Colorado regulators hold hearings on Xcel’s high heating bills3 min read
State regulators want to hear from people who are having trouble with high utility bills while the Polis administration is offering rebates of up to $1,044 to qualified Coloradans to help with heat expenses.
Saying that “energy affordability is a crisis” for many Coloradans right now, state regulators will hold a public hearing Tuesday afternoon on escalating utility bills. People can sign up to speak to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission 3-4:30 or 5:30-6.
People in the Denver area and across the state have reported getting utility bills that have at least doubled from last year at this time. Utilities say high wholesale natural gas prices and colder weather are the reasons.
“Our volume of comments and complaints has risen to levels we haven’t seen in recent history,” PUC Chairman Eric Blank said in a meeting last week. “As I read the comments, it seems clear that energy affordability is a crisis for many in Colorado right now, creating substantial hardship for utility customers during a time when other, non-energy costs have been increasing.”
Agencies that provide help to people who are struggling to pay their heating bills are under pressure themselves. The Colorado Low-Income Energy Assistance Program, which distributes federal money, has said it’s on pace to process a record number of applications.
The nonprofit Colorado Energy Outreach, which offers assistance with bills as well as help make households more energy efficient, is handling about 20% more applications than a year ago.
The Polis administration said Monday that a rebate of up to $1,044 a year is available to Colorado residents based on income to help with property taxes, rent and heating expenses. The program, open to older residents and those with disabilities, has helped more than 13,000 Coloradans since 2019, the administration said.
The rebate application is available in English and Spanish.
The biggest driver behind the high utility bills is the wholesale price of natural gas, Erin O’Neill, the PUC’s chief economist, said last week. Typical gas bills were up about 75% in December compared to December 2021.
Electric bills increased by roughly 25% in December.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration said wholesale natural gas prices jumped more than 53% from 2021 to 2022, the fourth-largest year-over-year increase according to the agency’s records.
“We have very little control over the commodity price of gas,” O’Neill said. “That is increasingly a national and international product.”
The natural gas market has been deregulated since the 1980s, O’Neill said. The prices were relatively low and stable for several years, she added, but have recently become more volatile.
This winter, higher gas prices collided with temperatures in November and December that were about 10 degrees colder than last year, O’Neill said. Another frigid spell hit the Denver area over the weekend.
However, wholesale gas prices are declining. Xcel Energy-Colorado and other utilities have filed cost adjustments with the PUC that will slightly lower gas bills starting in February. Wholesale price decreases or increases are passed through to customers with no markup, O’Neill said.
While discussing factors that are boosting utility bills, O’Neill also touched on those she said are not issues. Included in those is renewable energy, she said.
“In fact, I would say it’s the opposite,” O’Neill said.
Part of the reason that electric bills have not risen as much is that solar and wind energy, which generate a growing portion of Xcel Energy’s power, isn’t subject to the same price volatility as fossil fuels are, O’Neill said.
Xcel has 1.5 million electric customers and 1.4 million natural gas customers in Colorado, with a lot of overlap between the two. Higher gas prices affect people who get just electricity to some, if a smaller degree, because Xcel uses natural gas to generate some of its electricity.
About 33% of Xcel’s power in the state comes from wind and solar energy and roughly 26% from natural gas.
O’Neill said recent gas and electric increases are also a small part of the higher gas bills. Commission member John Gavan asked what role Xcel Energy’s profits play in what customers pay.
Xcel Energy, which is based in Minneapolis and serves eight states, reported $1.74 billion in profits for 2022, up 8.75% from 2021. Colorado was the largest contributor to the company’s overall earnings, edging Minnesota.
Blank said the PUC has to be careful discussing Xcel’s revenues because it will act in a quasi-judicial capacity in deciding upcoming rate increase requests.
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