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Westar Energy's Rate Request: A Study in Short-Term Thinking

Sun ,23/08/2015

Many of America’s power companies have put their profits before the health of our citizens and the 6coalprotection of the environment. The American Lung Association estimates that the EPA’s proposed guidelines for particulates could prevent 38,000 heart attacks and premature deaths, 1.5 million cases of acute bronchitis and aggravated asthma, and 2.7 million days of missed work or school.  Yet, there are many coal burning power plants in the US which operate without scrubbers to remove particulates, because coal is cheap and  scrubbers are expensive.

Scientists have known since 1980 that our increasing CO2 levels were endangering our environment. All the world’s major scientific organizations are now saying that we must take immediate action to avoid environmental disasters.   There is really no effective way to remove carbon emissions from fossil fuel   plants, yet our power companies have fought a shift to renewable energy. Many power companies are now being required  to install costly upgrades to their coal-fired  plants, and  are trying to recoup the cost of their short-term thinking by raising their customer’s rates. Westar energy is a good example, and it is likely  that your electric company may  soon follow suit.

Westar Energy has requested a rate increase by $152 million a year, about 8% over its current rates. Most of the increase will go to upgrade its Wolf Creek nuclear plant, to install scrubbers at some of its coal-fired power plants, and to remove mercury from its La Cynge coal-fired power plant. Westar’s proposed rate design would shift more of its costs  from businesses to residential customers and increase the basic charge for residential service by $3 a month each year for the next five years. That means the cost to just keep the power on would increase from the current $12 a month to $27 a month. Customers who want to install their own solar or wind power would be required to pay a $50 customer charge or pay for power at the peak rate, effectively killing private investments in solar energy. Westar’s customers are understandably unhappy about this.

CEO pay and profits : As a Westar stockholder, I felt bad about the recent rate hearing in Wichita. Speaker after speaker, including several ministers and AARP representatives, testified about how the proposed increase in rates would affect the poor and elderly. The timing of the rate increase seems inappropriate. Morningstar moneyreported that last year the company’s top five executives received 23.5% in salary increases. Westar’s CEO now receives $3 million in compensation, more than 30 times that of our governor. A large portion of the compensation is in stock, which tends to encourage short-term decisions to increase stock value.

Many people also testified that the proposed rate structure would discourage private investments in energy efficiency, energy conservation, and solar panels. A poll by Magellan found that 76% of Westar’s customers oppose the tariff on solar panels, agreeing that Westar’s position was based on increasing its profit. Westar is also requesting a 10% return on investments which seems high for a company which has just invested several million dollars in executive raises.

A misleading process: Although Westar says it is committed to renewable energy and reduced carbon emissions,  their proposal would have just the opposite effect. There are number of red flags for investors evident in the rate proposal and in Westar’s actions over the last several years.  Many investors are now looking for long-term investments in environmentally and socially responsible companies. Westar may no longer fall into that category.  AARP ran a full-page ad in the local newspaper protesting the rate increase.  About 73% of Westar stock is held by  institutional investors and many of those are retirement funds.  If some of those retirement funds  decide to divest of  Westar’s stock,  the effect will certainly not be what the  CEO intended.

There was also concern about the integrity of the process, which was unnecessarily secretive and sometimes misleading. A local newspaper article pointed out that, ”Westar’s public notice fails to detail changes in billing, solar rates”.   And, the CEO’s letter to stockholders claimed that outside agitators were responsible for opposition to the solar fee – which was not what the Magellan study found.  His idea that solar customers were “free riders”  who didn’t  pay their fair share came from an ALEC meeting in Chicago.  Chicago?  It was propaganda created by power companies  worried about solar cutting into their market share.  His letter claimed that solar customers  who hooked to the  grid using net metering agreements were being subsidized by other ratepayers, though research has found just the opposite.  I would expect such a well-paid CEO to know about the research.

Solar Research: Studies in Vermont, New York, California, Texas, and Nevada concluded that net metering provided a net positive benefit for utility companies and their customers. A 2015 study done in Missouri is even more relevant to Kansas. A cost-benefit study of net metering in Missouri arrived at the same conclusion as the other studies, “ Net metering provides a net benefit. “ Missouri has 6000 net metering customers while Westar now has approximately 300. It is unlikely that a study done in Kansas would come up with a different result,  but the Westar executives claim differently.

Why should customers who cut their energy use in half by installing solar panels be charged an extra fee, while those who cut their use in half by installing extra insulation be considered differently? Westar claims they should be, but that seems unreasonable. Net metering customers are charged a fee to set up the system and for a safety inspection, but otherwise net energy metering customers should be treated just as any other customer when they use electricity and be reimbursed as any other supplier when they supply excess power. Charging solar customers an extra fee may actually cause an increase in electric rates.

Gaming the system: My son, who worked for a gas company, observed that in gas company rate cases they always asked for about twice what they wanted and settled for half of that.  Other than the money to have Wolf Creek comply with federal regulations, much of the other requests are unjustified. Residential customers are already paying a customer fee, an electricity fee, a fuel charge, a distribution fee, an environmental fee, an energy efficiency charge, and even Westar’s property taxes. Last June, our bill was $24.95 for electricity, but our total bill came out to be $53.27 after all those things were added in. The $12 customer charge is already greater than most other companies charge and Westar’s rates are second highest in our region. Westar has implied that residential customers are not paying their fair share of the cost. However, residential customers use about a third of the energy, but it seems they are being asked to pick up much more than a third of the cost of upgrades and pollution controls.

Westar owes a better accounting of the money it collects. There have been over 20 rate cases in the last six years. Too much time and resources have been devoted to rate cases designed to increase the company’s profits. The executive compensation seems excessive and much of it is in stock, which means a rise in profits will greatly benefit the executives. That tends to lead to short-term thinking, which is evident in this rate proposal. It does not take into account the increasing future regulations of carbon emissions and the need to reduce dependence on coal-fired power plants.

Settlement?  Just before the rate case was to go to the  Kansas Corporation Commission,  Westar cut  its rate request  in half. My  son said, ” See there”.   Westar also asked to postpone its request for a tariff  on solar panels to a later hearing.   Westar is now proposing a reduction in the subscription fee for wind energy customers, building its own solar plant, and selling solar power to customers. That is a big improvement, but Westar is  still relying too heavily on its coal-fired power plants. Three of its smaller plants have no scrubbers and they should be phased out as soon as possible.  Earlier,  $600 million was budgeted for upgrading the LaCynge plant.  I’m not sure how much of that has already been spent , but pouring more money into it to remove mercury may be a bad investment. It is expensive to remove mercury, but it is impossible to remove carbon emissions.

The Supreme Court, in Massachusetts v. EPA, ordered the EPA to make a determination as to whether carbon dioxide is a pollutant. The EPA found, based on the best scientific evidence, that CO2 is an endangerment to public health and has moved forward with regulations to reduce the carbon emissions from power plants. There will be future environmental regulations which will be costly to the coal plants. Why waste million of dollars in emission control equipment and spend millions importing coal from Wyoming when we could be transitioning to Kansas-based renewable energy?

The future: The Kansas Corporation Commission should approve upgrading the Wolf Creek plant, but carefully consider the amount of money requested. Moving forward with plans to provide customers with wind and solar energy subscriptions is in the right direction and should be encouraged. Other than that, there are better options for Kansas. The Kansas Corporation Commission should send the rest of Westar’s plan back to the drawing board.

(C)   2015 – J.C. Moore