Westar gets an earful about proposed electric rate increase. You can still weigh in

Jessica Lucas complains to the Kansas Corporation Commission about Westar plan to raise its basic service charge $4 a month.
Jessica Lucas complains to the Kansas Corporation Commission about Westar plan to raise its basic service charge $4 a month. The Wichita Eagle

Westar Energy faced a crowd of angry customers as the Kansas Corporation Commission hosted an open-mic night for residents to say what they think of the company's plan for a rate hike of up to $52.6 million.

Turns out, they don't think much of it.

About 80 people showed up for the public hearing at Washburn University's technical school, and about a fourth of them spoke in opposition to Westar's plans.

Most complaints had to do with Westar's proposal to raise its base monthly service charge by $4 — from $14.50 to $18.50 — and force an extra "demand charge" on customers with home solar panels.

State Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat and House minority leader, helped set the tone with comments about Westar's recent rate history.

House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, spoke at a public hearing in Topeka and helped get a Wichita hearing in a recent Westar Energy case and plans to ask the Kansas Corporation Commission to do the same in a Kansas Gas Service rate hike. Dion Lefler The Wichita Eagle

"We are a high-cost energy state," Ward said. "Homeowners, renters, businesses, schools, hospitals, manufacturers, all pay too much for electricity. We pay more than Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, Colorado. And we pay more than the national average.

"There have been 30 rate increases over the last 10 years. Westar rates have increased 67 percent since 2007."

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Westar's rate case is complex with a lot of moving parts. The company's proposal calls for a very slight drop in September — driven mostly by tax breaks the company is getting from the federal tax plan passed by Congress and the president.

But that would be followed by a much larger increase starting in February, driven by increased depreciation expenses, expiration of government subsidies for the company's wind power assets, and recovery of the cost of a new $417 million wind farm near Spearville.

Complicating matters further is that the company has a separate case before the commission seeking to merge Westar with Kansas City Power & Light.

If the merger fails, the average customer using 900 kilowatt hours of power a month would see bills rise an estimated $5.91, according to Westar.

If the merger goes through, the monthly increase would be about $2.80, as job cuts and other merger savings kick in, according to Westar.

Ernest Kutzley spoke on behalf of the American Association of Retired Persons and said older folks are struggling with the cost of electricity already.

He said the association surveyed voters 45 and older in 2015. Eighty percent said an increase in utility bills would be a problem and 28 percent said they had to adjust their other household spending to be able to pay their electric bills.

He said 79 percent opposed increasing the fixed monthly charge, which tends to have the biggest impact on people with low and fixed incomes.

"This should not be used as a catch-all cost recovery mechanism," Kutzley said.

He said if there is an increase, it should be based on the amount of energy used, because that "allows customers to better control over their electric bill so they can receive full economic benefit from conservation efforts."

He said regulators across the country have been denying utilities' requests for increases in fixed charges and Connecticut recently ordered that the fixed charge be rolled back to less than $10 a month.

"I'm not sure we'll see that here," he said.

Westar customer Jessica Lucas also objected to raising the monthly basic service charge.

"First of all, we aren't talking about energy efficiency, so as we talk about increasing people's bills, we haven't built in any tools to help them save," she said.

And even with savings from the merger factored in, "it still doesn't offset the increase I am going to have when I have to continue to pay $4 more a month, every month, in perpetuity."

Westar has said the company can justify the increase in the base charge because it helps offset spending for power plants, wires, transformers and other costs that don't vary based on how much energy a customer uses.

Ward was the only Wichita voice at the meeting and objected that there was only one public hearing a few blocks from the commission's Topeka office.

"While I enjoy having this opportunity to dialog with you about my concerns and those that have been expressed to me by my constituents . . . what I'm disappointed about is that this is the only public opportunity," he said. "I would request you reconsider and have a second hearing in Wichita so others in the state can dialog with you about this."

After the meeting, KCC Chairwoman Shari Feist Albrecht said the commissioners scheduled a single public hearing because they had decided to rely more on technology to convey information about the rate case to the public.

KCC Chairwoman Shari Feist Albrecht Dion Lefler The Wichita Eagle

The hearing was live-streamed on the Internet and those who couldn't attend can still file comments online, by mail or by phone.

She said commissioners may consider Ward's request for a second hearing in Westar's southern area. While none is scheduled, it wouldn't be impossible to set something up if the other commissioners want to, she said.

Solar enthusiasts said Westar's plan for an extra demand charge on customers who generate some of their own electricity is discriminatory and wrongheaded.

Westar vice president Jeff Martin said in a question-and-answer session before the hearing that solar customers use the power grid like everyone else does, but they don't pay their fair share to maintain the equipment because they're buying less energy.

"I want to make it fair for all customers," he said. "As a non-participant, meaning you don't have private solar, you're paying for those that do."

Solar owners retorted that it's not fair to hit them with an extra charge when the company doesn't penalize others who find ways to cut energy consumption by using energy-efficient lighting and appliances.

Burke Griggs, a Washburn law professor, said it could even be illegal.

"I have to say viewing this proposal strikes me as a penalty on solar owners that is analagous to animus, a legal doctrine that is forbidden under the Constitution," Griggs said. "In 1973 the Supreme Court held ... that legislation that forbade 'hippies' from getting food stamps was unconstitutional. And I kind of feel like a hippie in 1973 as a solar owner who is being attacked."

How to be heard

Any customer who wants to comment on the rate case can do so by July 18:

Online: Go to the commission’s website, www.kcc.ks.gov, and click on the “Your Opinion Matters” link to enter your comment.

By mail: Write to the Kansas Corporation Commission, Office of Public Affairs and Consumer Protection, 1500 SW Arrowhead Road, Topeka, KS 66604-4027. In your comment, reference Docket No. 18-WSEE-328-RTS to ensure it gets attached to the right case.

By phone: Call the commission’s Office of Public Affairs and Consumer Protection at 800-662-0027.

All comments become part of the case record and can be used and cited by the commissioners to justify their decisions.

Dion Lefler; 316-268-6527, @DionKansas