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Colorado Public Utility Commission opens investigation into Xcel Energy following preemptive power outages

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Posted at 12:38 PM, Apr 10, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-10 20:33:37-04

DENVER — The Colorado Public Utility Commission formally opened an investigation into Xcel Energy Wednesday following Gov. Jared Polis’ direction to probe the company’s decision to implement a precautionary outage ahead of a windstorm this past weekend.

"This went incredibly poorly for Xcel," Governor Polis said in an interview with Denver7, "This can't be the norm in Colorado. Of course, we all value safety, but a big dimension of safety is making sure that our electricity is on. That means for traffic lights, it means for senior centers and hospitals."

The three-member commission voted unanimously Wednesday to open the investigation, which will document actions taken by Xcel during the storm, including customer notification and power restoration as well as to hear customers’ concerns, the PUC said in a news release.

Xcel on Saturday cut off power to 55,000 customers as winds exceeding 100 mph began to bear down in the Denver area and the foothills. Some customers were without power for days as crews worked to assess and address any damage.

In addition to the prescribed outages, more than 100,000 Xcel customers lost power due to downed trees and power lines. The company announced Tuesday evening that power had been restored to every customer.

The utility company said the preemptive outage was due to public safety concerns intended to reduce the risk of wildfire. A disconnected Xcel Energy power line was partially blamed for sparking the 2021 Marshall Fire in Boulder County that spread fast amid wind gusts of up to 115 mph.

Colorado Public Utility Commission opens investigation into Xcel Energy following preemptive power outages

A mass action lawsuit against Xcel Energy was filed last year, claiming the energy provider is to blame for the most destructive fire in Colorado history. However, the company maintains its equipment did not start the Marshall Fire and Saturday's prescribed outage was not in response to the lawsuit.

The commission said it will request detailed information from Xcel on the wind storm response and outages, including planning and communications, and seek input from impacted residents, local governments, businesses, and critical care providers.

“As Governor Polis noted in his letter to Xcel Energy, shutting off power to customers is a serious and challenging decision,” said Chair Eric Blank in a news release. “A decision this impactful requires a high level of concern and attention for customers. We want to make sure that the Commission sets those expectations and holds our utilities accountable.”

Robert Kenney, president of Xcel Energy Colorado, said the company "made every effort" to reach out to customers on Friday about Saturday’s public safety outage.

"We've made every effort to do outbound calls to the customers in those six counties. So last night, we started contacting those customers to give them a heads up of the potential for this, we follow that up again today," Kenney said during a press conference Saturday.

Xcel Energy responds to customer concerns following windstorm-related outages

Hollie Velasquez Horvath, regional vice president of Xcel Energy, told Denver7 the company used an intense scientific analysis before deciding to shut off power to certain areas.

“That involves both evaluating the National Weather Service information on what type of wind, how high the winds are going to be, in addition to the topography of the community, or the area, and also the fuel source. And the fuel source could be a combination between live and dead fuel source on the ground,” Velasquez Horvath said. “We came up with the conclusion that this type of wind event along with the fuel source combination was in the top 3% of an event that we have ever experienced in Colorado. And that was the decision to move forward with proactively shutting off power to those customers.”

A spokesperson for The City of Boulder challenged that justification.

"When our firefighters, who are familiar with our terrain, assess fire risk, they look not only at winds, they're also looking at humidity levels. They also have a very clear understanding of what the fuels and vegetation in our area are looking like. They told us very clearly on Saturday, our local firefighters, that conditions on this weekend, were very different from the conditions that spurred the Marshall Fire," said Sarah Huntley, with the City of Boulder.

In a letter to Kenney, Polis expressed his disappointment and frustration with the company.

"This unprecedented Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) significantly impacted, and in many cases surprised, tens of thousands of Coloradans. We know that increasing drought and climate change leads to drier conditions and the possibility of wildfire, so Xcel must recognize the shortcomings of this incident, learn from it, and be prepared to change your approach to these incidents to minimize loss of power," the governor wrote.

Xcel will soon submit its wildfire mitigation plan to the PUC. In his letter, Polis directed the PUC to investigate six requirements in that plan:

  • Guardrails for implementing a public safety power shutoff (PSPS)
  • Communication guidelines when it comes to informing customers of preemptive outages
  • Updated mapping that is "meaningful and actionable for customers during PSPS as well as all outages"
  • Ensuring vulnerable residents are adequately notified of extended outages
  • Coordination with adjacent utilities on messaging and response "so that customers receive consistent information across the impacted areas"
  • An investigation into the failures of this incident and interim solutions until a long-term strategy is in place

The governor also said he supports technology solutions that would enhance the energy grid, including the use of sensors and automation.

The PUC will host a virtual public comment hearing on April 17, from 4-7 p.m. To provide public comment, please register here. For those who just wish to listen, all meetings are streamed here.

Additionally, the commission opened an online survey and comment form to seek immediate input.

Colorado PUC opens probe into Xcel Energy following preemptive power outages

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