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After power outage backlash, Xcel Energy files new wildfire mitigation plan with state regulators

The power company maintains its equipment did not ignite the worst fire in state history.
Severe Weather Tennessee
Posted at 6:46 PM, Jul 03, 2024

Xcel Energy Colorado officials filed an updated wildfire mitigation plan with state regulators Thursday aimed at better responding to the threat of wildfires across the state in the wake of an investigation by the Colorado Utilities Commission ignited by the company’s decision to shut off power to more than 50,000 customers ahead of a powerful windstorm back in April.

The updated wildfire mitigation plan filed by Xcel Energy will go into effect sometime in 2025 and will be good through 2027, according to president of Xcel Energy Colorado Robert Kenney.

Speaking to Denver7 earlier Thursday, Kenney said the second iteration of the plan represents a “significant” evolution of the company’s wildfire mitigation efforts to better protect the public from wildfires across the state.

“We’re seeing wildfire evolve, significantly driven by climate change. There really isn’t a single wildfire season anymore, it’s year-round,” Kenney told Denver7. “It’s important to be proactive so that we can — to the best extent possible — prevent a wildfire to happen in the first place.”

Xcel Energy Colorado president discusses new wildfire mitigation plan

The updated mitigation plan will help Xcel make better informed decisions about wildfire mitigation, Kenney said, and will “add and strengthen the resiliency of our system.”

The president of Xcel Energy Colorado also said the company is adding things like enhanced power-line-safety settings and what they called “proactive de-energization/power shut offs” to the plan — a mitigation tactic that sparked backlash from thousands of customers in Boulder, Gilpin, Jefferson, Larimer, Douglas and Broomfield Counties, and the West Denver metro area along the foothills.

The decision prompted Gov. Jared Polis to direct the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to probe the company’s decision to implement the power shutoffs.

Before the investigation began, company officials said the preemptive outages were due to public safety concerns and were intended to reduce the risk of wildfires. A disconnected Xcel Energy power line was partially blamed for sparking the 2021 Marshall Fire in Boulder County that spread fast amid wind gusts of up to 115 mph.

A mass action lawsuit against Xcel Energy was filed last year, claiming the energy provider is to blame for the most destructive fire in Colorado history. The company, however, maintains its equipment did not start the Marshall Fire, and April’s prescribed outage was not in response to the lawsuit.

“We’ve maintained all along that our hearts are with the customers that were impacted, but our equipment didn’t start the Marshall Fire,” Kenney said Thursday, stressing that the “evidence is what really leads us to that conclusion that our equipment didn’t start that wildfire.”

Kenney told Denver7 Thursday the updated wildfire mitigation plan also has “more significant customer support,” after customers complained the company did not notify them in a timely manner that those outages were coming.

Xcel Energy officials said they’ve added more weather stations since first implementing the wildfire mitigation plan in 2020, and new technologies — like AI and cameras that can monitor smoke and detect wildfire with greater precision — will also be part of the mitigation plan.

The company also plans to replace small and bare wires with larger and covered wires, and will do what they called “undergrounding” where appropriate, Kenney said.

“We just want our customers and the community to know that the efforts that we’re taking are intended to protect the public and to maintain public safety,” he said. “We know that most wildfires are not started by utility equipment, but we want to make sure that we’re doing our part to address this state-wide, world-wide, country-wide problem, and that's what this plan reflects.”

The plan will take anywhere from 12 to 18 months before it can be implemented, Kenney said.

If approved as submitted, a typical residential bill would, by Jan. 1, 2028, increase by approximately 9.56%, or $8.88 per month through incremental, bi-annual changes, a company spokesperson said.

Xcel Energy files new wildfire mitigation plan fresh off power outage backlash

This story was originally published by Óscar Contreras at Scripps News Denver.