Solar energy advocates plan rally at hearing for Westar rate increase

As public hearings begin Tuesday for Westar Energy’s proposed $152 million rate increase, some are planning to rally against the proposal’s implications for the solar energy community.

Because the commission regulates public utilities, companies like Westar may not change their rates without the Kansas Corporation Commission’s approval. Public hearings on the proposal are scheduled at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Farley Elementary, 6701 SW 33rd St. in Topeka, and 6 p.m. Thursday in Wichita.

The rate hike, which was proposed in March, is about a 7.9 percent increase, said Linda Berry, director of public affairs for the Kansas Corporation Commission. The higher energy rates would be used to cover power plant upgrades and other costs.

“They (public hearings) are an important part of the process,” said Westar Energy Spokeswoman Gina Penzig. “They allow members of the public who are affected to be heard.”

Aron Cromwell, CEO of Cromwell Solar, which is based in Lawrence, said the solar energy community is one of the many who will be affected by the increase.

Under the company’s new pay structure, customers with solar panels would pay higher fixed charges and lower per-unit charges, Cromwell said. The shift ultimately results in a “punitive measure” for those with solar energy.

“In essence, Westar is changing the way they’re treating solar customers and forcing them onto some rate structures that are different than we’ve ever had before and designed to devalue the energy savings one gets from solar or energy efficiency,” he said.

A group of advocates for the solar energy community are planning to rally at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday before the Kansas Corporation Commission and commissioners to reject Westar’s proposal, Cromwell said.

Cromwell said it isn’t sure how many plan to attend the rally but he wouldn’t be surprised if it were more than 100 people.

Penzig said the company is not altering its pay structure to disincentivize solar energy. Rather, the new structure better reflects how the company’s customers use their energy, she said.

“It shifts the cost structure to the customer with solar so that more of their bill is focused on the fixed fee of their energy use,” she said. “It reflects the value of the electrical grid that they’re still dependent on.”

The commission has until late October to make a decision on Westar’s proposal.