KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) – The way Westar Energy runs its coal plants in Kansas unnecessarily costs consumers millions of dollars a year through an obscure, if common, practice known as self-committing generation, according to an analysis by a group that advocates for reduced reliance on coal.
The company essentially runs its coal plants year-round, even during the winter months when it’s not cost-effective, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. The group said the practice has been costing Westar customers $20 million a year in added fuel costs.
Market operators including the Southwest Power Pool (SPP) – Westar buys and sells wholesale electricity through the organization – worry that the practice hurts the market.
Regulators in Missouri, where Westar’s parent company Evergy is headquartered, have opened up an investigation to see if it’s unfairly costing consumers.
Westar says the company has to factor in problems caused by letting plants go idle during cold weather. A spokeswoman says the company has taken steps to make the plants more flexible that saved customers $5 million in fuel costs in 2017.
The Southwest Power Pool coordinates electricity generation in Kansas and 13 other states, mostly in the Central Plains. It helps make sure there’s enough electricity to meet the needs of users across the service region at the best price.
The SPP forecasts daily demand. Power generators bid to sell into that market based on how much they project it will cost to operate that day.
The SPP dispatches power plants from the least expensive source on up, until the day’s needs are met. The most expensive unit that gets selected in the auction essentially becomes the market price.
The market price is the price a generator gets paid for providing electricity as well as the price a utility would pay to buy it. That market system is supposed to ensure that the price of electricity remains as low as possible.
But there’s a catch.
The market allows power plants to self-commit – or send electricity to the power grid regardless of the price. Self-committing is common for regulated utilities across the country.
But it can prevent cheaper resources, often wind and natural gas, from turning on.
“They’re skipping in line,” said Joseph Daniel, senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who’s been studying self-committing generation for years.
Daniel argued that the practice artificially drives the market price down, essentially robbing more cost-effective generators of revenue.
While the amount of power that is self-committed in the entire SPP service region is decreasing, it still made up about 30% of day-ahead bids in 2018.
Nuclear power is almost always self-committed because it’s stable and constant and isn’t really designed to be turned on and off.
Other types of electric generators, like coal, might self-commit for maintenance reasons or because it’s costly and difficult to turn on and off quickly.
According to the SPP, long-term coal purchasing agreements also contribute to the problem. The agreements often include “take or pay” clauses – provisions that require a power plant to take coal from a supplier whether or not it can burn it.
Because the cost to the utilities is the same either way, coal plants often run even when it’s not economical to do so.
Between January 2015 and December of 2017, the Westar-owned coal-burning plants Lawrence Energy Center and Jeffrey Energy Center both consistently ran uneconomically during fall and winter months, the UCS said.
Daniel, with the Union of Concerned Scientists, estimated that added $12 to $15 million dollars per year to Westar’s fuel costs. He said if the company just chose to operate those plants seasonally, it could go a long way to eliminating the inflated fuel costs of self-committing resources.
“If it’s going to stay online,” Daniel said, “it should operate in an economically rational way.”
Westar officials say it’s not that simple.
Cold weather can cause problems at steam-powered coal plants if turned off for too long. The market also only takes into account short-term fuel costs, while the company has to take into account long-term factors such as maintenance and staffing.
“Our full team is looking at that whole picture,” Westar spokeswoman Gina Penzig said, “making sure that we’re being a good steward of that power plant for its lifetime.”
She also said that Westar has been working on making those coal plants more nimble – that is, more able to ramp production up or down according to market needs.
She estimated those efforts saved Westar customers $5 million in fuel costs in 2017.
In Kansas, a tiny part of every customer’s bill includes a fuel cost tariff. The tariff covers the cost Westar pays for fuel used to generate electricity and is adjusted every quarter.
If fuel costs go up, the tariff increases. If fuel costs are lower than expected, the tariff goes down.
It means Westar has no economic incentive to stop self-committing coal plants, regardless of SPP market prices, according to Travis Kavulla, director of energy policy at the R Street Institute, a think tank that favors free markets and limited government.
Until regulators make changes, Kavulla expects coal power plant owners such as Westar will likely continue to self-commit their resources and enter into long-term coal purchasing agreements.
“After all,” he said. “If I’m a Utility Chief Financial Officer, why would I spend a lot of my time trying to drive the best deal on a fuel supply contract if it’s fundamentally not going to make me any profit?”