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State and federal government weighing options as residents brace for higher energy bills

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Utility work in Topeka is covered in snow during a rash of sub-zero temperatures that led to power shortages. Residents are bracing for an increase in their monthly energy costs due to the cold weather.

State and federal lawmakers are weighing their options to help residents who may see their electric bills increase sharply after energy shortages slammed the region last week during a historic cold front.

A dramatic uptick in demand for energy throughout the Midwest and South saw utility companies institute rolling blackouts, with thousands of Kansans affected. The problem was most acute in Texas, where millions were without power and services were disrupted due to the severe cold.

While the temperatures have increased, there are worries that electric bills will as well, with some fearing payments that will be exponentially higher than normal.

Evergy, the state's largest utility, has maintained that Kansans won't see sky-high bills, with the state regulating electric rates in a different manner than in other areas, like Texas. Gina Penzig, a spokesperson for Evergy, said this will mean rates don't fluctuate as much based on current energy prices.

There is, however, a monthly surcharge that is keyed into current fuel costs, meaning it could change due to last week's events. 

Any updates to that fee are decided quarterly based on how much fuel was used, and Penzig said the utility will work with its regulatory body, the Kansas Corporation Commission, to determine what form any increases will take.

This would not affect this month's bill, although Penzig noted it may still be higher than usual due to the colder temperatures, even for those who aimed to save energy.

"Any change you see in your March bill, up or down, is going to be based on how much energy you used this month," she said.

There was also a significant impact on municipal utilities, which are publicly owned and financed. While some cities have contracts in place to minimize the need to purchase fuel on the open market, many are still facing sticker shock due to the unique nature of the winter storm.

Natural gas prices soared due to decreased production, and other sources, such as coal and wind, were also adversely affected by the weather. That meant the energy market was significantly more costly than normal.

Cities like Lindsborg, which has a public utility, could be in line for energy costs that are over 500% higher than a typical February, said city manager Greg DuMars.

"This was a very unique situation in how it impacted the middle part of the country due to the depth and breadth of the cold front," DuMars said.

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., told reporters Monday that this uncertainty means residents are still worried about what they will be asked to pay.

"There are Kansans who may receive utility bills that are totally unaffordable and significant — hundreds of times more than their normal monthly bill," he said. 

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran discusses energy shortages with reporters after touring a COVID-19 vaccination clinic Monday in Topeka.

One option for potential relief is for Kansas to request the federal government approve a disaster declaration, which would allow the state to access relief funds managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Three others states — Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana — took that step last week, although their requests for aid were to help support response efforts for the winter storm itself. 

It is unclear if any federal disaster funds could be used to help ratepayers, with a FEMA spokesperson tweeting that aid from the agency is merely "meant to help with items such as temporary rental, or home repair assistance."

Moran said he has been in dialogue with President Joe Biden's administration to alert them to a potential request for aid, although any such disaster declaration would have to be made by Gov. Laura Kelly.

There are also federally funded aid options available, with Moran pointing to the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, which helps residents make utility payments. But that program is a one-time-per-year benefit and won't be paid out until after applications close in March.

Kelly joined other state officials Friday in petitioning the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to use its authority under federal law to help "ensure the integrity" of energy markets. It also requested the agency back any legislative efforts in Congress to provide financial relief for ratepayers. 

"I have directed my administration to use every tool at our disposal to ensure Kansans are protected from price surges, and that our system is better prepared to handle problems created by circumstances like extreme cold weather,” Kelly said in a statement.

Kelly declared a state-level emergency last week, paving the way for local and county governments to follow suit. DuMars said he was hopeful that this would mean some form of governmental relief so higher energy costs aren't passed along to residents.

There are other options available for Lindsborg as well, such as tapping into a reserve fund set aside to help prop up the utility in the event of natural disasters. 

He acknowledged that "eating (the bill) is probably not going to happen" for residents.

"Even our wealthiest citizens couldn't afford a 600% increase in their monthly utility bill in one month," he said. "We are going to try to minimize that as much as possible."

But ensuring that the publicly owned utility could continue its operations for years to come was also a top priority. The city sent residents a notice alongside their February bills, which were mailed last week, that they may have to pay more than they are used to next month.

"I guarantee you no one is going to like the news with any decision we have but there are certain factors that are beyond our control," DuMars said. "We believe in communicating with (residents). They may not be happy about it but they'll understand the reasoning behind it."