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Eudora resident featured as a 'Hero Among Us' in People magazine; Lawrence hopes to undertake solar project

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If I ever make it into People magazine, I figure it will be about my keen sense of fashion. (Or perhaps for that unfortunate time I confused Princess Kate and Katy Perry.)

Regardless, I'm still waiting, but 87-year old Eudora resident Eugene "Westie" Westerhouse is not. Last year, the Journal-World featured Westerhouse and his efforts over the last 35 years to build wheelchair ramps for folks in need. Well, now he's getting national recognition for those efforts. People magazine chose him as one of its "Heroes Among Us."

The article also features Lawrence residents Deb and Gary Jennings, who recently received a wheel chair ramp from Westerhouse and the Kingdom Builders group that he belongs to as part of the Eudora United Methodist Church. The Jennings unexpectedly needed a ramp after Gary suffered a stroke, People reports.

"We call our ramp 'The Freedom Ramp,'" Deb said in the People article. "And I can't say enough good about Westie. He started the ball rolling on how we were going to enter into this new world."

Since building his first ramp in 1978, Westie has built more than 300 of them. Often a ramp would cost upwards of $3,000 if a contractor were hired to build it. Westie and the church group donate their labor, and often they raise donations for the $700 or so in materials needed to build a ramp.

In other news and notes from around town:

• The City of Lawrence has a project it hopes to build too: Solar panels at the Prairie Park Nature Center. At their meeting this evening, commissioners will formally apply for a grant from Westar Energy to install a host of solar panels at the nature center, 2730 Harper Road.

As we previously reported, Westar plans to provide grant funding for 10 to 15 solar projects at schools, government buildings and nonprofit facilities across the state. Lawrence officials think the Prairie Park Nature Center is a prime candidate for a solar project because the facility already attracts people wanting to learn about nature. The city said solar energy could be incorporated into the programs they already teach at the center. About 45,000 people a year visit the center in southeast Lawrence.

The city also sees the project as a way to save a bit on utility costs. The city is proposing to install solar panels that would produce about 30 kW of electricity at their peak. That is expected to be enough to meet about half of the building's annual electricity needs. The city estimates the panels would reduce the electric bill at the center by about $4,300 per year.

It is an interesting time for solar power and Topeka-based Westar Energy. The company is undertaking demonstration projects on solar, but right now I think solar advocates have concerns about Westar's attitude toward solar energy. Westar is among the companies sponsoring a bill in the Kansas legislature that would negatively impact the economics of solar panel installations.

Currently, the state has a net metering law that requires utility companies to pay the owners of solar panels for any electricity over and above what they use at their residence. A pair of bills introduced in the legislature would reduce the amount that utility companies must pay for that excess electricity, according to a report in the Topeka Capital-Journal.

The proposals have drawn opposition from solar advocates, but Westar has said the current law essentially is requiring utility companies to buy the power at retail prices instead of wholesale prices, which it says isn't fair to the rest of the utility's ratepayers.

You'll have to sort out all the arguments on this one. I've got my own solar project to undertake: Laying in the sun, and maybe even reading about Princess Katy.

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