Readers of this column will likely know that since 2011, the city of Boulder, CO has fought to establish its own electric utility. From the outset, the initiative has been met by financial, political and legal resistance from the state's utility goliath, Xcel Energy. Every step of the way, Xcel has demonstrated the delicate sport of corporate opacity with graceful ease. In its latest backhand, news broke last week that the company "inadvertently" asked that its own customers pay $460,000 for Xcel's anti-Boulder campaign spending.
The inadvertent fleecing was revealed when the Colorado Public Utilities Commission asked Xcel to "please admit or deny" if it had included "any expenses campaigning against municipalization of utility service in Boulder" in its rate-hike request. In response, Xcel CEO Janet Schmidt Petree stated that the error would be rectified "at the appropriate time in the procedural schedule."
The appropriate time is, of course, now. And now is also the time to wonder whether Xcel has also stuffed its anti-rooftop solar campaign costs into its rate hike requests.
Put simply: is Xcel billing ratepayers for the cost of attacking ratepayers who go solar?
Last month, I wrote an article about Xcel's mercurial relationship with solar. In the distant past (2007), Xcel ecstatically endorsed net metering. It has since dramatically turned around on the policy, now that the solar industry presents competition for the first time. I spoke to an Xcel representative to understand whether they were lying in 2007 when they said all customers benefit from net metering. My question was answered with a long-winded, disclaimer-riddled distant cousin of "no comment."
Xcel is asking the PUC for a 4.9% increase for Colorado rate-payers (adding around $5 to the average monthly residential bill), in order to pay for the closing a few of its coal-fired power plants and the conversion of others to natural gas. The company stands to exceed its return on investment by 10.35% in the rate case, and generate $137.7 million. It would make a big pay day for Xcel - by way of comparison, the company reported earnings of $197 million across all states in the second quarter of 2014. That Xcel intends to bill customers for its own dependence on increasingly expensive fossil fuels is questionable; that it would penalize its customers for voting overwhelmingly in favor of clean, distributed generation is inexcusable.
Coloradans have the right to know whether Xcel has skewed the numbers beyond its anti-Boulder campaign. In their public relations and ad campaigns against rooftop solar, in the name of "Doing Solar Right," whose money are they spending? For the benefit of all Coloradans, Xcel should admit or deny whether it has also built anti-rooftop solar campaign costs into its rate-hike requests.
It should come as no surprise when a company protects its earnings. That should not, however, exempt that company from practicing the reliability it publicly espouses. When it comes to a matter this important - our energy future - we can't afford to just take them at their word.