It is a routine almost as reliable as sunrise and sunset.
All across the state — from the tucked-away corners of cities to the barnyard driveways of farms — there are lights on poles that pop on at dusk and turn off at dawn.
Just like the cycle of the sun that controls the lights, their routine is a daily one. Day after day after day, the lights come on and the electricity flows.
Now there are concerns that the people who pay the electric bills for those lights are being overcharged by Topeka-based Westar Energy. The overcharges, the chief critic says, may be just pennies a day. But like everything with these lights, it is a daily routine.
“I’m confident Westar has gotten this wrong,” said Michael Eglinski, the city auditor for Lawrence who first discovered the issue in May 2009 when he was studying the city’s street light system. “No matter the amount, there is an issue of fairness here. The end result is customers are being overcharged, and that ought to be fixed.”
Eglinski last year estimated that property owners who have special types of lights called private area lights — which could be thought of as street lights that aren’t on a street — are being overcharged anywhere from $14 to $40 a year for the electricity these lights use. Westar disputes that claim, but more on that in a moment.
The lights are not like normal lights:
- First, the lights are owned and maintained by Westar.
- Second, there are no switches for consumers to turn the lights on or off.
- Third, there are no meters that measure the actual amount of electricity they use.
The lack of a meter is a key part of the issue. The lights often are in places that would make it impractical for them to be metered. Westar develops an estimate for how much energy the lights use based on how big of a bulb the light has.
In his audit, Eglinski compared the energy estimate Westar uses for its lights with the energy estimate of other utilities — Kansas City Power & Light, western Kansas’ Midwest Energy and four out-of-state companies. What he found is that Westar’s estimates were 80 to 85 percent higher than those used by the other companies.
The customers who use the area lights — which include everybody from cities, businesses and individuals — pay a monthly service charge to Westar. In addition to the service charge, they also pay an energy surcharge that is calculated using the energy estimate.
Adding it up
Many times the actual energy charge on the light is just a few dollars a month, but Eglinski contends it should be about 80 percent less than that.
“Just imagine if a utility was continually making a mistake on how they read your meter,” Eglinski said. “You would expect it to get fixed. But I think what is going on here is that we’re talking about small amounts spread over many customers, so it is not worth any one customer’s time to really push hard to save a few bucks.”
But add them all up, and the numbers becomes noticeable. Westar has approximately 45,000 area lights. For illustration purposes, if each were paying an extra $20 per year, that would be $900,000 in unnecessary charges. Even that, though, has to be put into perspective. Westar had total profits of about $175 million last year.
Eglinski notified Westar of his audit findings in summer 2009. He was guessing that Westar would find a mistake in its estimation methodology or perhaps even just a typo that led to the estimates being too high. But now, more than a year later, the estimates still stand.
“To some extent, I thought this would be fixed by now,” Eglinski said.
A Westar official last week said there is no mistake with the company’s estimates. He categorically disagrees that the company is mis-charging customers for the amount of electricity the lights use.
But when pressed by the Journal-World, the final answer given is not one you would expect from the state’s largest utility, which often urges consumers to be more energy efficient. Simply put, Westar’s private area lights are extremely inefficient by modern standards.
To understand just how inefficient Westar’s lights are, here’s a brief lesson on how the lights work.
There’s a bulb and there’s a ballast. The ballast produces an electric spark that ignites the gases inside the bulb, which produces the light. A 150 watt bulb uses, you guessed it, 150 watts of electricity. A ballast uses anywhere from 20 to about 40 watts. But producing an estimate for total electric use is more complicated than simply adding the two numbers together and multiplying it by the number of hours the light is on (4,000 hours a year for an area light.) That’s because ballasts don’t operate at a 100 percent efficiency level. Some power is lost before it reaches the bulb. In making its estimate, Westar tries to account for that lost power.
Peter Morante, director of energy programs, at the Lighting Research Center in Troy, N.Y., said most modern ballasts operate at an efficiency level — technically called a power factor — of 90 percent. The ballasts that Westar uses, according to Westar, operate at a 43 percent level. In other words, the ballast actually loses more power than it uses to ignite the bulb.
“They obviously are not the highest technology available,” Chad Luce, the company’s manager of customer and community relations, said of the lights. “But as many as we have to buy, they are still readily available to us.”
Morante said even old ballasts would be expected to perform better than the ones used by Westar.
“An old ballast may be down to 0.7 (70 percent) at the worst,” Morante said. “But when I talk about old, I mean really old. That would be something installed in the ’70s, and it probably would have burned out by now anyway.
“I think Westar is using a number that is tremendously out of date.”
But after being questioned about the subject, Luce said a Westar engineer hooked testing equipment up to a light and confirmed the 43 percent efficiency rating.
That, however, is likely to bring up other questions about whether it is responsible for Westar to use such inefficient equipment at the same time that it is urging customers to increase energy efficiency in their homes.
Luce said the company hasn’t been able to determine that replacing the equipment would be cost-effective, especially given that the lights use a relatively small amount of electricity. The cost to replace the ballasts, he said, could cause the company to increase its monthly service charge for the lights. Luce did not have an estimate on how much it would cost to replace the ballasts.
“But it is a fair question,” Luce said of whether Westar should replace the equipment to be more consistent with its energy efficiency message. “And I would say that it is something that our standards department should consider in the future.”
Westar, and the rates it charges, are regulated by the Kansas Corporation Commission. Cara Sloan-Ramos, a spokeswoman for the KCC, said the agency isn’t in a position to require Westar to use more efficient equipment, unless federal or state lawmakers passed new standards.
But she said the KCC was interested in ensuring the energy estimate used by Westar is accurate. All sides agree the estimate has been used for multiple years, but Sloan-Ramos said KCC staff members were puzzled why Westar’s estimate was significantly higher than other utilities.
She said the KCC has a field auditor who could conduct an independent test of a light’s energy usage. Westar also documented its test, Luce said, and offered to share the results.
Eglinski, the city auditor, hopes the KCC follows up.
“My recommendation in the original audit was that the city should ask for an explanation of this,” Eglinski said. “From that standpoint, that has happened. But I think an independent explanation also would be good.
“It still seems unusual.”