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Moti Rieber: KCC must stand up to Evergy in solar suppression

Moti Rieber
Special to Gannett Kansas
Moti Rieber

Kansas has one of the most vibrant wind industries in the country. In 2019, 41% of our electricity was generated by wind power. Yet in another major area of renewable energy — solar power — Kansas is using only a small fraction of its capacity.

In fact, our main investor-owned utility, Evergy, has been engaged in a years-long effort to suppress Kansas’ home-based solar industry. Having failed, by virtue of a Kansas Supreme Court decision, to impose discriminatory and unnecessary demand charges on solar users, the energy behemoth now wants to charge every one of its customers — solar users or not -- a $35 minimum bill to cover what it claims without evidence are the costs to the grid of home-based solar.

It’s time to say no to Evergy’s greed.

Kansas is one of the few states in the country where distributed, or home-based, solar power is disincentivized in this way. Across the border, Missouri law (RSMO 393.1670) mandates that utilities incentivize solar systems by providing rebates — a 25-cent-per-watt ($0.25/W) rebate for systems that become operational by Dec. 31, 2023. Other states have similar programs.

What Missouri and these other states understand is that solar power has many benefits, including reduced energy costs, lower environmental impact (including from climate change), shorter supply lines and price stability — once the equipment is paid for, the power is essentially free. In addition, distributed solar helps the stability of the grid, by providing additional power at times of peak demand — although you’d never hear that from Evergy.

As far as Evergy is concerned, these benefits don’t exist. For years Evergy has claimed that distributed generation is all costs and no benefits, despite the clear evidence otherwise. It has never been asked, either by the Kansas Legislature or the Kansas Corporation Commission, to prove these claims, and it has refused to allow an independent study to measure the costs and benefits of residential solar.

Instead, the KCC has allowed Evergy to put an ever-more-onerous series of disincentives on home-based solar, particularly the per-kilowatt-hour demand charges that were overturned by the Supreme Court.

The latest way Evergy is proposing to solve this nonexistent problem is through a minimum bill of $35 per month on every residential Evergy customer. Fewer than one-fourth of 1% of Evergy customers use solar, but the utility wants us to believe these few customers cost so much that all 610,619 of Evergy’s residential customers should have to pay more.

In this time of a pandemic and recession, the last thing Evergy’s customers need is another rate increase to pad the utility’s bottom line. Kansas has some of the highest electricity rates in the region.

Over the past 10 years, Evergy has filed rate increases that amount to a 60% increase on customers. When its customers, out of concern for price stability, energy independence or climate pollution, choose to spend their own money to put solar on their roofs, Evergy insists on charging them exorbitant and unjustified charges. And if it can’t do that, then it will charge everyone else.

Solar is an underutilized resource, an economic growth opportunity for Kansas. The KCC must not allow it to be smothered by a monopoly utility that cares more about returns to its shareholders than about the energy needs, or the financial well-being, of Kansans.

It’s well past time for the KCC to put its foot down with Evergy, and insist that it treat solar customers, and its entire customer base, fairly.

Rabbi Moti Rieber is executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action, a statewide, multi-faith issue-advocacy organization.