Solar panel users in Kansas continue to pay higher electricity bills as they wait for utility company Evergy to keep a promise made during this year’s legislative session to remove a recently added fee.
Evergy says it will follow through on the promise by the end of May. But state regulators ultimately hold the power to decide whether or not to approve the request to change some solar customers’ rates.
Her group, which advocates for the use of renewable energy and energy efficiency, was one of several that pushed Evergy to make the change and negotiate a compromise.
Evergy is the parent company of Kansas City Power & Light and Westar. Last year, the two companies successfully convinced state regulators to change how customers with solar panels would be charged for their electricity.
In addition to the regular service and use fees, solar customers would now have to pay what’s known as a demand fee. The demand fee charges users for their peak power use between the hours of 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Friday.
In many cases, that dramatically increased the bills of solar customers who were accustomed to paying very little because their panels offset much of their energy use.
Solar energy advocates upset with the changes started pursuing legislation at the Kansas Capitol that would have prevented regulated utility companies from charging solar customers any differently than regular residential customers.
The bill seemed to be gaining support. But in late March, solar advocates and Evergy officials agreed to a compromise.
Advocates would stop pursuing their legislation. Evergy would remove the new rate structure from solar customers who installed their panels before October 1, 2018, for Westar customers and before December 1, 2018, for KCP&L customers.
The idea was to ease the burden for people who had invested in solar panels before the rate changes were made and only apply the charges to those who already know what they’re getting themselves into.
But more than a month after the two sides struck a deal, Evergy has yet to ask state regulators to make the change.
Evergy spokeswoman Gina Penzig confirmed that the company plans on filing its request before May 24. Officials will make their case and ask for an expedited process.
“Then, ultimately it’s up to the commissioners to look at that information and make that decision,” Penzig said.
While unlikely, there is potential for unexpected outcomes.
State regulators just approved the new rates a little more than six months ago. Evergy argued the demand rate was necessary to eliminate an unfair subsidy. What’s changed in that short time period that would justify changing rates again? Is there no longer an unfair subsidy?
Regulators could use that logic to deny the request and stick to their first decision.
Another potential obstacle exists. Evergy agreed to a five-year rate moratorium as a condition of the merger between Westar and KCP&L. Regulators could decide the moratorium means they can’t make the change to rates until that period is over.
While she doesn’t think those outcomes are likely, Barnett said she’s willing to do whatever it takes to make sure rooftop solar has a viable future in the state.
“There is enough legislative will on both sides of the aisle that if we can’t come to a compromise solution that works for everyone, that there will be a legislative fix next year,” she said.
Meanwhile, solar customers are still paying the demand fee, which will increase from $3 per kilowatt to $9 per kilowatt starting June 1.
Brian Grimmett reports on the environment and energy for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett.
Coverage of energy and the environment is made possible in part by ITC Great Plains and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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