September 15, 2013

Consumer group hopes to hear about KCC appeal

A decision is expected Tuesday on whether consumers will have a voice on $10.5 million worth of Westar Energy rates, a state official said.

A decision is expected Tuesday on whether consumers will have a voice on $10.5 million worth of Westar Energy rates, a state official said.

The Kansas Corporation Commission is scheduled to decide whether the Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board can intervene in Westar’s request for its annual Energy Efficiency Rider — an add-on to electric bills that pays for efforts to help customers conserve power.

Last month, a KCC official rejected intervention by CURB, the state agency that represents residential and small-business utility customers.

KCC staff recommended last week that the commission approve the rider as submitted by Westar. The recommendation said the staff “has found the calculations to be accurate and consistent with prior commission orders.”

Last year, the commission approved an $11.9 million rider, which added about 54 cents to base rates. Because the company is asking for less this year, the rider will cost the average consumer about 48 cents a month.

But while the numbers are small, a larger principle is at stake, said David Springe, chief consumer counsel for CURB.

He said the agency reviews the filings by KCC staff to ensure that Westar is spending money appropriately. CURB can also challenge commission decisions in court, which the KCC staff can’t do, Springe said.

About $6.3 million of this year’s $10.5 million request is to pay for a program providing advanced thermostats that allow Westar to control customers’ air conditioner compressors to manage power loads during peak hours.

Another $4 million goes to a contract allowing Westar to interrupt service to the Occidental Chemical Corp. plant on South Ridge Road in Wichita. Westar’s never done that, but having the option saves the cost of having to build a small power plant, Westar officials said.

Approval of Westar’s annual bill riders and CURB participation has been routine until this year, when the commission began requiring more detailed filings by parties that want to be heard in utility cases.

In August, KCC prehearing officer Brian Fedotin ruled CURB had not shown that its participation on the rider is necessary to protect consumer interests. CURB appealed to the commission and has been waiting three weeks for a decision.

“It’s put us in the position of not having the ability to comment,” Springe said. “We haven’t had a chance to look at the data.”

CURB contends that the state law that created the agency gives it authority to intervene on all rate issues and the agency will have to go to court if the KCC blocks it from intervening in Westar cases.

“I hope it doesn’t come down to that kind of thing,” he said.

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