The effort to equalize rates across the Westar Energy service area has been under discussion ever since two Kansas companies merged to form Westar in the 1990s, but now the opponents and proponents of such a move are trading places.
The two companies that merged were the Wichita-based Kansas Gas & Electric Co., and the Topeka-based Kansas Power & Light Co. At the time of the merger, KG&E; customers in southern Kansas were paying considerably more for electricity because of the debt the company had incurred to build the Wolf Creek Nuclear Power Plant. When talk of equalizing rates came up, former KPL customers stood up in protest, saying they shouldn’t have to pay higher rates to pay off a plant they didn’t build and that didn’t serve their area.
It made a certain amount of sense, but now the tables have turned.
After many years of paying off the Wolf Creek debt, the rates in the northern and southern parts of the Westar service area are close to equal. According to Westar, in 2000, former KG&E; customers were paying about 32 percent more per kilowatt hour. Now, however, the gap has narrowed to just 0.3 percent and reversed so that former KPL customers actually are paying slightly more.
On Monday, the Kansas Corporation Commission opened its final hearing in Topeka on Westar’s plan to consolidate electrical rates across its service area. And guess what? The main opponents of equalizing rates are not the northern customers but the southern customers who say they do not want to bear the cost they see coming down the road to retrofit coal-fired power plants in northeast Kansas to meet federal clean air standards.
Even though we in Lawrence, as former KPL customers, could be on the winning end of this deal, we have to admit customers in Wichita and other KG&E; areas have a point. The fairness argument they are making now is not much different than the one people in northeast Kansas have been making for years.
However, if Westar ever hopes to equalize its rates, now, when the rates are almost identical across the state, may be the time. Chances are, the cost of maintaining coal-fired plants, the Wolf Creek plant and other plants fueled by natural gas and oil will even out over the long run, and company-wide efforts to pursue alternative energy strategies, such as wind power, legitimately should be shared by all Westar customers.
It seems impractical to preserve differential rates indefinitely, and although it’s tough to predict the future, now seems as good a time as any to bring all Westar customers under a single rate structure.