Rolling blackouts in Kansas restart renewable energy debate among state lawmakers

Titus Wu Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Snow covers the area surrounding a small wind turbine at the Kanza Education and Science Park near Interstate 70 and S.W. MacVicar.

As utility companies dealt out power outages for thousands of Kansans amid a historic cold front, state lawmakers have come to starkly different conclusions on what the event means.

The unprecedented demand on the region's energy grid from people keeping warm in near-zero temperatures, plus the extreme cold's effect on energy components, caused rolling blackouts on Monday and Tuesday.

To some, the events showed the need for a push for more investment in renewable energy, in an effort to stabilize and diversify Kansas' energy portfolio.

"Long term: we MUST address an energy plan for the State of Kansas to encourage power storage, microgrids, and a move to renewable energy sources," tweeted Rep. Brandon Woodard, D-Lenexa, a call echoed by other Democrats.

But on Facebook, Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, posted something radically different.

"Wind turbines are frozen up. Solar is useless," he wrote. "This is why the expansion of renewables is dangerous for us going forward. We are putting too much reliance on sources that cannot meet our needs, especially in times like this."

Picking apart the Kansas energy crisis

Thompson, who chairs the Kansas Senate Utilities Committee, will have much more say in what energy policies will be passed.

In a committee room where lights were turned off to help conserve energy, he told The Topeka Capital-Journal that some of his district has been affected by the blackouts and that he has been in talks with gas companies, Evergy and the Southwest Power Pool.

“This doesn’t have to happen. It’s terrible what’s happening,” Thompson said, mentioning as well the situation in Texas. 

He said that renewable energy sources such as solar and wind weren't reliable in this weather, with very little sun and turbines frozen.

Furthermore, he noted that natural gas is used as a backup for wind and solar farms when there isn't enough wind or sun, creating more stress on the grid.

"You’re adding demand on the natural gas resources to go to those quick ramping stations, and it just puts additional pressure," he said. "We’re putting all that out there, (plus) consumers are also needing the natural gas ... so it adds demand for natural gas that wouldn’t be there if we didn’t need to have to have that additional peaking power.”

Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, chairs the Kansas Senate Utilities Committee.

But environmentalists noted that according to the Kansas Corporation Commission, natural gas components and coal plants were also being affected by the cold, which Thompson acknowledged.

In response, he suggested nuclear energy, which "should be in the mix going forward."

“That coal right now is our savior,” Thompson still said. "We’ve got to have that bigger base load plants to supply the majority" of energy and increase the reliability.

Woodard, who himself experienced a rolling blackout early Tuesday, dismissed Thompson's blame of renewables.

"Sen. Thompson has made it clear that he does not accept the reality and the scientific conclusion of a changing climate," he said. "Yes, crazy concept, weather happens. But no one is talking enough about power storage. No one is talking about being able to conserve that sort of energy that we can use and tap into" in crises like this.

He said the crisis reveals more problems than just renewable energy, pointing to how Republicans last year rejected the creation of a state energy office and a statewide energy plan. 

"We have kicked the can when it comes to preparing or modernizing our grid, our power sources, our infrastructure. We're going to see more problems like this unless, long-term, what does our energy portfolio look like in our state?" he said.

Thompson had some thoughts on the extra storage.

”We don’t want to have all this excess capacity sitting around and not doing enough half of the year," he said. "It’s like paying for a tour bus when you need a minivan.”

Diversification in Kansas' energy portfolio

Woodard said the push for renewable energy would play a part in combating climate change, a cause for many of these extreme weather events.

"It's important to have a diversified energy portfolio. The more we can do to diversify it, it makes us more resilient," he said.

Thompson also said a diversified portfolio was important, but his view of it was the other way around.

"We’ve got to maintain a good energy balance here. Wind is already part of the mix, we have to deal with that. My concern is if we add much more of that, we are jeopardizing the reliability of our baseload plants in the state,” he said.

He doesn't like the talk of retiring coal plants after spending money retrofitting them, and said he's considered legislation on banning a move toward implementing more renewable energy.

"I’ve thought about it, but it gets to be difficult,” he said on potential legislation. “That’s why I’m trying to talk all the ... municipalities, big utilities like Evergy, and everybody to see what can we do going forward to answer that."

Rep. Brandon Woodard, D-Lenexa, speaks at a committee hearing.

Woodard thinks that attitude would mean lost opportunity.

"The reality is we have more wind that we produce in the state of Kansas than we can possibly use ourselves. We can use that and sell that to other states and regions," he said.

Anil Pahwa, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Kansas State University, said the events of recent days were a "once-in-a-lifetime type of event."

Pahwa noted that changing the balance between renewables and other sources, like coal or natural gas, wouldn't have made a major difference, as the cold weather was affecting all of those industries. 

Still, he said, maintaining a diverse array of energy sources is important.

"If one source is stressed out, then you have something else to fill in the gap," he said.

The Southwest Power Pool currently uses coal, natural gas and wind power in roughly equal measure, according to 2020 data.

Kansas itself is one of a handful of states to rely primarily on wind, which accounted for 41% of its energy in 2019. 33% of its power came from coal, while 18% came from the state's sole nuclear power plant, Wolf Creek Generating Station, and 7% came from natural gas-fired power plants.

How Kansas fared in energy crunch

Costly upgrades to the grid could have helped but likely wouldn't be called on except in black swan events, such as the cold front seen in recent days, said Pahwa.

"You could spend more money and beef up the infrastructure but if it is going to be used only once every 50 years, then you have spent a lot of money for not gotten much out of it," Pahwa said. "So that is the challenge. You have to balance your expenses versus what benefit you can get."

Kansas is part of the Southwest Power Pool, a regional network of grids in states from the deep south to the Dakotas. If a cold front were to affect one of the states, Pahwa said, it would normally be able to borrow energy from a neighbor without issue.

But the cold temperatures stretch throughout the region, straining demand in a way that SPP's executive vice president Lenny Nickell said was "an unprecedented event" in the organization's history.

Pahwa said that, typically, utilities will avoid rolling blackouts targeted at residential neighborhoods because of the stress it puts on everyday people, and instead would target larger industrial or commercial energy users. The fact that thousands of residents were without power showed how serious the events were.

But he also said that utility companies had responded well to the crisis, showing the resiliency of the system when compared with other regions — most notably Texas, which is the only state in the lower 48 to be almost entirely dependent on its own grid.

The substation at the Kanza Education and Science Park, off I-70 and MacVicar Ave., shows vibrant equipment that supplies energy to residents and businesses in Topeka.

"When you have a major flood, people talk about doing things or if you have a major event of any kind, then these issues come up," he said. "But I don't think it is a big alarm of any kind ... We just have to be prepared for weathering the storm. And so far I think the utilities and grid operators have done a good job."

Lawmakers still want more done.

Woodard is hoping that the governor will issue an order again to create that statewide energy office.

He said that among young people, both Republicans and Democrats tend to agree on climate resiliency. And he believes a crisis such as this one shows why bipartisanship on tackling energy issues is important.

Thompson said he would definitely be looking into the issues that caused the blackouts in the coming days and might even hold a committee hearing on it.

Regardless of the approach, both agreed the problem isn't going away.

"This is not the last time this is going to happen," Thompson said.