Yellow umbrellas dotted a field outside Farley Elementary School in Topeka on Tuesday, even though there was no rain.
About 50 people standing in a roped-off area held the umbrellas, which read “Don’t Block the Sun,” as they rallied before a Kansas Corporation Commission hearing at the school.
The solar energy fans were concerned about a proposed $152 million rate hike by Westar Energy that also would set apart customers who decide to install rooftop solar and make them pay a higher flat monthly fee.
Two national solar groups were present at the rally and Bill Griffith, energy chairman of the Kansas Sierra Club, told the rally-goers that solar advocates from across the country are watching as other utilities look warily at customers creating their own energy.
“You are all involved in a paradigm shift that’s going across the United States,” Griffith said. “This is really one of the front lines in the fight about this.”
Sen. Tom Hawk, a Democrat from Manhattan, was also among the speakers brought to rally opposition to the plan.
He said it’s time to start the transition from depleting fossil fuels to using cleaner renewable energy. He installed solar panels on his house just last year.
“It’s a long-term investment, but I’m glad I did it,” Hawk said. “I want this state to encourage innovation and create a planet that’s healthy for all of us.”
Hawk and about 300 Westar customers who already have rooftop solar would be grandfathered into the new plan if the KCC approves it. They, like all Westar customers, would have a choice of three energy plans. All would raise the current monthly access fee. But new solar customers would have to choose an option that raises the fee more or a plan that combines the lower access fee with a charge for usage based on peak demand.
Jeff Martin, Westar’s vice president of regulatory affairs, said the move to emphasize access fees over per-kilowatt hour usage fees is necessary to account for infrastructure and personnel investments that benefit everyone connected to Westar’s grid, including those who have solar panels. He cited a survey in which the vast majority of Westar customers said those costs should be shared.
“At the end of the day, our customers have spoken and they believe that if you use the grid, you should pay for it,” Martin said.
At the rally, Aron Cromwell, who owns a business in Lawrence that sells solar panels, said there’s little evidence solar customers gain advantage from others by being connected to the grid but limiting their kilowatt-hour charges.
“We have study after study done across the country, and when those studies are done independent of the utility (company) they have said over and over that solar is a net benefit to all ratepayers,” Cromwell said.
While studies have been done in other states, the KCC has not commissioned a Kansas-specific study on solar production’s effects on Westar or any other utility.
David Springe, the lead counsel of the Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board, which represents residential customers in KCC rate cases, said the solar portion of the rate case should be split off and delayed so a comprehensive study should be done.
“We can spend the next year gathering data, looking at studies, getting input from a lot of interested parties with a lot more knowledge of solar than I have and we can engage in a really good policy debate,” Springe said.
Springe said he believes the KCC will do that, because the solar portion is only a small part of the rate case.
Even if the solar portion is split off, environmental activists will have an interest in Westar’s proposal to change the rate structure to emphasize fixed access fees more than usage fees.
Dorothy Barnett, executive director of the Climate and Energy Project, said her group would oppose measures that reduce incentives to conserve electricity.
“We think we should all share in the energy infrastructure cost, but let’s do it based on how much energy you use,” said Barnett, whose group is committed to reducing global climate change.
Joann Farb, who attended Tuesday’s rally, said that’s important to her as well.
Farb and her two daughters came from Lecompton to attend the rally and Tuesday’s hearing, where she advocated for more incentives for energy conservation. Farb said she fears that “mass migrations” as a result of climate change will, in her lifetime, cause serious turmoil.
“If people can’t live in Florida or Bangladesh any more, they’ve got to go somewhere,” she said.
Martin said Westar’s plan, if approved, would leave plenty of room for customers to save on their bills by using less electricity.
“We’re for the wise use of energy,” Martin said. “What we’re trying to do here is balance the fixed and the variable costs a little bit better.”
Martin and Greg Greenwood, Westar’s vice president of strategy, took questions during the hearing from dozens of customers, many disgruntled with the solar rate proposal and cost increases in general.
Westar says it needs the latest rate increase to pay for environmental upgrades, repairs and power line maintenance.
Greenwood said the company is not against renewable energy and uses a significant amount of it — mostly wind, but also some solar and biomass — compared with other utilities.
“We are big proponents of renewable energy,” Greenwood said.
Three KCC commissioners appointed by Gov. Sam Brownback will decide the rate case.
The Topeka Capital-Journal reported this week that the governor’s campaign staff has approached Westar officials for donations to help pay off debts from his successful re-election effort last year.
Andy Marso is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.