A KANSAS LEADERSHIP CENTER COMMON GOOD DISCUSSION GUIDE (SPECIAL PAID SECTION)
COLLABORATIVELY FUNDED AND INFORMED BY: WESTAR ENERGY, THE CLIMATE + ENERGY PROJECT, CROMWELL SOLAR, KING SOLAR, GOOD ENERGY SOLUTIONS, THE NATURE CONSERVANCY OF KANSAS AND THE KANSAS ASSOCIATION OF COMMUNITY ACTION PROGRAMS (READ MORE HERE)
In and around Dodge City, for example, an average year will provide sunny days nearly 70 percent of the time. Other places — Wichita,Topeka, Kansas City and Concordia — see sunny days more than 60 percent of the time. It makes Kansas a promising state for harnessing the sunlight to help power light bulbs, televisions, computers and garage openers.
Solar power is growing more common for Kansas homes and businesses, but it’s hardly everywhere yet. If someone in your neighborhood or on a nearby farm installs a solar array, a typical response might be one of intrigue. Just why is this person making such an outlay?
Odds are, economics played a role. Electric rates have been going up while the price of installing solar panels is declining. Add in various government sweeteners, and purchasing or leasing a solar system can provide a lot of bang for the buck these days. Owning one can help a homeowner or business owner reduce their electric bills or increase their power use without breaking the bank. If you produce electricity yourself, Westar and the state’s other investor-owned utilities have to buy it from you at the same retail rates that they use to sell power to other customers.
It’s something that more Kansans have been doing over the past four years. At the end of 2012, Westar Energy, the state’s largest electric utility, counted 133 private electricity generators connected to the grid within its service area. By the end of last year, the number had grown to more than 550. These small-scale home- and business-based generators, usually solar panels, are sometimes referred to by the catch-all term “distributed generation,” which distinguishes them from the large power plants that utilities build to produce electricity for hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses.
Solar growth in Kansas has been significant, but it’s important to keep things in perspective. Westar, an investor-owned utility, serves more than 700,000 customers. The 5 megawatts that self-generators produce equals only about 0.11 percent of Westar’s 2016 peak load of 4,500 megawatts. The state’s 550 small generators could power one small town; Westar powers the bulk of the state.
Customer generation in Westar’s service area also is small in comparison with many other states. Populous California, the nation’s solar-power behemoth, boasts more than 490,000 grid-connected solar systems. Even nearby Kansas City Power & Light Co., which supplies power to parts of eastern Kansas, had more than 2,700 customer generators producing energy at the end of 2015 on the Missouri side of its service area, where – unlike Kansas – incentives such as personal tax deductions, a government loan program and solar rebates were offered.
But if solar power’s footprint in Kansas remains relatively small, it’s been an increasingly big topic of policy discussion and debate. It’s raising questions about the potential consequences of having more homes and businesses in Kansas generating some of their own power and sending part of it back onto the grid. There’s a huge disagreement about what those effects are and will be, and it’s prompting clashes between utilities and solar-power advocates, among others.
The conflict boils down to whether homes and businesses using panels are doing those without them a favor (or at least no harm) or shifting greater financial burdens onto them. Gina Penzig, media relations manager for Westar, says that utilities like Westar believe different charges are needed for solar customers, because they fear the growth of distributed solar generation will shift the costs of maintaining the grid onto those who can’t afford or don’t want solar panels.
Solar advocates such as Aron Cromwell, CEO of the solar installation firm Cromwell Solar in Lawrence, contend that the amount of rooftop solar power currently being generated is so small that the impact on other users is all but nil. And they point out that there’s no independent data from Kansas showing that solar is shifting costs to other grid users.
Their argument in a nutshell is: “Until we know more about what’s really going on, why risk messing up something that’s going pretty well in the state?” Westar counters that the pricing system for electric rates in Kansas wasn’t designed to account for potentially thousands of small self-generators coming on the grid. Its view: “Let’s fix it before it becomes a problem.”
Others are watching this dialogue with interest. Environmentalists see the growing use of solar power and other forms of renewable energy as crucial for helping move society away from fossil fuels fast enough to mitigate a warming climate. They don’t want anything to happen that would slow that down. Conservationists want to address climate change and protect natural ecosystems from encroachment by energy infrastructure, such as wind farms and transmission lines. They’re not opposed to more utility-scale generation, but anything that alleviates the need for more building, particularly in environmentally sensitive areas, could be helpful.
Consumers, of course, stand to be affected. Electric utility customers, especially those with lower incomes, certainly don’t want to end up paying higher electric bills. But rooftop solar panels also offer one of the few alternatives to utility electricity production. Anti-poverty advocates share a concern about how poorer consumers would pay higher bills. But they also see potential benefits, like the ability of renewable energy to create well-paying jobs throughout the state that could help lift more people out of poverty. With Kansas already a top five state for renewable electricity production (especially wind power), utilities think they can provide many of those renewable energy benefits at lower costs than small self-generators could.
The Kansas version of a debate that’s been happening in state after state is coming to a head now. The Kansas Corporation Commission is exploring whether the self-generating customers in Westar’s service area should be charged the same rates as the rest of us or pay a different – i.e., higher – set of rates than they do today. The discussion isn’t just focused on Westar. It also involves two other investor-owner utilities, Kansas electric cooperatives, solar installers, a solar advocacy group, an environmental group, a union representing Westar employees, the Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board and others.
To solar advocates, the idea of solar-panel owning customers paying rates different from other Westar customers feels arbitrary and discriminatory. They suspect that what the utility is most upset about is not being able to sell the power that solar-panel owners generate themselves, and that its position is a way to discourage more people from buying or leasing panels. The utility counters that it only wants to make sure all users of the grid pay their fair share for using the grid, and it realizes that more and more of its customers will choose to self generate.
The back-and-forth on such a complex issue can feel dizzying. It can be hard to know who or what to believe. This discussion guide won’t determine who’s right and who’s wrong. Rather, the idea is that readers will have a better understanding of everyone’s views, why they matter and the kind of questions that need to be answered going forward. The hope is to expand the debate a bit beyond the usual voices, by involving other stakeholders with an indirect interest in the topic.
HOW WE GOT HERE AND WHERE THINGS STAND
Differences of opinion in this situation are playing out right now in a proceeding before the Kansas Corporation Commission, a three-person board appointed by the governor whose duties include oversight of regulated electric utilities such as Westar. While utilities such as Westar can propose new rate structures, they are subject to approval by the commission.
Existing rules require utilities to treat solar-panel owners largely as they would anyone else. In the case of Westar, all residential customers pay what is now a $14.50 per month fixed charge and then a variable price based on how much energy they purchase from the utility. Back in 2015, as part of a broader request to increase electric rates, the utility proposed moving homes that subsequently installed solar panels into their own grouping, where they would have been given two choices for purchasing electricity from Westar.
One of the proposed payment plans would have eventually assessed a $50 per month fixed charge on new panel owners, in addition to what they paid for each kilowatt hour of energy purchased (albeit at a reduced rate). The other option would have phased in a $27-per-month fee and included a demand charge, in which customers would pay a fee based on their maximum energy draw rather than having the kilowatt hours added up at the end of a billing period, along with a reduced rate for the energy purchased from the utility.
Westar’s proposals met stiff opposition, particularly from solar and renewable energy advocates, some of whom saw the move as a way to make solar power less attractive to consumers. Neither chargewas approved, but the corporation commission approved a new pricing category covering solar- panel users. Commissioners deferred the larger discussion of rate design to the current dialogue before the agency. Similar debates have been playing out across the country, with utilities lining up on one side and solar interests on the other in what typically have become heated battles.
Now, Westar and other utilities are proposing a three-part rate structure for distributed-generation customers that includes a fixed monthly charge, a fee based on the amount of energy they use and a demand charge. But solar interests express concern that such rate structures – they see them as special fees being assessed to solar customers – will undercut the financial benefits of solar power, discourage individuals from feeding power onto the grid and kill demand for solar panels.
A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
To understand why it’s such a big deal that more consumers are generating their own power through solar panels, it helps to understand a bit of history. In the early days of the electric power industry, all power was distributed generation. Until technology was developed to move electricity great distances, all power was consumed near where it was produced.
For the past century, though, electricity has come from centralized sources. Electric utilities such as Westar produce power using coal, uranium, natural gas and, more recently, wind and solar. They distribute it to consumers through a complex network of generators and transmission and distribution systems. Essentially it’s been a one-way street, with electrons flowing from generators to customers.
Over time, power has traveled greater distances. But distributed generation has re-emerged as a factor in our nation’s energy mix because of increased interest in making use of renewable energy.
The idea of using solar energy is popular because the sun essentially provides free fuel. The obvious shortcoming is that the sun doesn’t shine at night and it can be blocked by clouds. Much like wind energy, solar power can’t be turned on or off based on need.
One answer to that drawback is net metering. It allows an individual generating electricity to, in effect, store excess power with the utility, and then draw off that power later. The grid effectively serves as a battery for billing purposes (although not literally, because power production and consumption must be synced at all times by the utility).
Net metering has caught on nationwide, becomingKansas law in 2009. But it comes with limits designed to keep the grid from taking on too much customer-produced solar or wind power too fast. Generating units must be relatively small, and the law allows utilities to stop connecting new net-metering customers once interconnections reach 1 percent of the utility’s peak load from the previous year. One percent was chosen as the limit because it helps utilities avoid taking on more renewable energy at once, which can help them better deal with evening peak demand periods when renewable energy isn’t available for the grid.
Solar energy advocates say that the limit is the equivalent of approximately 5,000 net-metered systems, so Westar and the state’s other investor-owned utilities are well below that limit. While they believe that Westar and other utilities are adequately protected from any adverse consequences by such caps, Westar officials note that other states have faced pressure to quickly raise their caps as they closed in on their limits.
Only about 1 out of every 4 homes has enough sunlight and the right roofing direction to effectively accommodate solar panels, according to Westar.
The direction a roof faces, how old it is (you want a roof in good condition that you won’t have to replace soon after paying to install panels) and how large the trees are in a neighborhood can affect how much energy a solar system will produce. (A homeowner can get a sense of his or her residence’s solar potential by putting the address into an online estimator created by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory at http://pvwatts.nrel.gov).
Solar advocates consider net metering a crucial policy for the economic viability and feasibility of solar energy. Otherwise, panel owners will be in the position of producing a lot of energy they never use or receive credit for.
On the other hand, utilities often see the practice as an unfair subsidy to panel owners that must be covered by other customers. It puts them in a position of being required to purchase and resell the power produced by panel owners, which means they might pay (and receive) 13 cents per kilowatt hour for energy they could have purchased or produced for 3 cents and sold for 13 cents. Westar contends the higher rates it pays for distributed generation get passed on to other consumers.
As interest in solar grows, utilities also worry that residential rooftop solar threatens the pool of traditional customers who pay to maintain and operate the grid. The costs of the grid and other infrastructure are, for the most part, baked into the rates consumers pay based on the amount of electricity used. You don’tsee how much of your power bill goes to cover the networks of generating plants, substations, transformers and power lines that bring electricity to your home. Or for the workers who come out to fix them when they fail, among many other things.
At the same time, interconnected solar customers who generate power still use the grid for power consumption and transmission. But because they’re reducing the amount of energy they purchase from Westar, the utility is concerned they’re not paying enough for accessing the grid. They think solar-panel owners are getting a free ride.
Solar-power advocates hotly contest this assertion, with some arguing that solar users pay their fair share because they’re billed the same fixed charges as other customers each month. They feel singled out when other cost-saving measures that homeowners use to lower their bills – such as LED light bulbs or energy-efficient appliances – aren’t facing the same scrutiny. (The utility says those non-solar savings approaches are more predictable and easier to plan for.)
Solar advocates also contend that the utility’s concerns about solar power shifting costs to other users rest on shaky assumptions. They contend that the addition of rooftop panels might incentivize a homeowner to use more electricity by making it cheaper to crank up the air conditioning or purchase an electric car. They don’t think it’s a given that a proliferation of rooftop solar panels in Kansas will cut significantly into the utility’s revenue stream for grid upkeep.
A CASE OF OUTDATED RULES?
To understand why Westar and solar power advocates see the growth of home and business solar power so differently, it might help to first focus on the situation from Westar’s perspective, then explore the solar advocate view in more detail. Westar is an investor-owned business with an important public purpose: serving as the sole supplier of electricity in its prescribed service area. That’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, as a monopoly, Westar is protected from competition – as a customer in its area you can produce your own power, but you can’t buy it from someone else. But Westar also doesn’t control what it gets to charge, because it’s subject to state and federal price regulation and service requirements. Those include providing services to all customers, not just the ones that are the most profitable. The utility also bears responsibility for maintaining the infrastructure needed to serve them.
In return for doing that, state regulators allow Westar to recover its costs and to earn a limited rate of return on the capital invested to make and distribute electricity. But the ways Westar and other utilities have historically been allowed to charge for electricity don’t factor in thousands of customers banking the excess electricity they generate on the grid for use later.
That matters because the utility estimates that about 75 percent of its costs are difficult to cut. They don’t fluctuate based on how much electricity Westar sells in a year. These costs take the form of power plants and the staff it takes to operate them and ensure reliability. The plant needs to be there whether a customer requires power half the time or all the time. Someone needs to be in the control room when the plant is running at 100 percent capacity and when it’s running at 40 percent capacity. Substations are needed to transfer power from generator to consumer, as well as power poles, power lines, customer service centers,repair trucks and so on. Only about 25 percent of the utility’s costs – fuel being a primary example – tend to fluctuate much from year to year based on the amount of electricity it sells.
Yet as stable as the utility’s costs are, Westar’s revenues vary based on the amount of electricity customers purchase. Fixed monthly charges constitute about 15 percent of Westar’s revenues, with the remainder dependent on how much energy consumers buy.
The amount of power that customers purchase in Westar’s service area can vary from year to year based on a variety of factors, chiefly the weather and the season. At the same time, customer demand for electricity has slowed with the spread of energy-efficient appliances, light bulbs and other advances.
“This discussion guide won’t determine who’s right and who’s wrong. But we hope that readers will have a better understanding of everyone’s views, why they matter and the kind of questions that need to be answered going forward.”
Recent growth in rooftop solar installations adds another variable, because every kilowatt-hour those arrays produce is energy not sold by Westar. But, as mentioned previously, connected solar-panel owners still draw power off the grid when they need it. Penzig says that Westar sees these customers using the system differently from other users, yet paying the same rates as people with more typical circumstances and behavior.
“Customers should have every opportunity to build those (solar) resources on their home,” says Greg Greenwood, senior vice president, strategy, at Westar. “What this (regulatory debate) is about is making sure that when customers make that personal choice, which we can help them fulfill, they’re paying their fair share for the cost of the grid that provides that 24/7 service, whether the sun is shining or the wind is blowing.”
The utility is quick to point out that it supports renewable energy, agreeing that wind and solar power can bring jobs and reduce emissions in ways that are good for everyone.
In 2017, Westar expects to meet half of its customers’ electricity needs from carbon-free sources: wind, nuclear and solar, with a third of that from renewables alone. But it believes it’s more cost effective to make use of wind and solar energy at the utility scale, which the company thinks will help keep power prices lower for everyone on its grid.
LOOKING BEFORE A LEAP
However, from the perspective of many solar-power advocates, the utility’s push for new rates on panel owners for use of the grid looks extremely premature, at best. They say there’s not yet a strong enough understanding as to what extent solar is costing or benefiting customers and the utility.
While solar power has experienced a rapid rise, its further ascent is widely expected but by no means guaranteed. Part of solar’s growth has been fueled by advances in technology and declines in the cost of panels and the equipment necessary to operate them. But government policies such as tax credits and net metering have also played a role. Policy changes that might undercut solar power’s efforts to grow out of its adolescence to a much bigger scale feel threatening to those who work in the industry.
For the solar industry, having some degree of certainty is important, even if some of the subsidies for solar power are likely to go away eventually.
One key incentive that has helped make solar more affordable is a tax credit that allows homeowners to deduct from their federal taxes 30 percent of what it costs to install a solar energy system. That credit was created in 2005 to help solar and wind compete with conventional energy sources, which enjoy tax preferences of their own. The credit was extended by Congress last year until 2019 and will ramp down slightly before phasing out in 2022.
A solar energy system can represent a long-term commitment. Homeowners can spend as much as $25,000, with business owners spending far more. But the combination of the federal tax credit, net metering and sharply decreasing costs of equipment is making solar increasingly attractive.
One of the selling points of a system is that it pays for itself. Money that would have been spent on electricity goes to pay for the system instead. And once it’s paid off (which can be in as little as five years for a business and 10 years for a residence), the electricity is free minus whatever maintenance is necessary for the remaining life of a system. Some experts say systems can last 25-plus years.
Solar advocate Cromwell says that as it has become cheaper, solar power’s appeal has broadened beyond the environmentally minded. Now interest routinely crosses political and ideological lines because installing it has become an economic decision.
If Westar changes the way it charges solar customers, it could increase the length of time for a customer’s energy savings to pay off their upfront investment in solar panels. Kevin Good, whose Good Energy Solutions firm in Lawrence installs solar panels, doesn’t consider Westar’s recent proposals fair.
“The amount they were asking for was exorbitantly high,” he says. “It didn’t give any value to solar (power) at all.”
Cromwell says Westar’s proposed charge in 2015 would have wiped out virtually all of a typical net-metering customer’s savings from installing a solar system. In some instances, he says, owners might have ended up paying more for electricity than if they had not installed panels. “It would immediately and completely kill net metering in the state of Kansas (in Westar’s service area),” Cromwell says.
Cromwell says owners of homes and businesses who want to produce their own power and remain connected to the grid would bypass net metering for another approach, called parallel generation. It’s less generous than net metering, compensating solar customers at the utility’s wholesale rather than retail electric rate, so solar systems would become smaller, and less energy traffic would flow the utility’s way from self-generators, making the grid less of a two-way street.
Solar companies also object to treating solar self-generation as solely a cost to the utility and other consumers. Studies in other states have projected that wider adoption of solar could save utility customers money, too, by reducing what utilities spend on fossil fuels, alleviating the need for building new power plants and reducing wear and tear on some components of the grid (although some studies have found the opposite, and none have been done specifically for Kansas).
Cromwell also says that the level of solar generation connected to the grid – just a 10th of the maximum that Westar is required by law to service with net metering – is too small to be worth accounting for.
While a time might come to scientifically study the consequences of the policy, he says it’s not here yet.
Not everyone in the Kansas solar sector is as philosophically opposed as Cromwell to the concept of utilities charging solar-panel owners differently for using the grid in Kansas – although his views mirror the solar industry’s position nationally. Still, other Kansas solar installers remain skeptical of Westar’s proposed charges until they can see more evidence for them.
“I would really like to see Westar be more transparent in regards to how they calculate their fixed costs,” says Mark Horst, president of King Solar, a Reno County-based solar installer. “Because as solar customers, we benefit from the grid. We are relying on the grid for net metering to hold our power during the day so we can use it at night, and we really need to be bearing the weight of whatever those fixed costs are. So for Westar to just be telling us what the fixed costs are – without any supporting data – feels unfair.”
The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy science lab operated by the University of California, released a report this year projecting how much solar customers might shift costs to users without solar panels. Author Galen Barbose estimated that rates would increase the most for utilities in territories where the level of solar use exceeds 10 percent of all electricity sales. That could affect places such as Hawaii, Arizona and New Mexico, but the rate impact for most states and utilities would be “negligible for the foreseeable future.” Other factors, such as energy efficiency improvements and capital expenses in the electrical industry are likely to have a much bigger effect on prices, Barbose wrote.
If the lab’s projections are accurate, the average homeowner in Kansas might end up paying 10 to 30 cents a month, or no more than $3.60 a year, more for electricity because of distributed solar electricity (versus $60 to $72 a year in a state like Arizona). As one might expect, utility and solar interests had decidedly different reactions to the report. Solar advocates say the findings show how cost-shifting is essentially a non-issue in most places, while utilities point to the part about solar customers increasing electricity costs for other users, especially in places with lots of solar installations, The Arizona Republic reported.
WHAT THE DEBATE MEANS FOR OTHERS
Much of this discussion guide has thus far been devoted to the views of the utility, Westar Energy, and solar installers who make up much of the solar industry in Kansas. But other, less vocal groups have a stake, too. What happens in this situation could have implications for: A. what consumers pay for electricity; B. how we use undeveloped land and help endangered species; C. whether the state makes gains in terms of promoting energy efficiency; and D. how our state will respond to a warming climate.
A big question facing consumers is whether they’ll pay more because rooftop solar users are paying utilities less. It’s a concern because low-income consumers are already more likely to live in homes or apartments that are older, poorly weatherized and less energy efficient. They may already be struggling with their current bills because they pay a higher portion of their income for power.
When someone’s power bill jumps from $70 to $160 in a summer month because of a poorly weatherized home, the result is predictable. “Poor families can’t afford it,” says Gary Brunk, who until recently served as the executive director of the Topeka-based Kansas Association of Community Action Programs. “Low-income families feel that.”
If the growth of distributed generation has the effects Westar fears it could in terms of cost shifting, that might add to the burdens facing low-income families. Furthermore, a trend of increasing rates could theoretically encourage financially stable customers – the ones most likely to be able to afford investments – to acquire solar energy systems of their own, perpetuating a cycle
in which the burden inexorably shifts to those with the least resources and fewest choices.
However, in addition to contesting the cost-shifting arguments the utility makes, solar advocates also contend that the growth of rooftop solar would also deliver many desirable societal and economic benefits.Environmentalists, for one, like the idea of solar power having a role in helping reduce fossil fuel use and mitigating the effects of a warming climate.
Dorothy Barnett, executive director of the Climate + Energy Project, a group supportive of renewable energy, says more solar power, along with better incentives to save energy, could help the state meet its energy needs in more sustainable ways.
Barnett thinks the state should plan long-term to make the best use of its plentiful renewable energy resources.
She also worries that a philosophical shift toward assessing more fixed consumer charges, such as those Westar proposed for solar users and other customers, could deter advances in energy efficiency. Why? Because higher fixed-cost charges – which can’t be avoided by setting the thermostat higher in summer – reduce customers’ incentives to use less energy in their homes or businesses.
“Even if you give them a bunch of energy efficiency programs, you’ve raised their fixed charges so much that they can’t save enough to make up the difference,” Barnett says of utility customers. “So why would they do any of the energy efficiency programs?”
Another dynamic to ponder is that the biggest impacts of a warming climate will fall heaviest on the poor. Projections suggest Kansas will see many more 100-degree-plus days over the next 50 years, bringing with them higher electric bills to cool homes.
That’s why Brunk thinks climate change is a major issue for lower-income families. “If you have money, you can buffer yourself from some of these things,” Brunk says. “But environmental changes affect everybody, and so they’ll particularly affect low-income families because they can’t buffer themselves. They can’t paint themselves out
of the situation that the world is in.”
While the use of solar power in Kansas is not going to change the climate by itself, there is a school of thought that says the state should be doing more to not make climate change worse. Many environmentalists see more rooftop solar as a step in the right direction.
Then there’s the economic potential of renewable energy. According to the American Council on Renewable Energy, Kansas ranks in the top five states with the most wind and solar energy generating potential. Kansas solar installation firms are small but have been growing rapidly. If the solar industry could assume a bigger role in the state’s economy, it could create more so-called green jobs at a time when many new jobs are low-paying, service industry positions. A recent study by SmartAsset, a personal finance technology company, indicated the solar photovoltaic installer, which requires a high school education and pays an average of $42,500 per year, was the country’s fastest growing occupation between 2012 and 2016. “Jobs in the clean economy could be jobs that pay decently and contribute to shrinking our carbon footprint,” Brunk says. “So they could end up benefiting low-income families.”
But there are competing perspectives in terms of what approaches offer the best hope for dealing with a warming climate and invigorating Kansas’ clean energy economy. Whereas some see small solar generators in homes and businesses leading the way, utilities like Westar contend large-scale wind and solar farms produce more renewable energy at a lower cost. There’s no obvious answer for how utility power and distributed generation should fit together at present, hence the continued debate.
Responding to climatic changes is also on the mind of Rob Manes, executive director of The Nature Conservancy of Kansas, the state’s largest conservation organization. Many conservationists want to mitigate the worst effects of a warming climate as a way of protecting natural ecosystems and the wildlife living within them.
Reducing dependence on fossil fuels, especially foreign imports, is one way to do that. But even the development of renewable energy comes with consequences. Utility-scale generating turbines and panels can take up tens of thousands of acres, and require transmission lines to transport the energy, which add to humankind’s infrastructure footprint.
Manes says that Westar, KCP&L and others have been good partners in developing wind generation and transmission with the lowest impacts. The upside is that Manes thinks there will never be a need to develop renewable energy in environmentally sensitive areas of the state – say, the Flint Hills – because enough non-sensitive areas are ripe for use.
But he also thinks rooftop solar offers advantages because panels atop a home or business don’t further disturb the landscape. Furthermore, much of that energy is used on site, engaging the public more in the production of its own energy, which he sees as a benefit.
Limiting humankind’s footprint could help threatened species such as the lesser prairie chicken, which was recently removed from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered and threatened species list after a legal battle with farmers, ranchers, and oil and gas producers.
Prairie chickens have lost much of their habitat since the 1800s, as crop production expanded in the Great Plains. More recently, prairie chickens dropped in numbers during a drought. More wind turbines and the transmission lines could exacerbate the threats they face.
“Grassland birds are hard-wired to stay away from tall stuff … because death comes from up there. That’s where raptors perch,” Manes says. “If you’re a prairie chicken and there’s something tall around, you’re not going to nest there, because it almost assures that something’s going to eat your chicks.”
Transmission lines running for hundreds of miles in a high-quality grassland habitat would displace prairie chicken nesting over hundreds of thousands of acres. So, another argument that could be made for rooftop solar is its potential for reducing pressure on threatened species.
Preservation of those species is important, Manes says, because there are countless examples of humans deciding a species isn’t needed, only later to be harmed by that decision. “If God saw fit to create them, then who are we to make a decision that says they have no value?” Manes asks.
IDEAS FOR THE FUTURE
In creating this discussion guide, stakeholders have discussed reconciling their differing viewpoints and interests. Penzig says that Westar doesn’t think that the status quo, where solar panel owners pay the same rates as other users, can remain intact. More and more Kansans generating some of their own power won’t rely as much on the utility for electricity, but they still need the grid. However, Westar currently doesn’t have permission from regulators to charge them for that service (echoing debates in several other states). Doing nothing, Penzig says, will leave unanswered the question of how to ensure that the costs of the grid are shared equitably by everyone who uses it.
By acting now, when rooftop solar use is small enough that few would be impacted, the state can avoid problems down the line.
But members of the state’s solar industry see the same situation – a relatively small solar footprint in the state – and reach an opposite conclusion. They worry that too little is known about solar power’s impacts on the grid to justify major policy changes.
Installers like Cromwell Solar don’t see any justification right now for increased charges that could burden their customers or hurt their businesses. They don’t think rates should be changed without an independent study that shows the costs and benefits of solar in Kansas, but even that feels premature. Until the number of net-metered customers grows significantly in Kansas, Cromwell questions whether a study would tell anyone much. His firm would prefer to take a “wait and see” approach. Anything more feels designed to damage solar’s standing in Kansas, from this perspective.
Despite those core differences among some stakeholders, partners in this discussion guide did talk about what it would look like to “be proactive” in terms of resolving this debate, despite their differences. Their shared scenario envisions a thoughtful, cooperative approach to redesigning electric rates to match the development of solar and other energy technologies – without killing solar power in Kansas. This strategy would require accounting for the value of renewable energy sources, and would include the transparent sharing of methodologies and assumptions among the parties involved.
Partners also discussed options examining different rate schedules for distributed generation. Under this scenario (“a possible deal”), a homeowner who installs a rooftop solar array might be charged different rates based on how big the system is. The charges might be phased in to help homeowners and solar customers whose installations were made over the past nearly two years, when rates have been in limbo. (Customers who invested in solar panels prior to October 2015 are grandfathered into the rate structure in place when they installed their panels.) As part of the trade-offs at play, any new installations would need to have smart devices in them that give utilities greater flexibility to ensure that solar power is safely integrated into the grid.
There is by no means a consensus among solar installers and other advocates on whether a new rate schedule for solar-panel owners is necessary. Some strongly dispute the idea that new charges are needed at all. But the fact that the stakeholders are willing to engage in discussions in itself demonstrates that more collaborative ways of resolving their disputes could be possible.
A more detailed common understanding remains elusive at present, and there are plenty of barriers in the way. The public must have a say as well in what happens. As a reader, you may want to consider the following questions:
Which of these scenarios – act now, wait and see, be proactive
or a possible deal – resonates most with you?
When you think about the future, what do you want from your energy?
How much do you care about whether it’s from renewable resources?
Are you someone who generates your own energy or would like to someday?
What do you think fairness would look like in that situation?
If you never see yourself owning solar panels at your home, farm or business,
how concerned are you about having to shoulder more of the burden for paying for
the grid, even if it’s just a few cents a month? What would seem fair to you?
Look beyond your own individual good, too. Consider how important it is to you to conserve the land or protect the environment by mitigating a warming climate. Should Kansas extend its leadership in renewable energy? Does the state need to work harder at ensuring that lower-income Kansans aren’t burdened in paying for the electric grid?
Responding to a complex adaptive challenge is tricky. Finding ways to reconcile the different views and values mentioned throughout this guide won’t come easily. But with leadership, curiosity, a willingness to explore different viewpoints and the commitment to explore through trial and error, significant progress should be possible.
If you would like a printed copy of this guide, please contact us with your mailing address and write “energy discussion guide” in the comments box. A limited number of printed copies are available on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Contributors: Joe Stumpe, Dawn Bormann Novascone, Brian Whepley, Bruce Janssen; Art Direction + Design by Novella Brandhouse; Meeting facilitation by Greg Meissen.