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After years of playing political defense, clean-energy advocates in Kansas are pressing for proactive legislation this year with bills related to utility-sponsored energy-efficiency programs and net-metering policies for customers who generate solar power.

Both bills were scheduled for hearings this week before the Senate Utilities Committee.

Dorothy Barnett, executive director of the Climate + Energy Project in Kansas, said members of her Clean Energy Business Council — primarily solar installers — urged her to seek changes to bring more certainty to the state’s policy around net metering in particular.

What would the legislation do?

SB 322 would reinstate more-generous net metering rules from 2009 that were changed in 2014 legislation. This session’s bill would require that utilities charge the same fees and rates on customers with distributed generation that they do for all customers. The Kansas Corporation Commission ruled recently that utilities may put self-generating customers in a separate class and, presumably, charge them differently from other customers.

Net-metering caps would increase from 15 to 25 kilowatts for residential customers, and from 100 to 200 kilowatts for most other customers.

Excess generation currently is calculated monthly and compensated at the avoided-cost rate, but the pending bill would allow generating customers to roll over excess from month to month until, at the end of the year, any remaining excess would revert to the utility at no compensation to the customer.

SB 347 would set measurable goals for voluntary utility-run energy-efficiency programs. They would include an annual 1 percent reduction in electricity sales and 0.75 percent reduction in natural-gas sales, relative to the previous year. Peak demand also would have to fall by a defined amount each year.

The bill also clarifies what utilities could earn for operating efficiency programs: reimbursement for funds invested, compensation for lost sales and bonuses for outperforming stated goals.

The bill also would require the Kansas Corporation Commission to use a recently-developed tool, the National Standard Practice Manual, to determine the most appropriate way to assess the cost-effectiveness of any proposed efficiency benefits.

Why are clean energy advocates pushing these bills?

The two major utilities serving Kansas do not offer any energy-efficiency benefits, in stark contrast to neighboring Missouri, Barnett pointed out. She hopes that clarification, incentives and perhaps a different approach to calculating the cost-effectiveness of efficiency measures could change that.

She said the state’s solar industry is on pause because of the expectation that Westar will soon seek to impose extra fees on solar customers. A bill outlawing higher rates for that group of customers, she said, would return some momentum to solar installations in Kansas.

“This cloud of uncertainty, with the potential for demand charges at any time… It’s interfering with their ability to grow. They were the ones who said, ‘Let’s move on this. We can’t continue to just hang out here.’ ”

What do the utilities think of these bills?

Westar and Kansas City Power & Light are deferring comment until after they appear before the Senate Utilities Committee on Wednesday.

What is likely to happen to these bills in the legislature?

Senate Utilities Committee chairman Rob Olson wouldn’t make any predictions, but Barnett was buoyed by the fact that the bills were introduced by two Republican members of the committee. And Olson, also a Republican, said, “It’s a good time to start the discussion.” The state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio “has spurred a lot of investment in Kansas,” particularly in the form of wind farms. “We need to look at these other industries and see if it will do the same.”

Karen Uhlenhuth

Karen spent most of her career reporting for the Kansas City Star, focusing at various times on local and regional news, and features. More recently, she was employed as a researcher and writer for a bioethics center at a children’s hospital in Kansas City. Karen covers Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.