Black Hills Energy customers on Wednesday questioned whether they would get much benefit from a proposal to charge all of the company's natural gas customers $13 to $26 a year to pay for energy efficiency programs.
They also objected to a part of the proposal that would guarantee gas company profits don't evaporate as customers reduce their gas usage.
The three customers who gave formal testimony to the Kansas Corporation Commission all acknowledged the wisdom of reducing gas consumption.
But customer Gerald Schmitt likened the Black Hills plan to the city of Wichita raising water rates to offset revenue declines that followed a rainy summer when consumers used less.
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"It seems like the consumer always gets stuck with the bill," Schmitt said. "The company wants to continue to make the profits, in this particular case on the backs of the ratepayers."
"I don't understand why conservation doesn't cost less," added customer Matt Rathbun. "It should cost less. Otherwise, it isn't conservation."
He said conservation might generate some savings on winter heating, but showed the commissioners his latest gas bill with a $16 delivery charge on $12.15 worth of gas.
"Most of the year, I'm not going to be saving a whole lot of money," he said.
Wichita's hearing was the second in a series called by the commission, which will decide whether to let Black Hills go forward with its five-year, $12.5 million plan. The final hearing will be at 7 p.m. today in Dodge City.
Black Hills, the gas system formerly known as Aquila and before that, Peoples, serves about 110,000 customers in Kansas. About 30,000 are in Sedgwick County.
The outcome of the hearings is expected to set a precedent for other utilities' energy saving plans.
Matt Daunis, Black Hills director of energy-efficiency programs, told audience members that if the program goes through, they'll be eligible for substantial rebates — in addition to reducing their bills by saving energy — for making energy improvements to their homes.
The company proposes to provide customers with free energy audits and minor improvements such as low-flow shower heads and pipe insulation.
In addition, some customers will qualify for rebates of $30 for gas-saving maintenance on existing equipment. Those who add home insulation and replace inefficient furnaces and water heaters could get as much as $1,450.
Based on the company's experience in other states, "You, our customers, will be very satisfied with these programs," Daunis said.
But David Springe, consumer counsel for the Citizens' Utility Ratepayer Board, argued, at times heatedly, against approval.
All customers would pay for the program, but only a few would actually benefit, he said.