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Empire seeks new areas of electric service in county

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by Paul Flemming

SBJ Staff

Empire District Electric Company has applied to extend its transmission and distribution area into parts of Greene County now served by City Utilities and three electric cooperatives.

The extension, if approved by the state's Public Service Commission, would be unlikely to affect current electric utility customers but could put Empire into direct competition for future customers.

Officials of Springfield City Utilities are considering the possibility of taking part in the case. CU already serves areas outside the corporate limits of Springfield about 17 percent of CU customers are outside the city.

Though City Utilities may serve outside Springfield its statutory area of service encompasses the boundaries of its predecessor Springfield Gas & Electric Company that area is finite, said Ken McClure, executive senior manager for CU. It is that limit on its service area, as opposed to investor-owned Empire which may expand into any geographic area regulators will allow it, which may prompt CU to oppose the proposed expansion.

The areas Empire proposes to move into also include customers of Ozark, Southwest and Webster electric cooperatives.

If Empire's expansion is allowed by state regulators, current electric customers would be constrained from switching without approval by the Public Service Commission. Under state regulations, price may not be among the reasons to justify switching utility companies, Empire and CU officials said.

The expansion, however, would affect future development, both residential and commercial, and the options available to those customers.

Joplin-based Empire District Electric is already the franchise provider of electricity to the cities of Republic, Strafford and Willard. The application the company made to state regulators seeks to expand its allowed area of service surrounding those communities, which Empire described as areas of high growth.

"It's an expanding area. We just want to be in a position to give those customers a choice," said Amy Bass, director of corporate communications for Empire.

"We'll put our service up against anybody," McClure said. "We've been competing in that area (outside the city limits) for years and done very well. We're not scared of that competition."

McClure said of CU's roughly 88,000 customers with electric meters, about 14,600 are outside of Springfield's city limits, a number which grew by about 500 in the last year. That growth indicates both the current importance of customers outside the city limits and the increasing importance they will have. "We want to be able to serve everything within our statutory boundary," McClure said.

"We believe customers should have a choice of a company regulated by the commission," Bass said. Municipally owned utilities, such as CU, and cooperatives are not regulated by the Public Service Commission.

"I would suggest that we are regulated by our board and City Council," said John Twitty, deputy general manager for CU. "We think that's very significant protection for the consumer."

In the case of the extension around Republic, Empire's application said it wishes to have its regulated area of service expanded to include Republic's growing city limits.

"The city of Republic has extended its city limits in an eastward direction," Empire's application said. "This has moved the municipal boundaries into an area which extends beyond the boundaries of Empire's existing certificated area. Since Empire is the franchised electric supplier in Republic, Empire wishes to obtain an order from the commission which will allow it to extend the boundaries of its certificated area to be able to enjoy the benefits of its franchise to its full extent."

The other areas of requested expansion around Willard and Strafford anticipate future growth in those areas but are not related to growing city limits. Empire's application seeks authority "to provide electric service in new areas north, east, west and southwest of the city of Springfield. All of these areas are experiencing growth and it would be an extension of Empire's current certificated areas," according to a release from the Public Service Commission.

A Nov. 23 deadline has been set by the commission for those who wish to intervene and participate in the case.

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