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Kansas is on the front lines of the fight for solar rights

Kansas landscape by Ido Miran on Unsplash

In short: In 2018, Kansas had the highest year-over-year growth in solar jobs. That’s good. That job growth could be much bigger, but the state’s biggest electric company is actively making it hard for individual customers to install solar panels on their homes. That’s bad.

The Sunflower State is home to a vast agricultural economy, producing nearly 20% of the entire country’s wheat, among other crops. Kansas has nearly 46 million acres of farmland, nearly 250,000 farm jobs, and by most accounts is becoming the dairy capital of America (we’ll let Kansas and Wisconsin have a little talk about that over beers some other time).

An increasing percentage of the agricultural behemoth in Kansas is powered by renewable energy like wind and solar. In fact, Kansas is the nation’s top wind power producer, and renewable energy production provides 36 percent of total power generation in the state!

While in its infancy, solar energy is well on its way to becoming a major force in Kansas. But a first-of-its-kind utility company policy deters homeowners from getting in on the solar game by levying high fees on individuals who install rooftop solar panels.

Let’s discuss Kansas solar, and the ways Westar Energy makes it harder for homeowners to go solar, why they’re wrong to do it, and how we can level the playing field.

Solar job growth in Kansas

In 2018, Kansas boasted the highest job growth of any state in the solar power industry (on a percentage basis)! The state saw an amazing 66.4% growth in solar jobs in 2018, according to the The Solar Foundation’s 2018 Solar Jobs Census.

As of this writing, there are around 900 jobs directly related to solar in Kansas. That’s up 358 jobs from last year, according to Avery Palmer with The Solar Foundation. The Solar Energy Industry Association points out that solar prices have fallen around 47 percent in the last five years. That’s led to a big increase in utility-scale projects, even in states without any subsidies.

A field with solar panels, seen from above

Photo by Andreas Gücklhorn on Unsplash

66.4% job growth is huge, but it’s important to note here that Kansas has a low number of solar jobs overall relative to neighboring states. For instance, Missouri’s solar industry has 2,819 jobs, Nebraska has 1,328, and Colorado a very high 6,847 solar jobs (pun intended). To be fair, Kansas has around half the population (2.9 million) as Missouri (6.1 million) and Colorado (5.7 million).

“There’s a lot of sunlight in Kansas,” Palmer says, “and the state has enormous potential for solar expansion and job growth, if the right policies are in place.” But those policies are hard to find in present-day Kansas.

What’s working against solar customers in Kansas

Contradicting this job growth is questionable solar policy change. In 2015, Kansas became the first state to repeal its renewable portfolio standard. RPS laws are mandatory goals put in place to require public utilities to use renewable energy sources, but Kansas’s RPS is now voluntary.

This naturally means Kansas has no “solar carve-out,” which is a mandate for utilities to produce a certain percentage of energy from the sun. Kansas is also devoid of solar tax credits and rebates, or sales tax exemptions.

While all of that certainly creates barriers for Kansans hoping to install solar, we haven’t talked about the most controversial solar-related policy change in the state: Westar’s solar demand charge.

The elephant in the field, or room

Westar Energy's Logo

Westar is the primary electric company in Topeka, Lawrence, Hutchinson, and Wichita — serving some 700,000 customers. These cities make up the second-largest “statistical area” in Kansas, behind Kansas City (statistical area is a fancy term for overall population and media market size).

Anyway, Westar successfully pulled off a new demand charge for solar customers (conveniently called the “Peak Efficiency Plan”); this was narrowly approved by the Kansas Corporation Commission (KCC) in September 2018. It’s the first such charge successfully implemented in the US, after a similar effort in Massachusetts failed.

What Westar says the demand charge does

This demand charge is essentially a maintenance fee on solar customers, and in our opinion a none-too-clever way to discourage Kansans from investing in solar. The justification, Westar says, is that solar customers still use the grid and therefore need to pay into its maintenance. They argue that non-solar customers foot the bill for (typically upper middle class) solar owners’ systems in the form of subsidies, and that the demand charge is a way to create more fairness.

This seems like it might make sense, until you look more closely.

How Westar’s demand charge actually works

Westar’s charge is levied based on each customer’s maximum demand during peak hours. “Demand” just means how much power your home’s appliances draw at any single time, and “peak hours” for Westar are 2 p.m – 7 p.m. on weekdays—the time most folks return home from work and turn on all their lights and appliances.

The base charge is $3 per kilowatt (kW) of peak demand in the winter and $9 per kW in the summer.

So if you use 5 kilowatts on a sunny afternoon in June, your charge will be around $45 (5 x $9)! This gets added to your usual monthly electric bill. And 5 kW of demand can accrue quickly. All together, a microwave oven, a refrigerator, an air conditioner and the lights in your home might draw 5 kW if they were all operating at the same time.

Add in a clothes dryer and you’ve got another kW of demand charge. This gets ludicrous in a hurry, and at least some solar owners take extreme measures to overcome it.

Why the Westar demand charge is ludicrous (there are a lot of reasons)

Westar’s arguments for its demand charge begin to fall apart when you take into consideration that:

  • None of the financial and environmental benefits of solar are being considered in Westar’s rate case
  • Westar hasn’t shown evidence, or any data for that matter, on cost shifts between solar and non-solar customers (we’ll update this if they respond), and in fact, the commission tasked with studying whether to implement the charge refused to hear any evidence that demand charges in general are, “by (their) very nature unjust, unreasonable, prejudicial, disadvantageous, unduly discriminatory or unduly preferential.”
  • Any excess power generated (used in net metering) will usually be transferred to another home nearby, not far away, which puts less stress on miles of transmission lines and towers
  • It’s a slap in the face to a cultural shift in the Midwest addressing climate change

The most glaring issue for us at SPR is the message Westar Energy is sending to potential home solar customers, cleverly disguised as a ‘fair’ charge. It seems they’re using the demand charge as a psychological barrier to investing in home solar, despite its financial and environmental benefits, because a home powered by solar energy means less control for them.

Ironic that Westar and KCP&L are currently in the process of merging, and that the merger will produce a new company named “Evergy” (as in, we assume, “You can’t power your home with solar! We will be your energy provider forEVER!”).

The good news, those jobs, and Ikea

Kansas Governor Laura Kelly

Image credit: Laura Kelly for Kansas

There’s some good news in all this. Newly-elected governor Laura Kelly (D) has been cautiously open about expanding renewable energy sources, and her election is further indication that states in the Midwest are challenging the regressive image they’ve cultivated.

Farms are becoming cleaner and more efficient, and according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), total employment in wind and solar is nearly even with employment in the fossil fuel industry in Kansas.

In fact, Kansas is now home to 49 solar companies, according to SEIA – up from 41 in 2017. Though the state ranks 37th out of all states for solar jobs, it’s clear that the solar winds are a’ changing in Kansas.

The biggest reason for growth? A dramatic increase in capacity (a measurement of megawatt availability) for residential sectors. For example, power companies around the Midwest have been surprised by the popular demand for their “solar subscription” plans, which are basically beefed up community solar systems.

And then everyone’s favorite humongous-box store

An IKEA store, like any other

Image credit: Kgbo CC BY-SA 4.0

In 2015, Ikea (they make meatballs, right?) pulled the wraps off their massive 92,000 square-foot solar panel array on top of their store in Merriam, just southwest of downtown Kansas City. This is a massive 869 kW system, which makes up around 3 percent of the 28.77 MW of solar power installed in Kansas, including all residential and commercial installations.

Made up of 2,394 individual panels, the array can produce enough electricity to power 90 Kansas homes, and reduces 140 cars’ worth of carbon dioxide. Wow! And just to put a cherry on top of all that, geothermal power makes the store’s heating and cooling system hum.

While not their first solar project (it was Ikea’s 41st in the U.S.), Ikea’s Merriam project sends a powerful message that large-scale solar is coming fast, and is necessary for tomorrow’s America.

The Bottom Line

Kansas is a fascinating state to watch. On one hand, we have the power companies and regressive legislative policies, such as poor net metering laws and the repeal of RPS standards creating barriers to a renewable future in the wheat fields of Kansas.

Kansas lawmakers’ antiquated approaches put the state’s residents behind the times. It’s time for the powers-that-be to catch up!

More states are realizing that strong net metering policies and renewable portfolio standards help remove financial barriers for homeowners, and encourage a cleaner future for both residential and commercial solar investments.

Thanks to the widespread support of wind power, solar energy is on the cusp of a much-needed golden age in Kansas. With a supportive governor, major companies investing in solar, and a not-so-subtle cultural shift taking place among the communities peppered around our 15th largest state, the future in America’s heartland is powered by renewables.

Scratch that. The future in all of America is powered by renewable energy. Are you ready?

Header image: Ido Miran on Unsplash

Last modified: September 3, 2019

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