Xcel Energy Colorado has a new manager. He says the trend of rising electricity bills will not end soon | Whuff News

Customers of Colorado’s largest energy company should expect higher energy costs to pay for an expanded power grid that includes upgrades to its natural gas facilities, said Robert Kenney, the new president of Xcel Energy Colorado.

Kenney took the helm of Xcel’s state operations in June after serving as an executive at Pacific Gas and Electric Company in California. In an interview with CPR News this week, he said the recent trend of rising energy bills may not end anytime soon.

“We may see some growth as we continue to invest in the system,” Kenney said. “We’re making the investments we think are necessary to drive the clean energy transition while doing it safely and reliably.”

Kenney, who has worked both with utilities and served as a utility regulator, said he wants Xcel to set an example of how investor monopolies can shift from coal to clean energy sources.

Courtesy of Paul Sakuma Photography
Robert Kenney, the new president of Xcel Energy Colorado.

At the same time, he reiterated the company’s position on natural gas, insisting that consumers must pay for power plants to burn the fuel and pipelines to deliver it to new homes. Kenney said those plans would not limit more emissions because natural gas systems could one day run on carbon-free fuels like green hydrogen, a point that has faced fierce skepticism from researchers and environmental groups.

Climate scientists also draw a clear line at the new fossil base. Earlier this year, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a new report saying that any new investment in such programs is incompatible with international climate goals.

State regulators this year allowed Xcel to raise rates to match rising wholesale natural gas costs. The Minnesota-based company expects the average household to see their bills jump 54 percent this December compared to a year earlier.

The company will soon need to raise prices to pay for the new investment. The Colorado Public Commission recently approved nearly $10 billion in Xcel’s plans for new transmission lines and electricity generation to replace coal-fired power plants. The aid will recoup the costs of those projects to customers for decades to come – with additional profits for their shareholders.

To reduce the effect on monthly bills, the company has incentives for customers who use less energy or make their homes more energy efficient, Kenney said. Xcel will buy and store enough natural gas ahead of the winter heating season to help guard against higher prices that could be passed on to customers, he said.

The utility used one of those systems, the AC Reward Smart Thermostats system, when its new coal-fired generator broke down again last month, this time during a heatwave. The company did not warn the 22,000 customers who signed up for the program that it would take control of their thermostats, and they were unable to pass the change. The move angered many consumers and generated a public backlash online.

“It’s part and parcel of the program that customers voluntarily knew when they signed up,” Kenney said, agreeing that Xcel needs to remind customers more often about those terms.

Xcel Energy continues to burn natural gas for electricity. The newly approved plan for new investments includes money for “deployable equipment,” which could include upgrades to existing natural gas power plants and new equipment. Kenney said these upgrades are necessary to maintain a reliable electric grid and keep costs low for consumers. He added that the company plans to buy certified fuels such as “fairly sourced” natural gas.

“There is no inconsistency in continuing to use natural gas for heating and power generation,” Kenney said. “We want to make sure we do it as cleanly as we can.”

Kenney said he was asked to lead the utility because of his experience “on both sides of the bench” as chairman of the Missouri Public Service Commission and later as a vice president with PG&E.

The California utility has faced government scrutiny and fines over its electric grid, which has caused fires that have killed more than 100 people since 2015, according to PBS’ FRONTLINE. It pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the 2018 Camp Fire, one of the deadliest in US history.

Utilities must adapt their electrical systems to prepare for the more frequent and angrier wildfires caused by climate change, Kenney said. That could mean burying power lines underground or removing more trees and vegetation near the lines, he said.

“That work is ongoing right now” at Xcel Energy, he said, though he did not elaborate. The company filed its wildfire preparedness plan with the Colorado Community Commission in 2020.

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