cooperative's representative on the Tri-State board of directors, says the resulting rate increases could come within a few years.
“That's going to happen quick if Tri-State can't generate their own resources,” Costello says. Furthermore, Tri-State will have lost millions of dollars in planning efforts and approvals, he says.
Van Somren says there's no long-range backup plan to replace the coal power expansion and the company will continue to buy energy on the open market to meet demand. Sunflower and Tri-State have until November 2 to file an appeal to the permit denial. Van Somren says Tri-State's board and executive staff are meeting to determine the best course of action.
Costello says litigation hasn't been ruled out. “There's no legal ground for them to not issue thisŠ This is the first (power plant) that has been denied a permit based on carbon dioxide,” Costello says.
The state of Kansas and the EPA do not have any current guidelines restricting the emission of carbon dioxide, though many lobbyists are pushing for a carbon emissions tax. In 2003 the Bush Administration ruled that carbon dioxide cannot be regulated as a pollutant. Current emissions regulations cover substances such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide.
Costello says the plant would have incorporated a state-of-the-art algae recycling system for carbon dioxide, a byproduct of which is biofuel. “If any coal project could be considered a decent one, this is probably it,” he says.
Van Somren says Tri-State's renewable energy program is continuing to grow and by year's end the company will be looking for bids on a 50-megawatt renewable energy project. “Tri-State knows that its generation portfolio has to have balance,” Van Somren says. “It will be interesting to observe this going forward. It's a new chapter.”