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Opponents Voice Concerns over Westar's Kansas Rate Increase Proposal

Bill Dorsett and other opponents of the Westar plan hold yellow umbrellas to show their support for solar power. (Photo by Stephen Koranda)
Bill Dorsett and other opponents of the Westar plan hold yellow umbrellas to show their support for solar power. (Photo by Stephen Koranda)

Westar Energy has asked for more than 20 rate increases in Kansas in the last five years. Their latest plan is attracting more attention than usual. It’s a significant increase for all customers and it adds a new charge for people with solar panels. Representatives of Westar and opponents of their plan gathered in Topeka this week for a hearing with state regulators. KPR's Stephen Koranda was there, and filed this report. 

Westar is proposing a $150 million rate increase for Kansas customers, around $13 per month for the average home. Gina Penzig, with Westar, says the company has been making some federally mandated environmental upgrades and working to make them as cheaply as possible.  

“In these cases it’s made more sense to retrofit that current infrastructure, those current plants, than to shut those down and build new ones. That’s where a lot of these costs have come,” says Penzig.

Westar is also proposing new fees for customers who use their own solar panels to generate electricity. Penzig says solar customers get to use the company’s grid to access electricity when they need it, and they’re being subsidized by other electricity users.

“Customers who don’t have solar panels, maybe they can’t have them, they might rent, their roof might not be the right orientation, are paying a little extra to help cover the costs for those who do,” says Penzig.

Westar’s proposing a somewhat-flexible plan for addressing that situation. Solar uses would have a choice between a flat $50 monthly fee for grid access plus costs for electricity used, or a plan with a lower fixed charge, but higher charges for the electricity Westar is providing. Neither is getting a warm welcome from solar energy advocates.

There was music providing a backdrop for more than 50 people gathered to oppose the plan outside the state hearing. They held bright yellow umbrellas marked with the words “don’t block the sun.”

Bill Dorsett, from Manhattan, has installed a small solar system on his home. He’d be grandfathered in under Westar’s plan, but says new charges would hurt people installing systems like his.

“If we ended up paying $50 a month for a solar tariff on this, it would take all net gain from my system,” says Dorsett.

Dorsett says the few hundred solar customers are an asset to the system, not a hindrance. When they aren’t using all their solar power, they sell it back to Westar at a low cost.

“In fact, they’re paying us wholesale and selling it to our neighbors retail. It’s a real good deal for Westar,” says Dorsett.

Westar is also proposing an increase in fixed fees for all customers, not just solar customers. The basic monthly charge would go up from $12 per month to $27 per month over several years. Sharon Ashworth, with the Kansas Natural Resource Council, says if more of a bill is a fixed monthly fee, that means less of a financial gain when using energy efficient lights or appliances.

“Any efforts and money you have put into conserving energy and saving on your energy bill, is going to be penalized by the new Westar rate plans,” says Ashworth.

Westar says the increased monthly customer charge will be offset by lowering other charges. Gina Penzig says the increased monthly fee is necessary because it costs a lot just to bring electricity to a customer, no matter how much they use.

“The power plants, the transmission poles, the wires, the people behind it, and a lot of that doesn’t really vary much based on how much you use, whether you’re a very small home or have a large business. A lot of that is pretty similar,” says Penzig.

The Kansas Corporation Commission is considering Westar’s proposal. They’re taking public comments on the plan by phone and email through August 11th. The KCC could approve it, deny it or approve a scaled-back version of the plan.

There’s another public hearing on the issue Thursday evening in Wichita.

Stephen Koranda is KPR's Statehouse reporter.