Evergy headquarters in downtown Topeka. A Senate bill would prohibit state regulators from approving rate increases for Evergy greater than 1% per year for the next 10 years. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When Ashok Gupta and his wife bought their home, adding insulation to their walls and roof and investing in energy-efficient appliances was a no-brainer knowing they would save money in the long run through lower energy bills.
But Gupta, a senior energy economist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said myriad barriers persist to keep other Kansans from doing the same.
Renters have little say over the windows or appliances used in their homes. Someone with a broken water heater might not be willing to wait for a more efficient one if it’s out of stock. And homebuilders are likely to use cheap materials.
Gupta, who lives on the Kansas side of the Kansas City metro, wants to see his electric utility, Evergy, step in with comprehensive programs to address those market failures and offer incentives to increase energy efficiency in its Kansas territory.
“People who build buildings don’t often pay the energy bills, so they have no incentive to build an efficient building, so if a utility can intervene and go to a building developer and say, ‘Hey, if you do this better and we can help you deal with the upfront costs, you can build a better building,’ ” Gupta said.
Programs, like financing improvements through residents’ energy bills, offering incentives for local plumbers and hardware stores to stock energy-efficient appliances and giving out smart thermostats are commonly offered by utility companies. Evergy has a slate of programs for its Missouri customers, but its Kansas offerings are far more limited.
When Evergy’s predecessor in the Kansas City area, Kansas City Power & Light Co., tried to invest in energy efficiency in 2016, the Kansas Corporation Commission rejected parts of the program, so it withdrew the rest. Gupta and fellow environmentalists have been giving suggestions to Evergy as it prepares again to propose efficiency programs to the regulatory agency by the end of the year. They’re hopeful the current KCC commissioners will be more enthusiastic than those in the past.
Evergy and environmental groups agree investing in energy efficiency is far cheaper for the company and, in turn, its customers than having to add more electric generation, like new wind farms.
Evergy spokeswoman Gina Penzig said in a statement that the company’s portfolio of programs in Missouri has saved nearly 770 million kilowatt hours of energy with 300,000 customers participating. Its upcoming programs in Kansas, she said, will include targeted options for low-income customers.
“These programs are the lowest cost resource available to meet energy needs,” Penzig said. “And by investing in energy efficiency, we are really investing in our customers to make them more competitive, in our community as these programs create local jobs, and in sustainability by reducing carbon dioxide emissions.”
Cost effectiveness of energy efficiency
Evergy is already on a path to reduce its carbon footprint. The company plans to retire all coal operations at the Lawrence Energy Center by the end of 2023 and expects to achieve net-zero emissions by 2045.
But utilities have to design their operations to meet demand during huge summer peaks. That means having generators that can be called upon to create massive amounts of energy only a few weeks or days a year.
Gupta, Evergy and Dave Nickel of the Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board all agree that reducing customer demand through energy efficiency programs is more cost effective than building more wind farms or natural gas plants.
He likens it to having a delivery service that has to buy a new truck to deliver one package once a year.
“The whole system is designed for peaks, and fixing people’s homes is so much cheaper than to keep building more and more and more and keep buying more and more and more trucks that you hardly ever use,” Gupta said.
If Evergy doesn’t have to build as much energy generation, it won’t pass those costs onto customers.
“The consumer has an opportunity to save on their energy bill, which is always a good thing if you can conserve dollars by virtue of energy efficiency and still maintain the level of comfort that you would otherwise have,” Nickel said.
Kansas as a whole ranks 47th out of the 50 states and Washington, D.C., for energy efficiency policies and programs, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.
In Missouri, which ranks 33rd, Evergy has financing programs that allow customers to pay off energy upgrades through their utility bills
The efficiency upgrades created through Evergy’s Missouri programs between 2013 and 2019 equate in terms of emissions to taking more than 122,500 cars off the road, according to the company. It says it saved enough energy to power 64,000 homes.
Ty Gorman, Kansas representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, said Evergy had a lot of room to improve in Kansas. He said it’s frustrating and sad that the programs haven’t existed for years.
“We can’t wait three more years — or any more time — for robust energy efficiency and demand response in Kansas,” Gorman said, ”and the folks who are struggling with energy costs the most are the ones who should benefit the most from these programs.”
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