May 29, 2014

KCC OKs Westar Energy pilot plan to offer prepay electric service

In another sign of advancing technology in the utility industry, Kansans will soon be able to prepay for their electric service like they can for their cellphone.

In another sign of advancing technology in the utility industry, Kansans will soon be able to prepay for their electric service like they can for their cellphone.

The Kansas Corporation Commission voted Thursday to let Westar Energy move forward with the first program in the state that lets customers pay for electricity before they use it.

Customers “compare Westar to other companies’ products and services such as prepaid cell phones,” Westar spokeswoman Gina Penzig said in a statement. “We want to meet those expectations and give our customers more product and service options that fit their lifestyle.”

The plan approved Thursday is a pilot project and at the start will be limited to 1,000 customers.

Prepay will be available in parts of Wichita, along with the towns of Lawrence, Silver Lake and Rossville. The key to availability is the type of electric meter at the property served.

The prepay service will only be offered in locations where the older clock-face-dial meters have been replaced with digital meters.

The new style meters allow the power company to easily turn electric service on and off from a central office without having to dispatch a crew to the site.

The prepay service is expected to appeal especially to college students and others who move frequently, because it can mean a significant reduction in paperwork and the out-of-pocket cost of starting and stopping service.

No up-front security deposits will be required; Westar gets paid before the electricity is used, so there’s no risk of unpaid bills.

Service could be disconnected if the balance in the customer’s prepaid account falls to zero. But there is no disconnect charge and the reconnection fee is set at $5.

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

With prepay, monthly service charges and per-kilowatt usage will be calculated and charged on a daily basis at regular rates, plus a $4-a-month fee to be in the program.

Customers will be able to use a mobile app or website to closely track their electric usage. They also can sign up for text, e-mail and phone alerts that will trigger when the money in their account falls below a certain level.

Signing up for the prepay service is voluntary.

Of the first 1,000 customers, only 250 can be those who are in arrears on their bills. The other 750 will be a mix of new customers or ongoing consumers who want to pay their bills in a different way.

The plan approved by the commission is the result of a settlement agreement between Westar, the commission staff and the Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board, the state agency that represents residential and small-business utility customers.

David Springe, chief consumer counsel for CURB, said that under the settlement, he will be working with Westar on developing performance measures and evaluating the service to ensure customers are treated fairly.

Initially, CURB was worried that Westar could try to force low-income customers who get behind on their bills into having to prepay for their service. He said limiting the pilot program to only 250 such customers has assuaged that worry somewhat.

“Since this is an experiment, we want to hopefully learn some things,” Springe said.

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