Hays-based Sunflower Electric announced Wednesday that Tri-State Generation Transmission Association will no longer pursue an expansion of the coal-fired Holcomb power plant and Sunflower will allow its air quality permit for the project to expire in March.

The decision ends a more than decadelong effort at expanding the power plant that was often opposed by environmental groups, including the Sierra Club.

Tri-State, a Colorado-based cooperative providing wholesale generation and transmission services, partnered with Sunflower in 2005 for the proposed expansion. Sunflower, a cooperative consisting of seven electric cooperatives in central and western Kansas, had been looking at expanding the plant long before that, Cindy Hertel, communications manager for Sunflower.

“We started looking at expanding Holcomb Station in the late 1990s,” she said. “Our members were looking for a resource that would be both reliable and affordable.”

At the time, coal seemed like the best option, Stuart Lowry, president and CEO of Sunflower, said in a news release.

“Fifteen years ago, the price of natural gas was high, and wind generation was in its infancy,” Lowry said. “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.”

Sunflower filed with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment for air quality permits in 2006 for three 700 megawatt coal-fired units; that was later reduced to two 700 megawatt units. The permit was denied in 2007 by KDHE Secretary Rod Bremby.

Two years later, Sunflower and then-Gov. Mark Parkinson reached a compromise allowing one 895 megawatt unit. Legal battles and various proposed environmental regulations from 2010 to 2018 resulted in Sunflower being granted two extensions to the air permit. The second extension expires on March 27.

Zack Pistoria, legislative director and lobbyist for the Kansas Sierra Club, told The Hays Daily News the organization is “excited to hear we closed the chapter” on the expansion.

The Sierra Club in 2006 had asked Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to intervene in the proposal by placing a moratorium on new coal-fired power generation in the state, and sued KDHE in 2007 to try to force it to hold more hearings on the project.

“We saw the writing on the wall for several years now, knowing that coal is just expensive and dirty and not the best choice for Kansas energy or anyone’s energy at this point,” Pistoria said.

The Holcomb expansion was the last proposed new coal plant in the country, Pistoria said. In November, two of the country’s largest coal plants — Navajo Generating Station in Arizona and Pennsylvania’s Bruce Mansfield station — closed down.

“It comes down to basic math. This doesn’t make sense economically. Coal’s expensive and it continues to get more expensive. Also I think there’s a greater awareness now of the pollution that coal plants put out,” he said.

Holcomb 2, as the expansion plan was called, would have produced 7 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, Pistoria said.

“I would expect coal plants like Holcomb 1 to be transitioned for benefit of other resources based in Kansas — wind and solar — in the future,” he said.

Hertel said Sunflower’s plans for Holcomb are “business as usual,” however.

The cooperative has become more involved in renewable energy sources through the years. Sunflower has a power purchase agreement for a solar field near Johnson City in Stanton County that is under construction.

With 86,000 solar panels and a capacity of 20 megawatts, it will be the largest solar field in the state. It is expected to be operational at the end of the first quarter this year, Hertel said.

“With any technology, they’re going to look at how that fits into our system," she said. "We already have natural gas, we have coal, we have a little bit of hydro, we have wind and then of course we will have solar.

“What other resources are developed will be determined again by what is needed by our members, by the load and what fits in from an economic and reliability standpoint."

Pistoria applauded the efforts at bringing in renewable energy sources.

“It’s a smart decision and makes sense for both the economy and the environment," he said. "And the more we can use Kansas-based resources, like wind and solar and conservation, versus continuing to buy coal from Wyoming makes sense to me."