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People in older, more affordable Kansas homes are more likely to lose power. There's no easy fix

Dylan Lysen
Kansas News Service

OVERLAND PARK, Kansas — When a severe thunderstorm rolled through northeast Kansas last July, roaring winds tore down trees all over the region. They smashed into homes and crashed through overhead power lines, shutting off the lights for many.

Mark and Janie Abbott were left in the dark for days. Their Overland Park home was one of nearly 200,000 customers of the energy company Evergy that lost power from the storm.

In their 1960s neighborhood, many of the overhead power lines running along the single-story homes string between limbs of tall, decades-old trees. Including a tree in their backyard that appears to come in contact with the lines any time the wind blows.

Mark Abbott said reliable power is critical because his father lives with them. He’s a veteran with disabilities who uses electronic devices to report his health to the hospital.

“He can't really go and move all that equipment,” Mark said. “It’s like $20,000 for a generator. We shouldn't need a generator. We should have power.”

But only a few miles south in Overland Park, Kyra Newkirk had a different experience.

The power lines to her 20-year-old neighborhood are underground. The trees in the manicured lawns along her street stand freely without interference from power lines.

That protected her power source from a January winter storm that caused about 45,000 outages for Evergy customers.

“We were all expecting to lose power when we had the freeze and everything,” Newkirk said outside her two-story home. “But as far as I know, nobody lost power.”

The different experiences highlight a disparity between older neighborhoods with overhead power lines and newer, wealthier neighborhoods that have buried ones. That’s led to frustration from Kansas residents who want more reliable service.

They also believe there is an easy solution: bury the overhead power lines.

But the electric upgrades they are asking for would cost a fortune, and come with a sharp cost increase to everyone’s energy bills. Evergy officials, and even consumer advocates, say it’s not worth the cost.

In these types of scenarios, it's not unusual for the state government to offer funding to help pay for costly infrastructure projects that improve the lives of Kansans.

But it’s unlikely the state would be able to offer much help to Evergy. While billions of dollars sit in the state’s bank account, providing funding to help utility companies upgrade their infrastructure does not appear to be on the radar.

Power frustration

Evergy provides power to residents in the eastern and central parts of Kansas and the western parts of Missouri. The company serves roughly 1.6 million customers, including residents in both the Kansas City and Wichita metro areas.

Jim Lindquist’s home in Roeland Park is served by Evergy and lost power during both the July and January severe storms.

He said losing power twice in six months was frustrating and he wants Evergy to do better. He said the company should be paying for stronger infrastructure, like burying power lines.

“You pay a ton of money,” Lindquist said, “and they're not making the investments they should to make sure that we retain power.”

Robert Keyes of Topeka also lost power during the storms. He said his frustration stemmed from a slow response time to fix the issue and a lack of communication.

During the July storm, a tree in his neighbor’s yard fell on the overhead power lines, knocking out power for the whole neighborhood. Keyes said Evergy restored power for most of the neighborhood, but he and a few others had to wait days for a crew to come out and finally fix their power.

Amid their wait time, Evergy’s communications on their website and social media gave no clue as to how long they would have to wait.

“They were providing vague information with no realistic expectations for us,” Keyes said. “It was very frustrating.”

Lindquist and Keyes may have been spared all of that frustration if the power lines to their neighborhood were buried. But they both know that’s not likely to ever happen because the cost to do that would be enormous.

The cost of change

David Nickel is an attorney who works for the state representing consumers like homeowners before utility regulators. He works for the Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board, a state agency also known as CURB, that argues for consumer needs and keeping the rates on electricity bills down.

But even Nickel said burying lines isn’t worth it. The cost is just too high.

According to Evergy, replacing overhead power lines in a developed neighborhood costs up to $250,000. It would cost more than $1 million to bury the same line. Evergy estimates replacing all of its overhead power lines would be a multi-billion dollar project.

Nickel said everyone would instantly see that on their electricity bills.

“We could build a system that could never, ever go down,” Nickel said. “But who would be able to pay for it?”

 David Nickel's job is to advocate for consumers and argue before state regulators for lower rates. He believes the cost of burying overhead power lines is too high and would immediately raise prices on electricity bills.
Dylan Lysen
Kansas News Service
David Nickel's job is to advocate for consumers and argue before state regulators for lower rates. He believes the cost of burying overhead power lines is too high and would immediately raise prices on electricity bills.

Nickel is opposed to seeing huge cost increases on electricity bills. CURB just recently lobbied before the Kansas Corporation Commission, a state agency that regulates the power company, to scale back how much Evergy could raise rates.

In November, the KCC approved a plan for Evergy’s service to central Kansas that reduced the company’s aim of raising $204 million in revenue to just $74 million. It was also forced to reduce its plan for its service to the eastern part of the state from a $14 million increase in revenue to a decrease of nearly $33 million.

Meanwhile, Evergy has already tried burying existing overhead power lines, but it was really expensive.

Ryan Mulvaney, Evergy’s vice president for power distribution, said the project cost ballooned to about 10 times the cost of just replacing the overhead lines when they break or are damaged by storms.

But high cost is not the only roadblock. Mulvany said Evergy would also have to dig through existing obstacles to bury power lines. And some homeowners just don’t want their landscaping and fencing damaged by the upgrades.

“For every customer we had there was excited about it,” Mulvany said, “we had two or three that weren't excited about where this equipment may land in their backyard.”

Oversight and support

So there is a huge cost. Can someone else other than customers help pay for it, like maybe the state? Right now it has billions of unused dollars in the bank. But even then, taxpayers from around the state would be paying for infrastructure that only serves part of Kansas.

Republican Sen. Michael Fagg, the chair for the Kansas Senate’s utilities committee, said it’s unlikely lawmakers will shell out money to Evergy to improve their infrastructure. Instead, he said lawmakers delegate that power to state regulators at the Kansas Corporation Commission to make sure utility companies are investing in infrastructure properly.

“That’s where they’re monitoring,” Fagg said. “That’s why we have them in place. They’re asking the questions.”

Dylan Lysen
Kansas News Service

As part of its oversight, the KCC requires Evergy and other utility companies to provide annual investment plans for improving infrastructure for the regulators to review. In the most recent filing, the KCC found Evergy’s plans were compliant and less costly than other utility companies in the region.

For now, Evergy crews work on restoring power during outages as quickly as they can. And the company has plans to replace aging power line poles with newer ones. But that might be as far as the electricity updates go in the near future.

“Improving it over time is a big deal for us,” Mulvany said. “At the same time, we have to take into account what that does to a customer’s bill.”

Dylan Lysen reports on social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Threads @DylanLysen or email him at dlysen (at) kcur (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.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Copyright 2024 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Dylan Lysen