Solar Advocates Push Bill To Thwart New Westar Rate Proposal

Feb 12, 2018

If you’ve got solar panels on your roof, Westar Energy wants to create a surcharge on your power bill.

The utility insists that if it doesn’t charge you extra, all of its other customers will get stuck with the tab of being ready with electricity when the sun lets you down.

Solar power enthusiasts want the Kansas Legislature to outlaw such charges, fees they say could stymie their industry’s growth. The resulting conflict could determine the future of solar power in Kansas and how the cost of keeping the electrical grid working will be split among consumers in the state.

For the utility, offering electricity on demand to a home that pulls most of its power from solar rays is a money-losing proposition. So it’s asking the Kansas Corporation Commission for the go-ahead on a new charge to customers for the service of offering stand-by electricity.

The new charge would come on top of the cost per kilowatt hour and the standard service fees that show up on power bills for all utility customers. Westar estimates the new charge could increase the bill of a customer with solar panels by as much as 50 percent.

In an attempt to prevent that move, solar energy advocates have proposed a bill in the Kansas Legislature that would require utilities to charge all residential customers the same rate.

Aron Cromwell is the owner of one of the largest solar retailers in Kansas. On Monday, he told members of the Senate Utility Committee that without the bill, the industry won’t be able to grow.

“The utilities will establish new solar rates that are designed to remove the financial benefit from producing your own energy on your own property,” he said.

The solar industry in Kansas employs about 500 people and is relatively small when compared to neighboring states such as Colorado, which has about 6,000 workers in the field.

Westar says that without an additional charge, the vast majority of customers -- those who don’t produce any of their own electricity -- will end up subsidizing the cost of solar.

“What we want to ensure is that when customers do make that choice that they are paying their fare share of the cost of the electric grid,” said Jeff Martin, Westar's vice president of regulated affairs.

He said the problem for the utility is that the amount of electricity any individual solar power user produces is unreliable -- sometimes it’s more than they need, and sometimes it’s less. Regardless, he said, Westar must be able to provide enough electricity to meet that customer’s needs at all times, even if the customer doesn’t end up using it.

Westar’s request is part of a larger rate change case before the Kansas Corporation Commission. The rate case also includes a request to increase the standard service fee for all customers by $4, increasing the monthly charge to $18.50 a month. The KCC will make a decision on whether to approve the new rates and rate structure in September.

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Brian Grimmett is an energy and environment reporter for KMUW’s Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett.