Diane Budden can observe wind direction by looking out a window of her St. Marys home to see which way smoke drifted from the coal-fired Jeffrey Energy Center power plant.
On Monday, her attention was on a different source of power during a Kansas Senate committee's discussion of a bill reversing an order of the Kansas Corporation Commission granting a request of utility companies, including Westar Energy and KCP&L, to charge a special fee to customers who generate electricity from the sun and wind. The legislation is important to Budden, who had solar panels installed before the KCC's ruling added about $100 to her latest monthly electric bill.
"This has to be seen as a form of discrimination," she said. "How could KCC have passed such a request?"
The Senate Utilities Committee was overwhelmed with advocates of Senate Bill 124, which was soundly condemned by the KCC and opposed by companies benefiting from the new assessment. Chairman Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, said opponents of the bill would appear before the committee in March.
The KCC edict has thrown cold water on consumer demand for solar installations, and Kansas companies performing the work have lost about three-fourths of their business.
The conflict between power company and residential customers brought together lawmakers often at odds on political issues. Sen. Tom Hawk, a Manhattan Democrat, and Sen. Julia Lynn, an Olathe Republican, said at a news conference the KCC order was damaging to energy businesses and costly to small-time producers of alternative energy.
Hawk said state policy shouldn't stand in the way of individual property rights and people who invested in technology to control electricity costs. Westar and KCP&L, now known as Evergy, have nearly 1 million customers and an estimated 1,000 Kansans have the capacity to generate electricity from solar or wind, he said.
“I do not believe we should have a policy here in the Legislature or at KCC that discourages the use of renewables by private citizens and businesses or a policy that hurts our state economy and those who would invest in these new technologies," he said.
Andrew Clark, an instructor of renewable energy at Cloud County Community College, said Kansas stood at a crossroads and the pending bill could save what's left of the solar industry.
He said three of the college's graduates in December took jobs in Nebraska due to employment uncertainty inspired by debate over the electric assessments.
Some customers of Westar Energy have sought to diminish the so-called "demand" charges from utility companies by turning off appliances and delaying cooking of meals during the period in which a customer's electricity usage is calculated for billing purposes, said Andy Rondon, who works with Good Energy Solutions, a solar installation company in Lawrence.
"I joined the solar industry so that I could help make people’s lives better, not to make them uncomfortable in their own home. We have customers who now live on a fixed income and went solar in preparation for retirement so they could control their costs. Their preparations have now backfired," Rondon said.
He said the company was operating by installing solar in Missouri, where residential customers receive incentives to invest in alternative energy sources.