- Associated Press - Friday, April 4, 2014

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Whenever the Kansas Corporation Commission was hearing a rate case, people would tell him that they couldn’t afford to pay any more for energy, Commissioner Thomas Wright said.

They were telling the truth, but he and the other two commissioners couldn’t do much about it, he said.

Wright, who has been on the commission since 2007, is nearing the end of his second term and sat down with The Topeka Capital-Journal to discuss the challenges and achievements of his tenure. Gov. Sam Brownback has appointed Sen. Pat Apple, R-Louisburg, to succeed Wright at the KCC, subject to Senate confirmation.

Successes the KCC enjoyed in that time included introducing replacing massive piles of data with electronic forms of information in hearings and helping to integrate Kansas with the Southwest Power Pool, which allows states to share the cost of transmission infrastructure, Wright said. In the most recent years of his tenure, however, he said he realized they needed to tackle the problem of rising utility costs for low-income people.

About 19,591 Topeka households, or 25.7 percent of the total, have incomes of $30,000 or less, Wright said. About 5,652 of those households have been identified as having low efficiency, based on how much they spend on their annual electric bill compared to the average low-income household.

Those households are particularly vulnerable to increases in energy prices because they can’t afford to pay for upgrades like insulation that would reduce how much energy they use, Wright said.

“In the future I can’t see how we don’t address this,” he said.

The simplest way to lower costs for low-income people would be to charge them a lower rate, or to add a tariff to customers’ bills to benefit those who can’t afford to pay - but neither of those methods would pass constitutional muster, Wright said. That leaves energy efficiency as one of the few remaining tools, he said.

“You can’t subsidize one class of ratepayers by another class,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Energy appropriates about $6 million for weatherization programs in Kansas annually, Wright said, but that doesn’t go far toward addressing the number of households in need to help.

“$6 million throughout the state of Kansas isn’t going to get us anywhere,” he said.

The problem goes beyond the low-income households who aren’t able to pay their bills, Wright said. Though their electric or gas provider can shut off service after the cold weather rule expires on March 31, they spread the cost of unpaid bills to their other customers, he said. Administrative costs also go up because the companies have to pay someone to shut off service and use staff time trying to set up payment plans for families that can’t keep up with their bills.

“People who are in this category accumulate debts (for utilities) they can never pay,” he said.

Kansas needs to create an organizational system that brings all of the groups working on energy costs for low-income people together, Wright said. While the KCC can’t order utility companies to do weatherization for low-income people, it can provide incentives to encourage them to work with nonprofits and government agencies, he said.

“If they were coordinated they could get a lot more bang for their buck,” he said.

Story Continues →