Public hearing this week on utility rates

Kansas utility regulators will be in Wichita on Wednesday to hear whether you want to pay more for natural gas service to fund energy conservation.

Gas customers served by Black Hills Energy would pay an estimated $13 to $27 more a year if the Kansas Corporation Commission approves the five-year, $12.5 million plan.

The state consumer advocate says saving energy is a worthy goal, but Black Hills' plan is too sweet a deal.

Company officials say they're just trying to make sure they don't lose money from selling less gas while helping customers conserve.

The commission is inviting the public to comment in a series of three hearings, today in Lawrence, Wednesday in Wichita and Thursday in Dodge City.

The Wichita hearing will begin at 7 p.m. in room 101AB at the Century II Convention Center, 225 W. Douglas.

Black Hills, the gas system formerly known as Aquila and, before that, Peoples, serves 110,000 customers in Kansas. The company has 30,000 customers in the Wichita area, mostly in northwest Wichita.

While the case affects only Black Hills customers directly, David Springe, chief consumer counsel for the Citizens' Utility Ratepayer Board, said everyone should attend the hearing because it will set precedent for other utilities.

"It's the first time the commission has gone to the public and said 'What do you think?' " Springe said. "I sure hope a lot of consumers show up and tell them."

If the plan is approved, Black Hills customers could apply for free energy audits and receive some low-cost devices such as low-flow shower heads and pipe insulation.

Homeowners could apply for $30 to $750 rebates if they have gas-saving maintenance performed or upgrade water heaters and furnaces.

The company also would commit to weatherization programs, including volunteer teams to assist low-income and disabled people.

Builders could claim $1,500 to $5,000 in rebates for building "Energy Star" rated houses. Commercial and industrial concerns could also get rebates decided case by case.

CURB opposes the plan as proposed, Springe said.

"This program is very expensive and the vast majority of consumers won't get any benefit," he said.

He also objected to provisions that would guarantee Black Hills' income no matter how much gas it sells — and allow the company to hold back a portion of customers' savings.

"They want us to pay for our own program, they want us to guarantee their revenue, then they want us to give them a prize. We don't think that's good for consumers," he said.

Ivan Vancas, vice president for Black Hills' Kansas and Colorado gas operations, said CURB's concerns are misplaced.

He said the program would be open to all customers who want it, on a first-come, first-served basis.

Vancas defended the revenue guarantee, saying it's necessary to ensure the company can meet the fixed costs of operating the gas system. The company's delivery rate is partly based on usage volume, so if customers use less, "it's a guaranteed penalty for us under the current design," he said.

Matt Daunis, Black Hills' manager of energy efficiency, said the holdback of energy savings would apply only to low-income programs and generate only $42,000 over five years.