Boulder, Xcel feud over system repair

BOULDER — Xcel Energy Inc. denied accusations by the city of Boulder that the power company is letting its distribution system fall into disrepair because of the city’s pending attempt to create a municipal electric utility.

And Xcel fired back its own belief that a solution proposed by the city to build a new distribution line serving south Boulder’s Shanahan Ridge neighborhood was “inferior from a basic engineering and practical standpoint.”

The latest spat in Boulder’s municipalization quest came following a Feb. 6 city press release that outlined an agreement between the city and Xcel to install the new line to Shanahan Ridge beneath Boulder-owned open space.

The work is necessary due to September flood damage to a line serving the neighborhood on the south edge of town. But Boulder’s release also made clear that the city had lobbied for a different solution that it believed would provide better service and be less vulnerable to future weather events.

In the release, city attorney Tom Carr implied that Xcel had offered to make the city’s desired repairs to Shanahan Ridge service only if “the possible creation of a local utility was not on the table.

“It appears that Xcel, knowing that it may have to sell its equipment to the city at a later date, is running the distribution system down and refusing to make reasonable and prudent repairs to keep it functioning,” Carr said.

Xcel officials issued a statement saying that was untrue.

“The Boulder city attorney appears to be misinformed about the facts and background on this matter,” Xcel spokeswoman Michelle Aguayo said. “With this project, as with all of our projects in the city, the fact that the city may attempt to create its own utility has absolutely nothing to do with the quality, operations and service we provide to our Boulder customers. We are 100 percent committed to our Boulder customers in the same way we are to our other customers.”

In January, the city served Xcel with notice that it intends to acquire the company’s assets and equipment necessary to create a municipal utility. Xcel is an unwilling seller, meaning the case will likely end up in condemnation court.

Aside from the Shanahan Ridge case, the city did not outline any other instances in which it believes Xcel is allowing its Boulder system to fall into disrepair. Boulder spokeswoman Sarah Huntley, though, said there is other equipment that city engineers have said should be replaced or updated if a city-run utility is formed.

The damaged distribution line that formerly served Shanahan Ridge runs beneath the Shanahan Ranch directly to the south. Aguayo said Xcel couldn’t locate an easement on the property, and was not allowed access by the owners to repair the old line. As a workaround, Xcel attached a temporary conduit to a fence on open space to restore service to Shanahan Ridge after the flood.

When discussions of a permanent solution began, city officials proposed installing a new line from a feeder out of the substation near the National Center for Atmospheric Research. That line would have run beneath sidewalks and other pavement along easements to Shanahan Ridge.

Instead, the city has agreed to allow Xcel to bore beneath open space to route the new portion of the old line, which comes from the Eldorado Springs substation. The access was approved by the Open Space Board of Trustees in December and signed off on by city staff Feb. 6.

Aguayo said the city’s preferred solution would have required nearly double the wire distance and at least five manholes, the location of which she said the city expressed concerns about.

Huntley said Xcel had told city officials that the cost of the city’s solution would have been about $250,000 more than Xcel’s. But she said the city was not told what Xcel’s solution would cost. Without discussing dollar amounts, Aguayo said the Boulder solution would have cost roughly four times as much as the agreed upon solution and caused much more traffic disruption during construction.

Service and reliability, Aguayo contended, would not have been improved over Xcel’s plan.

“The design and location of the replacement feeder that will cross open space was the best possible route to get the line in a permanent underground location,” Aguayo said.

The city argues that the new line won’t be located far from the old line, and is on land that is no better suited to house a distribution line as it relates to potential reliability issues.

“It basically came down to money,” Carr said. “Xcel was unwilling to bear the cost for the preferable repair. Our position is that Xcel Energy has a responsibility to provide reliable service to its customers. Xcel Energy should not shirk that responsibility by choosing a less reliable, lower cost option, especially one that has already failed at least once.”

The Shanahan Ridge rift came about a week after Xcel responded to Boulder’s notice of intent to acquire by stating the notice lacked sufficient information about what equipment the city was seeking to purchase and thus didn’t satisfy the state’s eminent domain statutes.

Xcel about that same time filed an application with the Public Utilities Commission asking permission to limit its customer-funded renewable energy programs for Boulder customers going forward to prevent its non-Boulder customers from subsidizing the benefits that would be reaped by a future city-run utility.

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