Topeka — Westar Energy customers in Lawrence and across the state soon could see a combined $22 million increase in their electric bills.
"There's a rate increase going into effect that no one knows about," David Springe, consumer counsel of the Citizens' Utility Ratepayer Board, said.
But officials with Westar, the state's largest utility with 675,000 customers, said they're not trying to hide anything.
The increase is a pass-through to customers for the cost of complying with federal environmental regulations, they say. The Kansas Corporation Commission, in a controversial decision in late 2005, allows Westar to recover those costs more quickly rather than including them in rate increase requests that are made every few years.
Westar estimates that if the KCC signed off on the adjustment, which shows up on electric bills as the "Environmental Charge," then the average residential customer will see an increase of about $1.40 per month.
And Jim Ludwig, executive vice president for public affairs, says that cost is going to increase in future years as Westar updates pollution control equipment at its power plants.
"We should have no illusions about the effect that environmental costs will have on rates," Ludwig said. Westar has projected spending $1.2 billion during the next decade for environmental improvements.
Right now, he said, the costs are going up because of equipment being installed at Jeffrey Energy Center near St. Marys, which will reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide and particulate matter.
Under an order in 2005, the KCC allows Westar to request passing along those environmental costs to consumers without having to file a major rate case.
Westar made that request in March and the commission is expected to act soon. If approved, the new charges would take effect next month.
CURB's Springe said there should be a more stringent review process of those environmental costs. CURB is a state agency that advocates for residential and small-business utility customers.
"It's a huge shifting of the risk down to the consumers," he said. "The system is not working for consumers."