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

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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    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.

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    Plans filed for new assisted living facility in northwest Lawrence; City Hall still interested in buying streetlight system

    Being the university community that it is, Lawrence is used to receiving a new senior class each year. But the idea of a senior class in Lawrence is starting to take on a new meaning. With this class, there are probably fewer keg stands, but I bet there are still some wicked pranks with Fixodent.

    Surely you have heard the talk that Lawrence is trying to become more of a destination for retirees and seniors. Well, the assisted living industry is taking note. Plans for what likely will be a multimillion-dollar assisted living facility have been filed at City Hall for vacant ground in northwest Lawrence.

    Officials with the Americare assisted living group have filed plans for a 46-unit complex at the southwest corner of Peterson Road and Monterey Way.

    According to the documents, the project would include a single-story, 30-unit, general assisted living facility, plus a 16-unit, single-story building that will specialize in assisted living for people who need memory care services.

    The plans also show a potential phase II including another 16 units of memory care and assisted living and a 22-unit "independent living cottage development." No timeline for phase II has been determined.

    For those of you still trying to picture the site, the property is a bit west of the exclusive Fall Creek Farms neighborhood near Kasold and Peterson. The property is vacant, agricultural ground. The property is zoned to accommodate large-lot, single family homes. Americare officials want to have the ground changed to a medium-density apartment zoning (RM-12 zoning, if you have your zoning scorecard handy). But the developers are willing to place conditions on the zoning that would restrict traditional apartment style development.

    The site is about 20 acres, but the development as proposed only would occupy about two thirds of the land. Plans for the remaining third haven't been determined, according to the City Hall filing.

    As for Americare, it has a number of senior living facilities throughout the Midwest. According to its website, it has 15 facilities in Kansas, although it looks like Lawrence would be its largest market in the state. It looks like the nearest Americare facilities to Lawrence are in Osage City and Paola.

    Based on the paperwork filed at City Hall, it looks like the company has its offices in Columbia, Mo. According to its website, Americare is the company that has developed the TigerPlace independent living complex near the University of Missouri. TigerPlace has an affiliation with the University of Missouri's Sinclair School of Nursing, and has been mentioned by Lawrence leaders as an example of what MU is doing to attract retired alumni back to Columbia.

    The Lawrence project will need to win both Planning Commission and City Commission approval. Look for those hearings to happen in the next couple of months.

    In other news and notes from around town:

    • City commissioners at their meeting last night directed staff members to keep exploring the idea of buying the city's streetlight system from Westar Energy.

    The city is paying about $600,000 per year for the 3,500 streetlights owned and maintained by Topeka-based Westar. City officials predict that the rates for the lights will go up by about another 10 percent once the Kansas Corporation Commission is finished with its latest Westar rate case.

    Buying the system won't be cheap. For one thing, Westar hasn't said it is interested in selling it. But other communities such as Leawood, Overland Park, Lenexa and a few other Kansas City-area communities have bought streetlight systems from Kansas City Power & Light. City Auditor Michael Eglinski estimated that those communities paid about $800 to $1,000 per pole to buy their systems, although prices vary widely based on condition. That would equate to about $2.8 million to $3.5 million for the Lawrence system.

    Eglinski also estimates that those cities are saving about 40 percent on their annual costs by owning their own lights. The cities still have to buy electricity from the utility, but they don't have to pay the maintenance and lease fees for the poles and equipment.

    City commissioners on Tuesday said they were interested in the idea, in part because owning the system would allow the city to make the system more environmentally friendly. Specifically, it may allow the city to more easily change the system to LED bulbs, which use a lot less energy than traditional streetlights.

    Currently, making the switch to LED lights is tough to do with Westar, City Hall staff members told commissioners. That's because Westar requires that a meter be installed for streetlights that have an LED light bulb. Westar charges a significant monthly fee for every meter and city officials said that often offsets the cost savings associated with the LED's lower energy usage.

    The city would like Westar to adopt a policy where it estimates the energy use of a typical LED streetlight and uses that to bill the city each month. That's the system used with traditional streetlights. My understanding is that Westar has an LED pilot project in a few communities, including Tonganoxie. No word on when Westar may bring LEDs to Lawrence.

    It didn't take much reading of the tea leaves last night to see that several city commissioners aren't real happy with Westar and how they treat the streetlight system. (Westar officials weren't at Tuesday's meeting, by the way.) Eglinski provided a report in 2009 that raised questions about whether Westar was overbilling the city in some instances for streetlights. Westar officials disagreed with several of the findings in that report, but did acknowledge that it is operating some pretty old lighting technology in parts of the city. It appears some commissioners haven't forgotten that.

    "If we buy the system maybe we could strike a deal where we take the fixtures off the poles and give them back to Westar and they can use them on some other city that they want to stick it to," Mayor Mike Dever said during the meeting. "We don't want those old things."

    As I said, the tea leaves weren't hard to read. It will be interesting to see where they lead.

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