WICHITA, Kansas — Last February, the city of Cheney, Kansas – located just west of Wichita – paid about $2 per thousand cubic feet, or unit, of natural gas on the wholesale market.
But last week, during the height of the winter storm, it was paying more than $600 per unit.
“We didn’t have the option to just say, ‘We don’t want gas for our community,’” said Cheney City Administrator Danielle Young. “We just had to take the price we were given to make sure our residents were staying warm.”
And with city residents using three times as much natural gas as normal, even conservation efforts didn’t do much to blunt the damage.
Young said in 2020, the city spent about $256,000 for the entire year on natural gas to serve its residents. But just this month, the city of about 2,000 people will end up spending around $1 million.
She said, unfortunately, those extra costs will soon make their way into customers' bills, which will start making their way into mailboxes and inboxes March 1.
“Our customers are looking at possibly a higher bill if we don’t get something figured out in the next week,” Young said, “because we know that our upcoming bill is coming up right after we send our own billing.”
It’s not just Cheney: Most Kansans should expect their utility bills to go up next month in the wake of the record-setting winter storm.
The cold temperatures across most of the central U.S. last week caused the demand for natural gas to skyrocket and with it the price utilities had to pay to get access. Those increased fuel costs for utilities will eventually be passed on to customers.
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly sent a letter over the weekend to federal regulators calling for an investigation into the natural gas price spikes and asking for financial assistance.
“We will remain in communication with the Biden Administration to secure aid, and continue to encourage Congress to pass a stimulus package with state and local funding to provide relief to Kansas communities,” Kelly said in a statement.
State regulators at the Kansas Corporation Commission are also attempting to lessen the impact to customers. They’ve asked the larger utilities the KCC regulatues, such as Evergy and Kansas Gas Service, to keep track of extra expenses related to the winter storm to allow them to find a way to spread the increase out over a longer period of time.
“However, our jurisdictional reach is limited,” KCC Chair Andrew French said in a news release. “We need swift and decisive leadership at the federal level, as well.”
Smaller municipal utilities aren’t regulated by the state and will find it harder to shield customers without outside assistance.
Utility officials say regardless of any increase in fuel costs, which might not show up immediately, customers likely used more electricity or natural gas than normal this month and will have a larger bill.
“What customers will experience next month are more normal seasonal fluctuations in their bill; the prices, the rates underlying their bill haven’t changed,” said Evergy spokesperson Gina Penzig.
There are some options for people who might not be able to afford the bill when it arrives. Customers should try to contact their utility to see whether they can sign up for an average bill plan. This takes the total amount customers pay for utilities over a year and averages it out so that each month they pay the same amount.
Several local charities in Kansas also offer utility bill payment assistance. Information about local programs can be found by calling 211.
The state also administers the federal Low Income Energy Assistance Program. The program supplies money to pay bills based on income. Applications for the 2021 program are open until March 31.
At the moment, no other federal or state aid related to the impacts of the winter storm has been announced.
In the meantime, people like Young and other municipal utility operators are calling every politician or regulator they can think of to try to figure out a solution before it’s time to send out bills.
“We understand if we send out these bills the likelihood of them not being able to pay these bills … ,” she said, trailing off. “It’s really unfortunate, and we understand that, and we’re just doing everything we can to get them lower for them.”
Brian Grimmett reports on the environment, energy and natural resources for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett or email him at grimmett (at) kmuw (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.
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