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Westar starts $200,000 solar panel project in Lawrence; commissioners win award for Rock Chalk Park


There's a $200,000 project underway to install solar panels in Lawrence, and you might be surprised who is behind it — the operator of the large coal-fired power plant just outside of town.

Topeka-based Westar Energy is installing 160 solar panels on its maintenance facility and service center at 746 E. 27th St. in southeast Lawrence.

"We hope to learn a little bit more about solar," said Don Ford, director of renewable business solutions for Westar. "Some of the information that is out there is from other locations, and we think it would be good for our customers to see what they will get in Kansas."

Westar, the state's largest electric utility, is installing the solar panels in a variety of locations and at a variety of angles to test their efficiency. The entire project will be hooked up to a website that will allow the public to log in and see how the solar panels are performing at any given time. Ford said that will provide valuable data on how solar panels perform on cloudy days and other such issues.

At their peak capacity, the solar panels Westar is installing would produce enough electricity to power about two homes. But, of course, solar panels don't always produce at their peak capacity, such as at night and during times when the sun is behind the clouds. How much electricity the panels will produce on a consistent basis is among the information Westar hopes to gather.

"We have customers who are starting to install solar panels, and we are getting more questions about solar panels," said Gina Penzig, a Westar spokeswoman. "We thought it was time for us to get some firsthand experience with solar panels."

Ford said he doesn't yet think the economics of solar panels make it likely that a lot of them will be installed in the state in the near term. But he said that make change.

"But if you would have asked me several years ago, I would have told you that we would have a lot less wind generation than we do now," Ford said. "The economics have changed a lot with wind, and it probably will with solar as well."

Westar now has five wind-generating plants to go along with its eight natural gas-fed power plants and its four coal-fired power plants, which includes the Lawrence Energy Center northwest of the city.

Lawrence is one of three cities Westar is using to test solar power. The utility also is installing panels on buildings they own in Manhattan and Shawnee, Ford said.

The company announced earlier this month that it would help fund the purchase and installation of solar panels at schools, nonprofit agencies and government buildings. Westar said it plans to provide funding for about 15 to 20 installations. The projects will be selected based, in part, on their ability to educate the public about solar energy.

The deadline for organizations or governments to apply is March 1. Westar is partnering with the EPA and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. Application information can be found here.

In other news and notes from around town:

• I don't know if they actually broke into the Rock Chalk chant, but a pair of Lawrence city commissioners recently won a statewide award for their support of the city's new recreation center at the Rock Chalk Park sports complex. Mayor Mike Dever and City Commissioner Bob Schumm were awarded the Distinguished Elected Official Award from the Kansas Recreation and Park Association. They served as the lead commissioners on the project, which will involve the city spending $22.5 million to build a 181,000-square-foot recreation center and related infrastructure for the adjacent privately owned sports park that will be leased to Kansas University.

• If you haven't driven by the construction site of the Lawrence Public Library expansion at Seventh and Vermont streets, you ought to. It is becoming easier to see what the new exterior will look like. The project is scheduled to be completed this summer, and that means it is time to start picking out the furnishings. City commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday will approve the first of several furniture contracts. In case you are wondering, it looks like it will cost about $570,000 for furniture. The amount was included as part of the library's $18 million budget.


Andrew Dufour 3 years, 11 months ago

I may be ignorant on the electricity output capacity of solar panels but how is it that 160 panels will only power two homes. Homes I see that are using solar power usually have 4-6 panels on their roof. The math here would suggest that 4 panels roughly provides 5% of the power for your home?

Dan Klamet 3 years, 11 months ago

It's my understanding that home attached solar panels are only supplementary. Photovoltaic cells, while having improved significantly in the last decade or so in efficiency, still isn't particularly efficient per dollar spent, nor is it generally that efficient at converting sunlight into electricity.

It's getting better all the time, but it's a slow process.

Clark Coan 3 years, 11 months ago

Hey, how do I read the whole article? All I get is the lead-in. Have you noticed that the hard copy is now on flimsy paper because it is now printed by the KC Star?

Lawrence Morgan 3 years, 11 months ago

One of the problems here is whether Westar will control solar energy, or the local homeowner can control it.

In California, homeowners can put solar energy on their roofs, and then deduct the amount of electricity produced from their bill sent from PG&E. Is this true for Kansas, as well, or does Westar control the complete production of solar energy?

If, as mentioned in the article, homeowners can put solar energy on the roof, then how is it deducted from the bill from Westar?

Lawrence Morgan 3 years, 11 months ago

I'm also astonished that Ford would would say "learn a little bit about solar energy" at t his point. In various parts of the United States and elsewhere in the world, a lot is known, published and produced on solar energy. How could it be that Westar at this late stage is just beginning to learn about solar energy? At this late date?

Clark Coan 3 years, 11 months ago

Yes, Cromwell Environmental is putting solar panels up on houses all over town and leasing them to homeowners. We still have net metering but a bill in the legislature would repeal this and so homeowners would no longer benefit as much from solar.

Are you the Lawrence Morgan who was friends with the late Mark Larson? If so, I met you through him. Do you still live in SF?

Scott White 3 years, 11 months ago

Here's some irony for you - the bill that would repeal net metering was authored by Westar. (KCP&L also had a hand in the bill or drafted their own.) And lest you think that's it's due to thousands upon thousands of customers installing solar on their roofs inundating the grid with power at the peak of the day, Westar only has about 120 or so net metered and parallel-generation systems on their grid. Therefore, coverage of Westar's three new PV systems must be welcome at their HQ in Topeka. It reminds me of the time when Westar put up two wind turbines in the wind-shadow of the Jeffrey (coal-fired) Energy Center in 1999 and then due to low capacity factors (caused by low wind speeds at that location) and the unwillingness of their customers to support the projects by volunteering to basically double their monthly bills at the rate of an extra 5 cents/kWh, they could declare that wind is too expensive and the people don't want to pay for it here. Here we go again?

Bill Griffith 3 years, 11 months ago

I call baloney on the statement that 200k in solar equipment will only power two homes. I went to the Solar City site and it indicated a 3 bedroom home with a 200 dollar monthly electric bill can be replaced with photovoltaics for 30k and the homeowner would then get the 30 percent federal tax credit for a final cost of 21k. Westar did the same misdirection with wind energy costs a decade ago when they had not accepted wind power as part of their portfolio. Now they are alarmed at possibly losing market share to photovoltaics and are needing to acquire their onw information on it. By the way, the other solar they are doing is because of a settlement agreement with EPA and the Sierra Club-kudos to Westar for choosing the solar option....but they did have to choose an option that the feds and SC agreed upon.

David Klamet 3 years, 11 months ago

Just some info to give a perspective. According to Morninstar, Westar's CEO was paid 2,487,000 in 2012. So this project was about a month of his pay.

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