David Springe of the Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board just saw his highest electric bill ever.
He figures it’s the result of recent high temperatures and an increase in Westar Energy rates, the latest of which took effect in May.
“I would expect bills would be shockingly high for some people — hopefully not debilitatingly high,” Springe said of the first bills reflecting 100-plus temperatures this summer coupled with the rate increase.
In June, the United Way of the Plains received more calls for help paying utility bills this year than last year, though it does not record reasons for the requests, Delane Butler of the United Way said.
Springe is the consumer counsel for CURB, the state agency that represents residential and small-business customers. As such, Springe fought the Westar rate increase, which amounts to an additional $3.54 a month for 900 kilowatt hours. For energy used over 900 kilowatt-hours, the rates go up in the summer.
But Springe is not in fighting mode now. He recommends that people who want to lower their utility bills settle in for the long haul and make changes themselves.
“This is not an anomaly; this is going to get worse,” he said. “People should take a hard look in their homes and see: ‘Do I have enough insulation? Is my air conditioner 18 years old?’ ”
Making home improvements “may not be what you want to do, or it may be expensive, but it will pay off over time,” Springe said. “Energy is going to get more expensive. That’s a 100 percent certainty.”
According to the federal Energy Star program, if your central air conditioner is more than 12 years old, replacing it with an Energy Star-qualified model could cut cooling costs by 30 percent.
People also can take a more active role in what they pay for electricity, said Shane Batchelder, a spokesman for Westar. They can apply to take part in a new pilot program that allows customers to pay a variable rate that will save them money if they shift some of their electrical use to off-peak hours.
They can track their energy use on Westar’s website and compare it to what they used last year at the same time. They can learn to read their meter to keep track of their usage, Batchelder said. (Go to the website www.westarenergy.com, then click on “my home.”)
And they can do the old-fashioned, practical things to cut electricity use, such as using a microwave instead of the oven, and closing curtains or blinds against the sun, he said. Springe says he tries to keep his thermostat at 76 or 77.
Ways to save
People who can’t pay their utility bills can turn to a few local agencies for help. But the amount of aid available for utilities is not high compared to what is available for a necessity such as food, Butler of the United Way said.
So people who call the United Way for utility help may receive advice that directs them to use their money to pay utility bills and to seek out aid for other necessities.
The Efficiency Kansas program that had offered free home energy audits and low-interest loans for energy improvements ended last month. But Westar does offer referrals to businesses that do the home audits. And here are details on a couple of other Westar programs that can save money:
• The Time of Use pilot program. The first 1,000 customers to sign up will receive a “smart meter” and pay a variable rate that will save them money if they can shift more of their electric usage to off-peak hours — after 8 p.m. and before 10 a.m. A minimum commitment of one year of participation is required.
“We’ve had some feedback that some of our customers have asked for some sort of choice, so not everyone’s paying the same thing every day, every hour,” Batchelder said. “It’s one way to give our customers a choice and control and power over their own efficiency or lack thereof. ... If someone signs up and they don’t do anything to shift usage, they could pay a higher bill.”
Westar has already replaced its old meters in Lawrence with “smart meters” that are used in the program and that give more detailed information about usage. But any Westar customer can apply to be among the 1,000 in the pilot program, and an inspector will make sure that the house is able to be outfitted with the new meter.
As word has gotten out about it in the past week, “we’ve had a lot of interest throughout the territory,” including Wichita, Batchelder said. For more information, call 855-782-7663 or go to the website www.westarenergy.com; click “my home” and look under “billing programs.”
• WattSaver programmable thermostat. About 40,000 Westar customers — 6 percent — have taken Westar up on its offer of putting a programmable thermostat in their homes. Wichitans have had the option since 2009. The thermostat, including installation, is free in a package worth as much as $300 to residential customers. In return, Westar is able to cycle off customers’ air conditioning for a few hours at times of peak demand to reduce the demand and postpone the need to build additional generating capacity, Batchelder said. If managed properly, programming the thermostat can save customers money on their energy bills.
The cycling off of air conditioning takes place only on weekdays. Customers can opt out one day a month.
“We haven’t cycled anything off this year as of yet,” Batchelder said. “From personal experience, my family and I participate, and we noticed last summer maybe three instances when it cycled off for like two hours. My wife ... said it wasn’t anything too noticeable.”
In return for giving up a few hours of control over their cooling for a few days a year, Springe said, customers can have better control over their thermostat the other days of the year.
For more information on WattSaver, call 800-383-1183 or go to www.westarenergy.com and look under “save energy & money.”