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Kansas improves ranking for energy-efficiency programs yet lags behind

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013, at 6:39 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, at 6:03 a.m.

Kansas has been named one of the “most improved” states in America for energy-efficiency programs, although the state remains in the bottom tier.

The state rose from 45th among the 50 states and District of Columbia last year, to a tie with South Carolina for 39th on the annual scorecard of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

The results were announced Wednesday in a national telephone-based news conference held by council officials and U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

Overall, Kansas earned 11.5 out of a possible 50 points, a three-point gain from last year.

That was enough to put Kansas in the top-five most improved states, although it still lags way behind the national leaders, Massachusetts, with 42 points, and California, with 41. Wyoming ranked dead last with 5.5 points.

“We do this to improve all states, whether it’s the leaders or the followers,” said Steve Nadel, executive director of ACEEE.

“The Department of Energy has supported the scorecard program since 2008 and is really very pleased to do so,” added Moniz. “It’s a critical tool for us to unite leaders, for energy policy makers being called on to make informed decisions about energy efficiency, and entrepreneurs and business leaders as well, who of course are confronted with making investment decisions.”

Moving up was good news at the Kansas Corporation Commission, the state agency in charge of utility regulation.

KCC Executive Director Kim Christiansen said in a statement that the agency’s goal is to work with the private sector on energy efficiency.

“Kansas has worked hard to become a great place to do business,” she said. “With reliable and affordable energy, world-class companies like Mars, Frito Lay, Sprint, IKEA and more are able to make their own investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy.”

Not everyone was impressed by Kansas’ rise in the rankings.

Niki Christopher, an attorney with the Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board, noted that the council receives funding from companies that sell energy-efficiency services and goods.

“I don’t think it’s a harmful evaluation, but I don’t think it’s an entirely objective evaluation,” she said.

Christopher said she’s attended state meetings on energy efficiency and “a lot of it was about improved reporting,” rather than actual efficiency improvements.

CURB, the state agency representing residential and small-business consumers, has long expressed concern that efficiency programs could be used to increase utility profits at the expense of customers.

In Kansas, a major sticking point has been whether utility companies should be paid not only to run efficiency programs, but also for the projected loss in power and gas sales that would result from a successful conservation program.

In March, the commission decided against a blanket policy to allow utilities to recover those potential lost sales from customer rates. But the commission reserved the right to consider each efficiency program proposal case by case.

In the efficiency rankings, Kansas earned higher than average marks for state-led initiatives, scoring five out of a possible seven points in that category.

The analysts praised the Efficiency Kansas program that provided low-interest loans for residents to upgrade insulation, heating, air-conditioning and other systems.

However, the program’s last loans were made in 2011 and it is now dormant, except for those participants who are still making payments on their loans.

The state also showed improvement for promoting energy-efficient building codes.

Kansas doesn’t have a statewide energy code, leaving that decision to local communities.

But such codes have been adopted by a number of municipalities and about 41 percent of new construction is subject to energy-efficient building standards, according to the KCC.

ACEEE also praised the state for leading by example with energy efficiency requirements for public buildings and motor fleets.

On the downside, the energy-efficiency programs of the state’s utility companies ranked almost at the bottom of the scorecard’s grading scale, scoring only half a point out of a possible 20.

“The state reported well below-average levels of investments and savings for electricity and natural gas energy efficiency programs,” the Kansas section of the report said. “There is significant room for growth in this policy area.”

Westar Energy, the state’s dominant power company, recognizes that its efficiency program needs improvement and is working to address that, company spokesman Leonard Allen said.

The company has been running a program to provide customers with advanced energy-saving thermostats. However, that program is winding down and won’t be actively promoted in the future.

Allen said Westar is now doing research to compile a new efficiency plan, but can’t say what it might include.

Last month, the commission granted Westar $10.5 million for its annual Energy Efficiency Rider, which allows the company to raise rates to cover costs associated with the previous year’s efficiency programs.

Last year, those costs included:

• Approximately $6.2 million for the thermostat program

• Nearly $4 million for a contract allowing Westar to interrupt service to its largest customer, the Occidental Chemical plant in south Wichita, during peak usage periods

• $132,000 for educational programs

• $60,000 for a certification program to train building operators in saving energy.

Kansas Gas Service, the state’s major gas company, offers nothing but online advice on saving energy.

The company’s website includes an interactive video of energy tips and a calculator that homeowners can use to compute what they’d save through weatherproofing and upgrading appliances and heating and air systems.

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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