April 11, 2024

Colorado officials demand better communication from Xcel; PUC to investigate

DENVER — Gov. Jared Polis expressed “disappointment and frustration” in a letter he sent this week to Xcel Energy Inc. officials after the utility opted to proactively shut off power for about 55,000 Front Range customers on Saturday in advance of a windstorm. 

The letter from Polis, who also instructed the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to investigate Xcel’s decision-making process and implement reforms if necessary, echos the language of many local and state-level government officials and business leaders who have criticized the lack of clear communication from the utility in advance of and during the past weekend’s outages, many of which occurred in the Boulder Valley. 

“Boulder County has been the center of some of the most destructive wildfires in our state. Each time, our community rebuilds stronger than before. While we understand wildfire prevention and mitigation efforts are necessary during extreme weather, we urge Xcel Energy to construct a better plan for the future to prevent wildfires during high winds,” state Rep. Judy Amabile and state Sen. Steve Fenberg, both D-Boulder, said in a joint statement. “Cutting power seemingly indefinitely with inconsistent and poor communication during high winds is not the answer.”

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Polis’ letter to Xcel said he has heard complaints “from businesses that could not operate and lost perishable inventories and income.” Similar issues were raised during a roundtable discussion Monday between Xcel leadership and Boulder-area stakeholders.

“I support the actions to prevent a wildfire,” Boulder restaurateur Josea Rosenberg said during the roundtable. But despite having been signed up for automated communications from Xcel, he added, “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 Wednesday to Boulder City Council’s public communications forum, Councilman Mark Wallach that Xcel should “consider as a microscopic, inadequate, thoroughly insufficient, but first step in making up for the damage they have caused, offering to compensate Community Food Share for the value of the food that they lost due to the extended period they were without  power. They might also consider a similar action for any other food provider that suffered loss during this event. These providers are already under great stress, with too many in need and not enough food to provide to them. This is only the beginning of the conversation, but at least it shows a minimal sense of decency.

During Monday’s roundtable in Boulder, Xcel Colorado president Robert Kenney said that decision makers at the utility “recognize the hardship that was created by proactively de-energizing our lines for public safety. Full stop. No excuses.” 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. 

The backlash over the decision to intentionally disrupt power for thousands of customers is just the latest headache for Minnesota-based Xcel, which, according to a report published Wednesday by the Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal, paid CEO Bob Frenzel more than $21 million in 2023, double his compensation from the year before. 

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.

Gov. Jared Polis expressed “disappointment and frustration” in a letter he sent this week to Xcel Energy Inc. officials after the utility opted to proactively shut off power for about 55,000 Front Range customers on Saturday in advance of a windstorm. 

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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