October 17, 2010

Net metering law enacted in Kansas

Homeowners and business owners who want to use renewable energy, such as wind or solar, now will be able to financially benefit from a law passed by state lawmakers last year and approved by the Kansas Corporation Commission this past summer.

The Senate substitute for HB 2369, known as the Net Metering and Easy Connection Act, allows business and residential utility consumers to get what is called a "one to one" payback from investor-owned utilities, such as Westar Energy, Empire and Kansas City Power & Light.

"It is dollar for dollar, penny for penny," said Bev Smalley, who helps her husband, Bill Smalley, operate Smalley Energy, an offshoot of the couple's Topeka-based heating and cooling business. "Now it's retail value. If you produce 8 cents worth of energy, you get 8 cents back. That's true net metering."

Through the process of net metering, utility consumers connect their renewable energy systems, such as a wind turbine or solar panels, to the utility's electric grid through a meter. If during the billing period the consumer generates more power than they use, the utility gives the consumer a credit for generating the surplus power.

The most common wind turbine Smalley Energy sells is a 45-foot-high Skystream model. Smalley said the tower and turbine costs about $18,000, but there is a $5,400 federal tax credit that brings the cost down to $12,600.

Kansas had been criticized for not adopting net metering sooner. However, many have argued that with less expensive utility costs than many other states, the payback for using renewable energy in Kansas is years, if not decades, into the future.

Still, Cara Sloan-Ramos, spokeswoman for the KCC, said with passage of the net metering law, the environmental benefits of using renewable energy sources outweigh the costs.

"I think any opportunity Kansans have to take advantage of net metering is a benefit to them and the environment," Sloan-Ramos said. "We feel these regulations are still in the best interests of Kansans."

Bill Smalley, who started Smalley Heating and Cooling in 1996, is active with the Wind for Schools program at Kansas State University. The program, supported by the U.S. Department of Energy National Renewable Energy Center Laboratory, awards grants for schools to install wind turbines for instruction.

Smalley has volunteered with the program for the past three years, pouring the foundations and helping with the installation of Skystream turbines at some of the awarded schools. He was instrumental in helping Topeka's Hope Street Academy install a wind turbine on the school's property in April.

Having built his own air-to-air solar collector energy system in the 1970s for his own use, Smalley puts his belief of renewable energy into practice.

"Being energy-efficient and providing renewable energy is just common sense and good stewardship," he said.

As it stands now, residential-use wind turbines aren't allowed by ordinance within Topeka's city limits but are allowed through conditional-use permits. Currently, those turbines can't exceed 62 feet in height. Turbines outside the city, but in Shawnee County, are held to the same height requirement.

Both the city and county's planning directors say they are working on draft amendments to their ordinances that govern small wind systems. Both said the draft amendments, which first have to be presented to their respective planning commissions, would increase the current height restrictions and expand where small wind systems — not wind farms — can be used.

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