Colorado lawmakers form joint select committee to look into rising utility rates

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Posted at 6:19 PM, Mar 07, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-07 20:19:31-05

DENVER — After months of rising utility rates, Colorado lawmakers have formed a joint select committee to understand what’s behind the sharp increase and whether any regulatory changes are needed.

“We have not called the select committee in the years that I have now served, so we have definitely said this is a priority,” said Rep. Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon.

The joint select committee features four Democrats and two Republicans. Its formation comes on the heels of Gov. Jared Polis announcing last month new measures his office will be taking to help lower the cost of energy for Coloradans.

The largest new program announced is the Whole-Home Energy Retrofit program, which will help homeowners install upgrades such as heat pumps, insulation, and LED lighting to help reduce energy costs.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers are hoping to better understand the role the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) plays in keeping rates low for consumers and how utilities themselves are setting prices.

The committee met for the first time Tuesday and listened to presentations from the PUC, the Office of the Utility Consumer Advocate, Energy Outreach Colorado and the Colorado Energy Office.

Sen. Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, says he first wants to understand how the monopoly regulated utility system works.

“This is kind of a compact that was agreed to more than 100 years ago, literally, where you have a private company that can provide service to consumers, and you're the only one who can provide that service. And in return we, as a government, will regulate you and approve your rates,” he said.

Fenberg insists that lawmakers on the committee are not interested in setting utility rates, but rather setting policy priorities for regulatory bodies like the PUC.

He wants to ask the utilities and PUC what is being done to insulate consumers from volatile energy prices, understanding that major utility companies cannot control certain factors, like the war in Ukraine, contributing to price spikes but insisting that customers need to be protected as much as possible.

Along with the volatile natural gas prices, Storm Uri and the clean energy transition have been blamed for rising utility rates. Fenberg considers the clean energy transition justification a red herring, saying it has saved consumers millions over the years and utilities are profiting off of it.

“Clearly, they're okay with what's happening because they're profiting, benefiting from it. The question is are they unfairly benefiting? Are consumers getting a fair shake? And one question I have is, why is the risk all on consumers, but the reward is entirely on the shareholders of these companies?” Fenberg said.

At the next committee hearing next week, lawmakers are expected to hear directly from the utilities about their price increases and will have a chance to ask some of these questions.

Fenberg isn’t sure if the hearings will result in any legislation this year. He says he’s also not interested in trying to completely dismantle the regulated monopoly system. Rather, he says he wants to be thoughtful and deliberate about potential policy changes that could affect both consumers and utility companies for decades to come.

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