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Pittsburg, Kan., looks to take over electric service from Westar Energy

City commissioners in Pittsburg, Kan., voted on March 19 to pay a group of attorneys and consultants to investigate taking over electric service from Westar Energy Inc.

Sarah Runyon, spokeswoman for the city of 20,000, which straddles Kansas' border with Missouri, said city officials for years have been prodding Westar to lower electricity rates, use more renewable energy sources, provide more flexibility for distributed generation and bury electric lines.

"We'll be looking at putting together more firm estimations of what it would cost and how we would go about financing the purchase of the grid, of the facilities and the infrastructure and the services to the City of Pittsburg," she said. "And that will include an acquisition cost."

The commission approval on March 19 allows the city to contract with Duncan & Allen, whose lawyers who will represent the city in negotiations, contract work and regulatory discussions; Baker Tilly, accountants with utility experience, to analyze the costs of municipalization; and public finance law firm Gilmore & Bell to determine how to fund the acquisition and purchase of the electric utility.

Daron Hall, Pittsburg city manager, said in a statement that the city is "following an expert recommendation on behalf of the citizens, businesses and industries of Pittsburg."

Gina Penzig, spokeswoman for Westar, said in an email that the company is "cooperating with Pittsburg as they determine the best way to meet the community's electricity needs."

"We are providing the information they need to make an informed decision," she said. "Westar has been part of the community since the origins of our company and would like to continue to serve Pittsburg."

There are 11,941 electric meters in the city, Runyon said. According to the city, Kansas is a friendly state in which to municipalize electric service, with 118 communities across the state using public power.

More than 30% of the power Westar supplies in Kansas comes from renewable energy sources, according to the company.

Pittsburg is the latest city to initiate attempts to municipalize electric service; the city of Pueblo, Colo. is also studying municipalization, while Boulder, Colo. remains in protracted negotiations over Boulder's takeover of electric service from Xcel Energy Inc.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers in Kansas are debating a bill that would fund a state study of electric rates across the state. Penzig said Westar Energy and Kansas City Power & Light Co. support the bill. Westar and KCP&L are subsidiaries of Kansas City, Mo.-based Evergy Inc.

"Throughout the legislative session, we have shared with lawmakers and local leaders actions we have taken to stabilize electricity prices, including merging our companies and bringing the benefit of efficiencies to customers," she said. "We lowered prices for customers last year and have returned early merger savings through bill credits. We have also shared information about key drivers for price increases during the past decade, which include investment in infrastructure and to comply with federal regulations."