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Archive for Monday, November 22, 2010

Lawrence city auditor ‘confident’ Westar Energy overcharging customers for private area lights

A high pressure sodium lamp burns brightly near trees located behind the Lawrence fire department's training tower at 19th and Haskell on Nov. 18, 2010.

A high pressure sodium lamp burns brightly near trees located behind the Lawrence fire department's training tower at 19th and Haskell on Nov. 18, 2010.

November 22, 2010

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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.”

Special lights

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.

Inefficient lights

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.”

Follow up

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.”

Comments

toofunny409 3 years, 2 months ago

Think Ill build a HHo gen and go off the grid lol Rev Jim

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toofunny409 3 years, 2 months ago

Jan/28th/2011 I don't know if anyone will see this but Iv lived where I am for Over 5 years and there was a PAL here when we moved in put in by Brother in law. the power for it has always came out of the box after the meter. The light was to close to the house and BUGS I MEAN ALOT OF BUGS!!!!! So I moved it to a beter location 4 years ago. I have never been charged for a PAL because thay did not install it. I have it on a ON&OFF switch for the same reason as independant1. ( I put in an in line breaker for both lights)

But now I am being charged for a PAL on my bill, It is on top of and after the regular charges. Regular charges which is right and will pay. So im paying twice for the lights energy and other charges that come with a PAL .

Why now after 5 years am I being charged? For something I own? And how didi it Get on my bill ? Who put it there ? And Why ? 2010/2011 Oh and last month i had it off to lower my bill a little times are tough. Hmmmmmmmm Was the meter guy told to look for PALs and report them, did someone drive by and see it because thats what they were looking for, or is it just a typeO Hmmmmmmm I don't know. All in all I should have never been charged because they did not install it I DID My Wife ask me what a PAL was and at the time I did not know so i found this. And going over some bills found I have been paying for a PAL for months. We have contacted Westar an are getting it cleared up ( I hope so) now we are waiting. But I still want to know why I was being charged for a PAL? Rev Jim

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independant1 3 years, 4 months ago

There's a whole lotta light pollution going on.

Out in country that old light does provide usefull night light. We have our own pole and light is metered. We like to turn it off at times for star gazing and fireworks. In summer it keeps bugs away from house, in winter it's off most of the time, makes for beautifull nights.

Last time bulb burnt out we downsized, replacement was too expensive. Had to change the socket for cheaper bulb and lower lumens.

$48 per year? Sounds a bit steep but then they are on all night.

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none2 3 years, 4 months ago

I never understood why the need for all these outside lights. If it is a high crime area, fight the crime. If it is about predators, get a dog and have a motion sensor. If you cannot see your way up stairs, get a flashlight and/or have motion sensors.

Have we created a culture where everybody is afraid of the dark? This idea that you have to have lights continuously on ALL night long seems very unnecessary. It would be nice to know what percentage of our country's electric usage is used for night lighting. Considering you can see all the urban lights from space, I would think it is pretty significant. If you ever went out to a very rural area distant from cities' light pollution, you would see just how beautiful the night time is. There are actually stars near the horizon. The Milky Way is actually easy to see if there are no lights at all.

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oneeye_wilbur 3 years, 4 months ago

The city manager at a recent local meeting of a group, told the members that the city pays $4 per month for a street light. That would be $48 a year. So why is there such a discrepancy? Maybe because Westar can get the money from the private sector easier.

All street lights in Lawrence need to be upgraded and the trees trimmed away from them. Likewise at $48 a year to operate a street light it is unexcusable to not have more in dimly lit areas (which would be the entire city, except for Kasold Street!)

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sourpuss 3 years, 4 months ago

I think if they pulled in $100 million + last year, they could afford a couple of that to bring the rural lighting up to modern standards.

Without "passing it on" to consumers.

I do realize this cost may need to come out of the CEO's Christmas bonus.

Just sayin'.

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lsense 3 years, 4 months ago

think_about_it, do you not think those folks (as well as us) are already paying for the labor and parts for these fixtures in the extra "fees" we see on our bill each month? If you think Westar is just eating the cost on labor and parts for these lights, or any other installation they do, then maybe you should just stop and "think about it". ;-)

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Alceste 3 years, 4 months ago

THANK YOU, Mr. Michael Eglinski. FEW have the courage to make the remarks you have made. Hopefully, you'll be able to find similiar "irregularities" in future audits. Good Luck!

I hope you and your family have a most excellent Thanksgiving.

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bobberboy 3 years, 4 months ago

I've noticed my electric bill has doubled this last year without any increase in usage - I'm with Westar. But what can you do when they have a monopoly and there iare no private companies that can come out and check to see if your meter is accurate ?

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think_about_it 3 years, 4 months ago

I don't see that Westar is taking advantage of homeowners on this. Westar had the expense of the light fixtures as well as the labor and equipment to install them. Do they charge you extra when the bulb burns out or is vandalized?

If pushed further on this I suggest that Westar just remove all security lights and charge homeowners to install not only the fixture but also for a meter to determine the energy usage of that light and we'll just see how much it costs then.

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Richard Payton 3 years, 4 months ago

Westar still has to pay for the LAKE front home in Florida? I thought that a-hole had quit burning Kansan's. The games continue the players change names.

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booyalab 3 years, 4 months ago

Hint to Westar: just tell 'em you're building a new library.

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bendover61 3 years, 4 months ago

The KCC sets the rates. You aren't billed by usage or demand, you are billed by the wattage of the light.

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Gest 3 years, 4 months ago

"What he found is that Westar’s estimates were 80 to 85 percent higher than those used by the other companies"

Perhaps those "other companies" are under charging.

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Healthcare_Moocher 3 years, 4 months ago

If I was westar, I would be very tempted to just remove the lights. I seriously doubt they are gouging their customers.

People are worried about a few cents for the security these lights provide, but have zero problem with 18 million for a new library and parking garage.

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smitty 3 years, 4 months ago

Sooo, our auditor is capable...unless asked not to be.

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Richard Heckler 3 years, 4 months ago

Over charging on a thousand or more lights each month adds up to a tidy sum...

Then again so does over charging on medical insurance... http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/06/24/AR2009062401636.html

Do consumers ever get their money back?

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SeaFox 3 years, 4 months ago

If the lights are owned and maintained by Westar, then the consumer shouldn't have to pay higher rates for the ballasts to be updated -- they already paid for it, as part of the "monthly service charge" that they pay in addition to the estimated energy usage of the light.

If even a "very old" ballast can give a 70% efficiency rating, then these ballasts should have been replaced a long time ago as part of the regular "maintenance" Westar is supposed to be performing on the lights.

Classic utility company: Not keeping up the maintenance on their infrastructure, the cost of which is supposedly already figured into the cost of electricity to the consumer, then when things start falling apart or otherwise not working right they want the customer to pay a second time for the maintenance that was deferred.

What happened to the revenue that Westar was collecting all these years that was supposed to be spent on this sort of maintenance? Probably lining some executive's pocket. An executive that left the company years ago and is beyond responsibility now.

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FreshAirFanatic 3 years, 4 months ago

Nice article Chad. If you want to do an interesting follow up, check the power factor of the CFLs we've all be told to install in our homes for the sake of efficiency. You'll find similar problems with power factor.

In addition, they introduce a lot of interference and distortion. Each very bad for our expensive household appliances/electronics.

Here's a place to start your research. http://ecmweb.com/lighting/hidden_costs_cfls_0109/

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