It’s not exactly unusual for customers to complain about their electricity bills. But repeated rate hikes over the past decade have made Westar Energy’s customers particularly mad. And last year’s merger with Kansas City Power and Light only served to keep the company’s finances — and its profit margin — in public view.
Residential and industrial customers have now taken their angst to the Kansas Statehouse. The result: at least half a dozen proposals aimed at changing the way electric utilities can set rates and evaluating how they got so high in the first place.
Christina Amerin, a teacher who lives near Junction City, put solar panels on her house a few years ago to counter the rising electricity rates she was seeing. But that hasn’t worked as well as she’d hoped.
This past September, Westar started assessing an additional demand charge on customers who generate some of their own electricity based on how much power they use between the hours of 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays.
“I wanted to take my energy usage into my own hands,” Amerin said. “Now I feel that I am being punished for that.”
The new demand charge has prompted many solar users to completely change their daily routines or deal with monthly bills as much as $90 higher than they’ve been used to.
Advocates with the Climate and Energy Project say it’s just an underhanded move by Westar to discourage individuals from finding ways to generate their own electricity.
Amerin recently testified before the Kansas Senate Utilities Committee in support of a bill that would eliminate the demand fee and prohibit utilities from charging customers more simply because they have a solar panel or a micro wind turbine at their house.
Rachel Krause told the committee she had to start nagging her family to watch their electricity usage in the afternoons. She’s worried what will happen when the demand charge goes up in the summer.
“Is my family not going to be able to use air conditioning between 2 and 7 on weekday afternoons?,” she asked. “Kids are home during the summer, how’s that supposed to work?”
For Westar executives, that’s kind of the point. They want people to use less electricity during peak hours.
They argue the demand fee also helps offset a de facto subsidy solar and wind users get because they pay less each month, but still require the same infrastructure as customers who rely exclusively on the grid.
Clean energy groups and environmentalists have banded together with industries, and business groups to push several pieces of legislation aimed at curbing rising electric utility costs.
The Kansas Industrial Consumers group is advocating for an independent evaluation of major utility companies’ rates. They want the state to study how rates in Kansas compare to other states, what capital investments utilities have made in the past decade, and whether those investments have paid off.
Chuck Caisley, chief customer officer of Evergy, the parent company of Westar Energy and Kansas City Power and Light, said the utility would have no problem with a task force investigation. But they already submitted their own report to the Legislature as part of the merger agreement approved last year.
“I think what is important is that we study the right things and that it is based on finding a set of solutions,” he said.
What Caisley does not want to see is legislators forcing the company to change the way they are allowed to recover costs, or dictating a certain return on investment. Instead, he’d like to get all of the interested parties together to plot a long-term path for what the future of Kansas electric utilities will look like.
“If you make big changes, some of which are being suggested this legislative session,” Caisley said, “people need to realize there will be profound and large impacts to a lot of different customers.”
Brian Grimmett reports on the environment, energy and natural resources 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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