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Politics & Government

Kansas energy company abandons plans for $2.2 billion coal power plant

Two companies that battled for more than a decade to expand coal power in Kansas say they’ve abandoned their plans to build a $2.2 billion coal-fired power plant.

Sunflower Electric Power Corp., based in Hays, announced Wednesday that it will let its air permit for a proposed coal-fired plant in Holcomb expire in March, signaling an end to a project that drawn criticism from environmentalists. It was first blocked by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius in 2007 and then cleared for construction by the Kansas Supreme Court in 2017.

But during that time, coal fell out of favor for environmental and economic reasons. It has been on a decline nationwide for at least a decade as public concerns about coal’s contribution to climate change have risen. At the same time, competing energy sources, such as cheaper natural gas and heavily-subsidized solar and wind energy, have taken off. The Kansas plant would have been the first one brought online in the United States since 2015.

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As recently as November, Sunflower Electric told state regulators that it had “significant interest” in building a plant near Holcomb, a western Kansas town best known as the setting of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.”

Sunflower Electric filed for an 18-month extension with the state on its air permit, which is set to expire on March 27, and at the time the Kansas Department of Health and Environment told the company that the permit would lapse at that time if construction had not started.

After 15 years and $100 million invested in the coal plant expansion, the company changed its mind Wednesday.

“Fifteen years ago, the price of natural gas was high, and wind generation was in its infancy,” Sunflower president and CEO Stuart Lowry said in a news release. “At that time, the expansion of Holcomb Station emerged as the best way to meet our members’ long-term needs for generating reliable, affordable energy.”

Proponents of the plant said it would prove a boon to an area of the state with a dwindling population and economic activity.

Sunflower Electric already operates one plant near Holcomb, and the expansion would have added another 895-megawatts of capacity. Along with its largest development partner, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, more than $100 million was invested in the development plans for the plant, The Eagle reported previously.

In requesting a permit extension, Sunflower Electric acknowledged it and Tri-State no longer need the electricity that would be produced by a new coal plant. The company wrote that since the 2017 Supreme Court decision it has been looking for others to purchase power from the plant.

In a written statement Wednesday, Sunflower Electric said it “supported Tri-State’s efforts to market the permit to other utilities.”

Apparently, no other utilities were interested.

The Sunflower Electric announcement comes on the heels of a Reuters news report that coal-fired plants shut down at the second-fastest pace on record last year.

Zack Pistora, a lobbyist with the Kansas Sierra Club, said the permit expiration is great news for Kansas and a smart move for Sunflower Electric and Tri-State.

The more the state can use wind and solar energy, said the conservation group lobbyist, the better — for both the economy and the environment.

“I think we saw the writing on the wall,” Pistora said. “Coal is not the choice for new power, for Kansas or anywhere.”

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