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Prepay option may be coming for Westar customers

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, May 18, 2014, at 9:21 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, May 29, 2014, at 2:27 p.m.

By the end of the month, you may be able to prepay for your electrical service like you can for cellphone service.

Westar Energy, state regulatory staff members and consumer advocates have agreed to allow Westar to begin offering prepay service to as many as 1,000 customers.

The Kansas Corporation Commission has until May 29 to approve or deny the settlement, but approval is highly likely, because all of the parties to the plan have agreed to it.

The plan will be a pilot project to determine the feasibility, popularity and fairness of allowing Kansans to prepay for their power, company and state officials said.

The ability to offer prepay service is new, created by Westar’s ongoing rollout of advanced digital meters that allow customers’ power to be turned on and off from a central location without sending out a crew.

Eligibility for the prepay program is limited to those customers who have digital meters instead of the older-style meters with pointer dials.

Of the initial 1,000 prepay customers, as many as 250 can be those who are in arrears on their bills, according to state documents. The other 750 will be a mix of new customers or ongoing consumers who want to pay their bills in a different way.

All will be volunteers.

“Some customers would prefer to prepay on their payday, just making it a little bit easier to manage their household budget,” said Gina Penzig, Westar’s director of corporate communications.

College students are another group that may find the prepay option useful, because they often need service for only a limited time and may split the utility costs among roommates, she said.

Because the payments would go to Westar before service is rendered, the risk of nonpayment is negated and no security deposit would be required on prepay accounts, Penzig said.

If a customer doesn’t keep a positive balance in the prepay account, service could be disconnected. But there would be no disconnect charge, and the reconnection fee would be $5.

The regular fees for nonpayment on accounts billed monthly are $15 for disconnection of service and $20 to reconnect.

Monthly service charges and per-kilowatt usage will be calculated and charged on a daily basis.

Prepay customers will pay about $4 a month extra to cover the costs of having an outside company implement the program, Westar customer services director Hal Jensen said in his written testimony to the commission.

If customers have a positive balance in their energy accounts when they stop service, the money would be refunded, Penzig said.

The Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board, the state agency that represents consumer interests at the commission, initially had serious concerns with the prepay plan.

The primary fear was that Westar would try to force consumers who have problems paying their monthly bills into the prepay system, said David Springe, CURB’s chief consumer counsel.

CURB also had concerns about how the prepay program would work with the state’s Cold Weather Rule, which generally prohibits utility shutoffs when customers fall behind on their bills during winter, Springe said.

CURB agreed to the pilot program after Westar agreed to limit participation by customers who are in arrears and gave assurances that joining the prepay program won’t affect customers’ Cold Weather Rule rights, Springe said.

In addition, Westar agreed to work with CURB during the pilot program to evaluate its effectiveness, CURB regulatory analyst Stacey Harden said in her testimony to the commission.

“This evidence can later be used to determine whether this prepay pilot program should become a permanent program,” she said.

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

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