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Westar Energy needs an audit, not another electric rate increase, lawmakers say

Rep. Kristey Williams (standing) and Reps. Steve Crum and Brenda Landwehr spoke at a rally last month opposing Westar increasing charges on solar-power customers. The rally preceded a Kansas Corporation Commission public hearing where roughly 100 people showed up to protest electric rate increases.
Rep. Kristey Williams (standing) and Reps. Steve Crum and Brenda Landwehr spoke at a rally last month opposing Westar increasing charges on solar-power customers. The rally preceded a Kansas Corporation Commission public hearing where roughly 100 people showed up to protest electric rate increases. The Wichita Eagle

A bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers is demanding an independent review of Westar Energy's operations before the company is allowed to raise rates.

The lawmakers made that request to the Kansas Corporation Commission during a public hearing that drew more than 100 angry customers to Wichita State University's Hughes Metropolitan Complex on Thursday evening.

The commission is considering a proposal by Westar for a $17 million increase in annual rates, about $2.80 a month for the average customer.

The lawmakers said Kansans have had enough of rising electric bills. Republicans and Democrats alike complained that Westar's rates are higher than in neighboring states and the national average.

"Failure to address our citizens' and businesses' concerns about skyrocketing electricity prices will only slow economic growth and development," said Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita. "I implore you to consider the strains our current rates are having on ratepayers and deny this rate request. We can do better for Kansans and we should."

Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, said Westar has made $2.6 billion in profit since 2008.

"Kansans have already seen rate or tariff increases every single year, so why?" she asked the commission. "Why are Kansas businesses paying the highest rates in our region? How can the KCC help bring Kansas utility rates back to a regionally competitive level?"

She said having Westar study its own rates is like having a restaurant write its own Yelp reviews.

Westar spokeswoman Gina Penzig said there have been discussions about an outside rate review, but she cautioned the state to go slow.

"One concern is any time you take on a study like that, they tend to be quite expensive," she said. "Who would bear the cost of that study?"

She also said that any time Westar requests a rate increase, the company provides thousands of pages of documents to the KCC to justify its costs.

And, she said, many of the rate increases of the past 10 years have been driven by Congress and the state Legislature, including stricter federal rules on power plant emissions and a state requirement that the company invest in wind energy.

After this rate case, costs are expected to stabilize as the company moves out of a period of building new facilities and into more of a holding pattern of maintenance and operation, Penzig said.

The turnout for Thursday's hearing was bigger than for a similar meeting held in Topeka last month.

Wichita wasn't originally scheduled to have a local hearing, but it was hastily set up at the request of lawmakers and consumers. A little more than half of the people who attended also were at a pre-hearing rally in support of solar energy.

One of the most contentious issues in the rate case is Westar's proposed treatment of solar-equipped customers.

They draw some of their power from the regular power lines at night and on cloudy days and feed power back into the system when the sun is bright and they generate more than they use.

Westar says those customers aren't paying their fair share of Westar's costs for operations and equipment because they buy less power from the company than ordinary customers.

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Westar wants to levy a solar "demand charge" — based on the customer's hour of highest power usage each month — that would add about $28 to $37 to their bill.

The customers characterized that plan as an attempt by Westar to strangle home-based solar energy in its infancy to eliminate the competition.

Jane Byrnes, an environmentalist who has solar panels at her home, said her installer told her that if the demand charge passes, she should simply disconnect her panels because she'd wind up paying more than she would if she just bought all her power from Westar.

Holger Meyer, a WSU physics professor, said the demand charge is shortsighted.

He said climate change from burning fossil fuels is the biggest threat facing the human race and that it's imperative to develop solar power, from small home installations to large utility-scale plants.

"We must not impose punitive rates on solar rooftop private initiatives that are the only way we can mitigate the trouble we are putting ourselves in," he said.

Meyer and other customers also objected to a Westar proposal to raise the monthly base service charge by $4 a month, from $14 to $18.

Westar wants to raise more revenue from the base charge because it's guaranteed income that doesn't fluctuate based on how much energy the customer uses. That, company officials say, creates a more stable source of money to pay for fixed costs of operating the system.

But customers weren't buying that argument and said it would fall hardest on poor people who have small apartments and use little energy.

"They tell me to conserve and conserve and conserve and then they want to punish me for it," David Fields of Wichita told the commissioners. "Westar has become the biggest con artist anywhere, period. The people are not happy . . . I don't know what else to tell you. Tell them no."

A home energy checkup helps owners determine where their house is losing energy and money - and how such problems can be corrected to make the home more energy efficient. A professional technician - often called an energy auditor - can give your h

Dion Lefler; 316-268-6527, @DionKansas

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