- Associated Press - Monday, May 19, 2014

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - Customers of the state’s largest electric utility will be able to pay in advance for electricity under a pilot program awaiting approval from Kansas regulators.

Westar Energy hopes to start offering prepaid service to 1,000 customers by the end of the month to determine whether the service is feasible, popular and fair, company and state officials said.

Initial participants will include as many as 250 customers who have fallen behind on their bills, state documents show, and the other 750 will be a mix of new customers or ongoing consumers who want a different option for paying their bills, The Wichita Eagle reported (http://bit.ly/S9PJ4J ). All of them will be volunteers.

The Kansas Corporation Commission has until May 29 to approve or deny the plan, but approval is likely because all of the parties have agreed to it.

Prepaid service is possible because of Westar’s rollout of advanced digital meters that allow the company to turn on and shut off a customer’s power from a central location without sending out a crew.

“Some customers would prefer to prepay on their payday, just making it a little bit easier to manage their household budget,” said Gina Penzig, Westar’s director of corporate communications.

College students also might find the prepay option useful because they often need service for only a limited time and may split utility costs among roommates, Penzig said. Also, there will be no security deposits on prepay accounts or charges to disconnect the service, and the reconnection fee would be just $5.

The Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board, which represents consumer interests at the Kansas Corporation Commission, initially had serious concerns about the proposal, mainly that Westar would try to force consumers who have problems paying their monthly bills to prepay, said David Springe, CURB’s chief consumer counsel.

CURB also was concerned about how the program would work with the state’s Cold Weather Rule, which generally prohibits utility shutoffs in the winter when customers fall behind on their bills, Springe said.

The board agreed to the pilot program after Westar agreed to limit participation by customers who are behind on their bills, and the company gave assurances that joining the prepay program wouldn’t affect customers’ Cold Weather Rule rights, he said.

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Information from: The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, http://www.kansas.com