Xcel Energy’s decision to shut off power ahead of high winds raises concerns

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By journalsofus.com

Broken utility poles are seen along US 36 between Lefthand Canyon Drive and Nelson Road in Boulder County after high winds were reported over the weekend, Monday, April 8, 2024. (Matthew Jonas /Daily Camera)

Xcel Energy-Colorado took the unprecedented step of shutting off power to some parts of the Front Range to minimize the risk of wildfires as strong winds battered the region over the weekend, a move that sparked its own firestorm of concern.

Xcel, Colorado’s largest electric company, began considering a proactive power outage on Friday when Forecasts called for wind gusts of up to 100 mph along the foothills Saturday through Sunday and sustained winds up to 55 mph on the Interstate 25 corridor. The company shut off power to about 55,000 customers in six counties Saturday afternoon as winds began to roar.

A total of approximately 150,000 Xcel customers were without power, either due to precautionary line closures or due to wind damage. As of 6 p.m. Monday, the utility reported 722 outages affecting 15,208 customers.

Xcel Energy is expected to restore 90% of power by the end of Monday and the remainder on Tuesday.

“We know this is a challenge and a hardship for some of our customers,” said Robert Kenney, president of Xcel Energy-Colorado.

This was the first time the company proactively shut off power in Colorado to minimize the threat of wildfires. Xcel customers who had their power cut off have complained that they didn’t get enough notice and that the company wasn’t good at updating them.

In Boulder, officials said the city was caught short when power went out at two electrical substations that operate a wastewater treatment plant. Employees had to act quickly to prevent wastewater from reaching Boulder Creek, giving the city time for Xcel to turn on one of the substations.

Power companies are increasingly using the tactic of precautionary shutdowns as the weather has warmed and dried, extending wildfire season to year-round.

A combination of fiercely high winds and unusually dry conditions sparked the Marshall Fire on December 30, 2021 in Louisville, Superior, and parts of unincorporated Boulder County. The fire killed two people, destroyed 1,084 homes and businesses, and caused more than $2 billion in total property damage.

An investigation by Boulder County authorities said the fire started in two locations: on the property of the Twelve Tribes religious cult when embers from an earlier fire reignited; and near part of the Xcel electrical distribution system, where a power line came loose.

Xcel Energy faces nearly 300 lawsuits from homeowners, local governments and retail giant Target over the fire. Xcel denies that its crew started one of the fires that merged into a massive wildfire.

But in Texas, where a fire that started in February burned more than 1 million acres, Xcel Energy has said it appears its facilities contributed to igniting the fire. An owner has sued the company.

Social media posts complaining about Xcel’s decision to cut power to parts of the Front Range over the weekend accused the company of wanting to avoid more lawsuits.

“The reason we’re doing this is to protect the public from wildfire conditions, period,” Kenney said. “Obviously, no one likes to be sued and no one wants to be sued, but this is a public safety tool.”

Kenney said Xcel based its decision in part on forecasts from its meteorologists. The company also analyzed humidity and humidity levels in the area’s vegetation. Computer models were used to map weather conditions and pinpoint where potential fires could break out.

The National Weather Service had issued red flag warnings, indicating a high potential for wildfires. Gusts of more than 90 mph were recorded in parts of Boulder County, the weather service said.

Xcel notified customers Friday night that their power may be shut off Saturday. Kenney said the company called and emailed all 55,000 customers directly and contacted them again Saturday morning when it was decided to turn off their power.

Eben Forrest, owner of the Terracotta plant store and design consulting business on Pearl Street in Boulder, estimated his business lost about $5,000 when Xcel shut off its power. He had events planned for the weekend and wasn’t sure how to proceed until the company confirmed the closure.

“I would have liked more information to be available. I felt like it was pretty lazy,” Forrest said.

“We received an overwhelming amount of feedback from customers who wanted more extensive notice than the night before. It is feedback that we heard loud and clear and that we are incorporating into our systems,” Kenney said.

More than 500 employees were working to restore power Monday, Kenney said. Connecting power to the lines that were shut off requires more than flipping a switch, she said. Workers had to visually inspect 600 miles of lines and make repairs before turning the power back on.

At this point, it is unclear if any of the lines turned off as a precaution were down or damaged.

Sarah Huntley, speaking on behalf of the Boulder Office of Disaster Management, said communities want utilities to care about public safety. She said there were reports of downed lines causing small fires when the power was turned back on, and crews quickly extinguished them.

Broken utility poles are seen along US 36 between Lefthand Canyon Drive and Nelson Road in Boulder County after high winds were reported over the weekend, Monday, April 8, 2024. (Matthew Jonas /Daily Camera)

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