Boulder County residents who were concerned about city plans to include them in a municipal energy utility say they’re not assuaged by a change in Boulder’s position that could allow them to remain Xcel Energy customers even as the city takes possession of the electrical infrastructure that serves them.
“It doesn’t neutralize my concerns at all,” said David Smith, an engineer and a member of the Gunbarrel Green Homeowners Association. “My biggest concern is that I don’t believe they can have the standby resources to repair the infrastructure in a disaster.
“If we have Xcel power and local distribution lines, the Xcel power doesn’t do us any good. If there is an outage, is the problem local distribution or power generation? There is the opportunity for a lot of finger pointing between two hostile organizations.”
When Boulder filed a petition Thursday seeking to condemn portions of Xcel’s local distribution system through eminent domain, the city included substations in the county, as well as poles and wires that serve city and county customers.
But the city did not include the utility company’s certificate of public convenience and necessity among the assets Boulder wants to own.
That certificate gives Xcel the exclusive right to serve the roughly 7,000 customers in the affected area, which includes Gunbarrel and unincorporated enclaves in north Boulder.
For the last two years, Boulder had said it needed to include those areas in an eventual municipal energy utility because it would be difficult and expensive to separate them from the infrastructure that serves the city itself, and excising them would affect the reliability of the system.
Hundreds of those customers lobbied the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to exclude them from a future Boulder utility. They say they didn’t get to vote, as city residents did, on municipalization, and they would have no voice on the council, which ultimately will set rates for the utility.
The PUC ruled that Boulder should present its plans to the commission before filing for condemnation, a decision the city appealed and then ignored.
Xcel’s campaign against Boulder utility
Xcel Energy has made standing up for those customers a centerpiece of its campaign against municipalization.
An unsuccessful charter amendment backed by the company would have given those residents a vote on the utility’s debt limit.
In a letter to customers — dated July 11, but arriving in many mailboxes Thursday — Xcel Regional Vice President Jerome Davis drew attention to the legal issues represented by the city’s efforts to serve county customers.
“The basic issue remains that the city does not know if it can legally serve the county customers or if its proposed plan will be approved by the PUC —- all matters that are tied to system reliability and financial costs, which will not only impact Boulder, but Xcel Energy and its other customers,” Davis wrote.
Xcel Energy spokeswoman Michelle Aguayo said Friday the letter was “educational” and not part of any attempt to “rally” county customers.
But Thursday, the city said it would not seek to serve county customers and instead would try to reach an agreement with Xcel under which Xcel could deliver power over lines that the city plans to own. Only if Xcel didn’t want to go to the trouble would Boulder step in to provide power.
‘I want everyone to have a choice’
Boulder Mayor Matt Appelbaum said the county customers had been turned into “political footballs” by municipalization opponents. By not asking for Xcel’s certificate, city officials are making it “crystal clear” that they aren’t trying to take non-city customers from Xcel, he said.
“I would love for them to have a choice, just like I want everyone to have a choice,” Appelbaum said.
Aguayo declined to say whether Xcel would serve customers in Gunbarrel and other enclaves if Boulder is successful in acquiring the distribution system there.
Instead, she sent an email that referred to the other aspect of the PUC decision, the impact of Boulder’s separation plan on regional reliability.
“The Colorado Public Utilities Commission ruling covered more than just the county customers; it also addressed the CPUC’s need to determine the best way to maintain the reliability of the integrated electric grid so that all customers have safe and reliable service,” she wrote. “Per the CPUC ruling, Boulder’s transition plans related to this issue were supposed to be filed with the CPUC before the city filed a condemnation case.”
She said that Boulder’s plans still affect county customers because the city wants to take the facilities that serve them, and the city still may seek to serve some county customers.
‘There would be this finger-pointing’
Gunbarrel resident Mark Stevenson said ending up a Boulder utility customer would be “the worst of both worlds,” but Xcel service over city-owned lines would make him nervous.
“It just seems like some sort of divided responsibility,” he said. “If there is some event that happens, there would be this finger-pointing.”
John Botterill, who lives in the old Valmont area, said he just doesn’t want the city involved in his power.
“I just don’t think they can react in emergency situations,” he said. “Xcel Energy has done a great job.”
Backers of a municipal utility have said they will use mutual aid agreements to deal with emergencies and will invest more than Xcel in upgrading the system because the utility won’t have to earn money for its shareholders.
Boulder officials said one utility using the infrastructure of another to supply isolated customers is not unusual.
But Mac Clouse, a professor of finance at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business, said Xcel may not be happy with such an arrangement either.
“They’re losing control,” he said. “Any time a business goes from a situation where they can control the quality and make operating decisions to one where they don’t, they’re not going to like that. If they’re going to lease (the power lines) back, they no longer can make those decisions.”