KCC better have the backs of state’s solar-power customers

King Solar owner Mark Horst installs solar panels on top of Ark Valley Distributing, the Budweiser distributor for Cowley County. (August 13, 2014)
King Solar owner Mark Horst installs solar panels on top of Ark Valley Distributing, the Budweiser distributor for Cowley County. (August 13, 2014) The Wichita Eagle

The logic behind Westar Energy’s request to single out its most conscientious customers and raise their utility rates is faulty to the point of being embarrassing.

Charging solar-power customers more because they’re trying to save energy is a literal power grab to tamp down the solar energy sector by creating less of an incentive for Kansans to find alternative ways to power their homes.

Yet that’s what Westar is asking from the Kansas Corporation Commission in its current rate increase request. The KCC, which acts on Kansans’ behalf in regulating electric utilities, should tell Westar not to penalize solar users.

Westar proposes a charge increasing solar users’ monthly bills by $28 to $37. The company offers that solar users are not paying their fair share like regular customers because when they use less power, they aren’t paying the same amount as normal customers for equipment upkeep.

Shameless reasoning.

The KCC started this whole controversy. It ruled last September that electric utilities could treat solar-power customers, or customers who use self-generation products, as a separate class in order to charge higher rates. Westar followed with a rate request that said residential customers who use solar panels aren’t paying their fair share for maintenance of the power grid.

Well, of course they aren’t. They’re saving electricity by using those panels. Critics poked holes in the logic, as well as data the corporation used to argue solar users aren’t paying enough.

According to the Hutchinson-based Climate and Energy Project, a renewable energy advocacy group, there are about 700 Kansas homes using solar panels. It estimates those who installed solar panels after October 2015 will see their rates go up by 50 percent.

That kind of rate increase is a killer to anyone considering becoming solar customers. In some cases, it becomes more expensive to be a solar customer than to disconnect panels and become a typical ratepayer.

Reaction to Westar’s request — which includes a $4-per-month base rate increase for all customers — has been strong. A Topeka KCC hearing spurred a second last month in Wichita, where 100 people attended and was preceded by a solar-power rally that included lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

The Citizens Utility Ratepayer Board, which represents consumers in rate cases, is fighting Westar’s request. So are KCC staff members, who say Westar should turn its proposed $17.2 million rate hike into rate cuts of at least $69 million.

That would get Westar’s 700,000 customers in Kansas more in line with what those in neighboring states are paying. But at this point, simply turning away illogical rate policies would be a good start.

The KCC will accept public comments through Wednesday, then is expected to rule in September. Regular customers and solar customers alike should lean hard on the KCC to turn away this illogical, bewildering request.