Opinion

To reduce rising energy costs in Kansas, Evergy must step up efficiency programs

June 13, 2022 3:33 am
Evergy headquarters dominates the skyline in downtown Topeka. It's launching an energy efficiency pilot program in Missouri. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Evergy headquarters dominates the skyline in downtown Topeka. It’s launching an energy efficiency pilot program in Missouri. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Joel Campbell is a second-year engineering student at the University of Kansas and has been a member of the Sunrise Movement for more than a year.

Energy bills are going up in Kansas.

Rising natural gas prices, the cold snap from last year and recovery from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic are dramatically increasing the cost of heating and cooling a home. In Wichita, a resident recently paid an unbelievable $800 utility bill, and the Kansas Corporation Commission recently announced that energy prices will continue to rise.

People cannot pay their utility bills, an especially significant problem given that we are in the midst of a climate crisis. Each summer brings record heat waves. Natural disasters are more common and more destructive than they ever have been. Sheltering ourselves from these hazardous weather events is becoming more and more important, and yet it’s increasingly difficult to do so. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. Kansas is the fourth-worst state in the USA in terms of energy efficiency, meaning that a disproportionate amount that Kansans pay for energy each month is simply lost. While much of this is due to our Senate Utilities Committee repeatedly refusing to pass legislation to improve the situation, much fault rests with our utility companies. In 2016, Evergy walked away from its energy efficiency filing at the Kansas Corporation Commission after the commission approved seven of the programs, including programs for low-income customers, because implementing a portion of the programs wasn’t profitable enough.

Additionally, Evergy recently launched a pilot of the Pay As You Save program (or PAYS) in Missouri. This is an opt-in program in which Evergy agrees to pay the up-front cost of energy efficiency upgrades, such as insulation, HVAC improvements, more efficient lighting and similar items (all constructed by local contractors to support local economies). The cost of these upgrades is added to the customer’s bill over a long period of time, but because the efficiency upgrades drastically lower energy use, bills are noticeably lower.

Because of the baked-in and vetted consumer protections into the PAYS model, customers will usually see about a 20% reduction on their bills over the course of a year. This program is open to renters, too — the person living in the space is the one who enjoys the savings from the PAYS upgrades.

The problem with this is that Evergy has chosen to only launch this pilot of PAYS in Missouri (after the Missouri Public Service Committee forced it to), while proposing a far inferior version in its energy efficiency filing at the Kansas Corporation Commission. The filing would increase bills by 1.25% and would only start saving customers money in 2028.

The problem with this is that Evergy has chosen to only launch this pilot of PAYS in Missouri (after the Missouri Public Service Committee forced it to), while proposing a far inferior version in its energy efficiency filing at the Kansas Corporation Commission. The filing would increase bills by 1.25% and would only start saving customers money in 2028.

– Joel Campbell

This wouldn’t be as concerning if we had more information about how these programs will benefit customers who need them the most. However, people are being priced out of their own homes by rising energy costs today. This filing needs to come with more information on where the investments are being spent and how folks with the highest energy costs who experience utility shutoffs, energy-related evictions and a high energy burden will benefit.

Implementing a robust PAYS program would improve the overall filing, but Evergy must gear its investments to help those who would benefit from them the most: lower-income neighborhoods.

While Evergy currently has an income-qualified weatherization program, including PAYS in the filing would expand access for energy efficiency upgrades to reach those who don’t qualify for income-eligible programs and can’t front the cost of the upgrades while they wait for a rebate. This gap in access is referred to as the doughnut hole by Tony Reames, who began his energy justice studies at the University of Kansas and now serves as a senior energy advisor at the U.S. Department of Energy.

Energy-burdened areas generally have older housing with worse insulation and fewer appliances that would qualify for upgrades. This leads to those who make less having to pay more on their energy bills simply because of a lack of efficiency.

Evergy can track what areas are paying the most for energy relative to their income, which ones are least energy efficient, and from there prioritize the areas that require the most improvement. This data needs to be available to the public so affected communities can oversee ongoing implementation of these programs.

To ensure equitability, Evergy needs to partner with its customers, which would give them the chance to show the utility the best path forward. Not only is it crucial for ensuring the upgrades are happening equitably, these partnerships can often be mutually beneficial, creating a better future for utilities companies and the communities they serve. 

The bottom line is that Evergy is a corporation and will always prioritize profits. It has dragged its feet in launching the pilot of PAYS in Missouri. It has done the same in Kansas by proposing an inequitable, vague version that leaves out the vetted consumer protections that the trademarked PAYS program contains.

As frustrating as this is, we have the opportunity to make our voices heard and to make real change.

This filing will have a public hearing in front of the Kansas Corporation Commission at 6 p.m. June 27, and you have the opportunity to give public comment over Zoom by registering here. Comments also can be submitted until July 8 by calling 785-271-3100, emailing [email protected], or mailing your comment to 1500 SW Arrowhead Road, Topeka, KS 66604-4027. If you’d like help writing your comment, a workshop on how to make your feedback more effective is being held from 5 to 8 p.m. June 23. You can drop in at whatever time works best for you by registering here.

Evergy’s plans must improve if we are to solve our skyrocketing energy bills. Join us in speaking out in supporting the health, energy efficiency and economic stability of our communities!

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Joel Campbell
Joel Campbell

Joel Campbell is a second-year engineering student at the University of Kansas and has been a member of the Sunrise Movement for more than a year. He also enjoys playing music and sewing in his free time.

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