Westar Energy and customers are fighting over the sun

How to slash your power bill by using solar panels

Retired engineer Bruce Duckett shares his experience with the simplicity of having solar panels. He financed them with no money down, federal tax credits and a manufacturer's rebate. (Karen Nelson/The Sun Herald)
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Retired engineer Bruce Duckett shares his experience with the simplicity of having solar panels. He financed them with no money down, federal tax credits and a manufacturer's rebate. (Karen Nelson/The Sun Herald)

Kansans who generate some of their own electricity are fighting Westar Energy over proposed rates they say could cast a huge shadow over solar power in the Sunflower State.

As part of a broader rate increase, Westar is proposing a mandatory extra charge on customers who install rooftop solar panels to cut their electric bills.

Solar power enthusiasts say Westar wants to crush home solar to maintain its monopoly control over energy long into the future.

"One thing Kansans have always prided themselves on is their independence, resourcefulness and the like," said Ryan Jamison, a Topeka business consultant who helps clients reduce energy use and get into self-generation. "Now, ingenuity and resourcefulness, in my opinion, almost seems like it's about to be penalized."

Westar contends that people with their own solar panels are still using the company's power distribution grid, but they're not paying as much for all that infrastructure because they buy a lot less electricity than the common customer..

"Customers without private solar are subsidizing customers with private solar," said Jeff Martin, a Westar vice president.

And even if the company's rate increase is granted, "those particular (solar) customers are saving money," he said.

The issue will be decided by the three-member Kansas Corporation Commission, which sets rates for privately owned utility companies throughout the state.

If Westar wins the argument, solar customers would still pay the regular rate for basic monthly service, the same as any customer. Westar wants to increase that by $4 a month to $18.50 for all customers.

In addition, all customers pay a charge for each kilowatt-hour of electricity they use. Under Westar's proposal, that rate would be about 5.6 cents for regular customers and 7.2 cents for solar customers, according to the company's rate filing.

Solar customers also get a relatively small payback for any excess power they can feed back into the electrical system when their home isn't using all the power their solar panels are generating.

The big controversy is over Westar's proposal to start levying a mandatory "demand charge" on its solar customers, based on their peak use of Westar-generated power between 2 and 7 p.m., when energy demand is at its highest.

That extra charge would be based on the customers' highest hour of usage each month. The number of kilowatts used during that hour would be multiplied by a dollar figure, $3.15 in the winter and $9.45 in the summer.

So for example, a solar customer using very little line power most of the month might have a single hour on a summer day when the home draws three or four kilowatts. That would add $28.35 or $37.80 to the bill.

Solar customers are only a tiny fraction of Westar's overall customer base — about 750 users out of 700,000 total customers.

But both sides are looking ahead to the future as they battle over rates.

The underlying issue is whether future solar power will come more from rooftop panels on individual homes, or through Westar's lines from utility-scale plants.

Westar hasn't been shy about helping deploy solar energy to institutional users. The company has provided grants to install solar at Friends University and University United Methodist Church in Wichita, among others.

Advocates say that shows the company understands the benefit of solar power, but wants to keep it for themselves.

"I like Westar and I'm really appreciative of Westar, but I think Westar just wants the solar all on their side of the meter," said Cherri Harper, a St. George resident who's part of the Flint Hills Renewable Energy Cooperative..

The co-op is a volunteer group that helps homeowners acquire solar power by sharing knowledge and bringing together neighbors so they can buy panels in bulk at reduced prices.

"They (Westar) know the value of it," she said. "They just don't want individuals to be able to contribute in this way. And I think that's really wrong and I think it's shortsighted."

The decisions made in this year's rate case will lock in Westar rates for the next five years, under a separate agreement approved recently to allow Westar to merge with Kansas City Power & Light.

Advocates and business people in the solar industry say Westar's proposed rates would make home solar a far less attractive alternative during the rate moratorium and maybe longer.

In Kansas, it costs about $20,000 to set up an average home solar power system. That's a lot of money in a state where the median income is $54,000, said Mark Horst of King Solar, a solar-power company in Haven.

Westar consultant Ahmad Faruqui testified in the rate case that solar customers he sampled currently spend an average of $893 a year with the company.

The combination of increased rates and the demand charge would increase that to $1,341, which is what Westar feels it needs to cover the cost of service, Faruqui projected.

"This would reflect the removal of a subsidy to residential (solar) customers that resulted from setting rates for (solar) customers equal to those charged to the broader residential class," Faruqui testified.

Solar users are definitely not happy about that.

Supporters of solar energy wore buttons like this to a recent public hearing on Westar Energy's rate-hike proposal. Dion Lefler The Wichita Eagle

"When I generate more electricity than I use, Westar graciously pays me what they consider to be their wholesale cost to generate electricity — currently it's about two cents per kilowatt hour," Mark Ladesic, a Jefferson County farmer, testified in a recent public hearing on the plan. "They take this power and sell it to my neighbor for eight cents per kilowatt hour. That's a 400 percent profit."

And that's not the only way Westar profits off the solar customers, he said.

"Actually it's more than that because they have no investment in the maintenance (and) depreciation cost of the power generating equipment," he said. "It was my investment and risk that they're making a profit on. As a business person myself, I wish I knew how to make a 400 percent profit based on someone else's investment."

Solar customers say if they're going to be penalized for using less power than average, they think the state also should penalize regular customers who cut their usage through such measures as computer-controlled smart homes, energy-efficient appliances and low-wattage LED lighting.

Dan Cavalieri of Council Grove said his investment in solar has reduced his power use by less than a third.

"I'm only 30 percent reduced and getting a different (rate) tier," Cavalieri said. "If someone else is environmentally friendly and reduces that amount, shouldn't they have to pay (Westar) the same thing?"

Martin said Westar has studied usage and costs of service in detail. "What we found is the residential (solar customer) class, by itself, we do not believe that they are paying their fair share," he said.

Westar Energy vice president Jeff Martin. Dion Lefler The Wichita Eagle

Martin says one of the persistent myths about solar energy is that it's "off the grid."

It's not.

The only time solar users aren't putting pressure on Westar's transmission and distribution system is when the home solar panels are generating exactly the same amount of power as the home is using. Those moments are rare and short. The rest of the time, that home is either taking in power from Westar or sending solar power to Westar.

As an ordinary power customer, "I'm reliant on that grid 100 percent of the time," Martin said. "A (solar) customer still utilizes the grid over 99 percent of the time. So they're getting a savings but still utilizing as much of the grid . . . almost as much as I am."

A decision in the rate case is expected in September and the KCC is accepting public comments.

How to comment online, by mail or by phone

Online: Go to the commission’s website, www.kcc.ks.gov, and click on the “Your Opinion Matters” link to enter your comment.

By mail: Write to the Kansas Corporation Commission, Office of Public Affairs and Consumer Protection, 1500 SW Arrowhead Road, Topeka, KS 66604-4027. In you comment, reference Docket No. 18-WSEE-328-RTS to ensure it gets attached to the right case.

By phone: Call the commission’s Office of Public Affairs and Consumer Protection at 800-662-0027.

Dion Lefler; 316-268-6527, @DionKansas