KCC late to embrace rate parity

Wichita can be irrational in thinking that its interests get short shrift in Topeka's circles of power. Unfortunately, the way the Kansas Corporation Commission came down Monday on electric-rate parity did nothing to dispel such suspicions.

Westar Energy has been one company since the early 1990s, when Kansas Power and Light merged with Kansas Gas and Electric.

But the KCC has always let Westar charge KGE's former customers in Wichita and southern Kansas more for power than it charges KPL's former customers in northern Kansas, holding that southern customers could be saddled with costs associated with the Wolf Creek nuclear power plant near Burlington.

When the bright line between the old companies' customers benefited northern Kansas, Wichita's pleas for companywide rate parity were taken less than seriously.

By the Wichita school district's estimate, those in the old KGE area have ended up paying about $3,000 a customer more for electricity over the years — $750 million overall. In 2000, for example, southern Westar customers paid 32 percent more per kilowatt hour than did northern Westar customers.

As Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer said in an August letter to the KCC: "Wichita and other South customers have already paid hundreds of millions of dollars more for electricity under the punitive rate structure that was adopted when those two companies merged intoWestar Energy."

But now Westar and the KCC finally think parity is in order.

Now that Wolf Creek isn't such a burden and the utility's costs of power generation have shifted in southern Kansas' favor.

Now that southern Westar customers are paying slightly less per kilowatt hour than their northern brethren.

And now that cap-and-trade legislation in Congress or other federal action related to climate change could drive up the cost of coal-fired power.

True, the KCC and Westar have been moving toward rate parity for the past few years. As the KCC order noted, it makes sense that Westar's future major investments in power plants and other infrastructure would be borne by customers statewide.

And today's parity proponents have a point in noting the contradiction of Wichita newly calling for continued disparity on fairness grounds.

It just would have been better if the KCC and Westar had embraced the fairness argument on behalf of parity a decade ago, when it could have done Wichitans and other southern Kansans some good.

The KCC was unmoved by the city of Wichita's idea that southern Westar customers are due refunds for all those years of higher rates.

At least, as Brewer arguedMonday, the KCC now should try to move toward rate consolidation in a way that acknowledges southern Westar customers' concerns and payment history.

If there is an inarguable point in all this, it may be one offered by a Kansas.com reader: "No matter where we live, we can expect the cost of energy to go up."