April 9, 2024

Xcel’s lack of communication cited after windstorm

BOULDER — Given Xcel Energy Inc. equipment’s alleged role in the genesis of the devastating 2021 Marshall Fire in Boulder County, the decision by the utility to proactively shut off power for thousands of Front Range customers in advance of Saturday’s windstorm was an understandable one, Boulder area businesses leaders have said in the aftermath of outage, which, as of Tuesday afternoon is still not fully resolved. 

What’s indefensible, many business owners and government officials say, is the lack of clear communication from Xcel and the haphazard roll out of the proactive outage, the first of its kind in Colorado. 

“The handling of this event was the worst handling of any disaster or near disaster in history down here,” long-time downtown Boulder business owner and former Boulder City Councilman George Karakehian said during a roundtable discussion Monday between Xcel leadership and local stakeholders. “Your communication deserves an ‘F.’ It was horrible downtown. People did not know what to do with their businesses.”

Xcel decision makers “recognize the hardship that was created by proactively de-energizing our lines for public safety. Full stop. No excuses,” Xcel Colorado president Robert Kenney said. He acknowledged that there could be improvements made in the utility’s communication strategy, but stood by the decision to shut off power over the weekend. 

Not only did Xcel fail to communicate to business owners about when power would be restored over the past three days, operators complained that the utility often provided no notice or very late notice to businesses about when and whether electricity would be cut. 

While the weekend’s incident was the first time Xcel had proactively shut off power in advance of a Colorado weather event, Kenney said the utility has recent experience with the practice in Texas. 

“Many similar concerns were expressed about advanced communication and the ability to plan further in advance,” he said, which led some business leaders to question why Xcel has failed to learn from previous experience with proactive de-electrification measures. 

“I support the actions to prevent a wildfire,” Boulder restaurateur Josea Rosenberg said. But despite having been signed up for automated communications from Xcel, “I got nothing.”

The lack of advance notice about power shutoffs was particularly concerning for local hospitality business owners, who told Xcel officials that just a few hours without electricity can result in thousands of dollars in food losses and doom an eatery. 

“If we’re going into a weekend, we need really, really real-time” updates on whether there will be outages and when power will be restored, Boulder restaurateur Bobby Stucky said.

In a message Tuesday to Boulder City Council’s public communications forum, Councilman Mark Wallach said that “as more and more complaints and anecdotes come in, it is entirely clear that the Xcel response to last weekend’s weather conditions was, to put it kindly, entirely bollixed.”

Xcel said on Tuesday afternoon it expects power to be restored by Tuesday afternoon to about 90% of the roughly 155,000 impacted customers in Boulder, Gilpin, Larimer, Douglas, Broomfield and Jefferson counties.

“More than 500 crew members are in the field, working through the night to inspect power lines, repair wind damage and restore service,” the utility said. 

The proactive shutoffs were “a draconian response to extremely dangerous weather conditions, but I cannot fault Xcel for taking a proactive stance,” Wallach’s forum message said. “The memory of the Marshall Fire is all too clear. But this particular response was lacking in execution in so many ways.”

Hundreds of residents, business owners and government officials have sued Xcel over the past two years since Boulder County Sheriff’s Office investigators determined that utility played a role in the origins of the Marshall Fire, which killed two people and burned more than 1,000 buildings in December 2021. Xcel has denied wrongdoing.

Boulder County Sheriff’s Office investigators last summer released a report that determined that the Marshall Fire had two root causes: high winds that uncovered a smoldering, days-old fire at the residence of the Twelve Tribes religious group, members of which live at a compound at 5325 Eldorado Springs Drive in Boulder County, and a malfunctioning Xcel powerline that became “unmoored” during the windy day on Dec. 30, 2021.

The decision by Xcel Energy to proactively shut off power for thousands of Front Range customers in advance of Saturday’s windstorm was an understandable one, Boulder area businesses leaders have said in the aftermath of outage, which, as of Tuesday afternoon is still not fully resolved. 

Lucas High
A Maryland native, Lucas has worked at news agencies from Wyoming to South Carolina before putting roots down in Colorado.
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