Connect with us

World News

Xcel Energy’s decision to turn off power before high winds raises concerns



Xcel Energy's decision to turn off power before high winds raises concerns

Xcel Energy-Colorado took the unprecedented step of cutting power to some parts of the Front Range to minimize the risk of wildfires as strong winds enveloped the region this weekend, a move that created its own storm of concerns.

Xcel, Colorado’s largest electric utility, began considering a proactive power shutdown Friday as forecasts Saturday through Sunday called wind gusts up to 100 mph along the foothills and sustained winds up to 55 mph for the Interstate 25 corridor evoked. The company cut off electricity to about 55,000 customers in six provinces on Saturday afternoon when the winds began to howl.

In total, about 150,000 Xcel customers lost power, either because lines were shut down as a precaution or due to wind damage. As of 6 p.m. Monday, the utility reported 722 outages affecting 15,208 customers.

Xcel Energy expects to restore 90% of power by the end of Monday and the rest on Tuesday.

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

This marked the first time the company has proactively shut off electricity in Colorado to minimize the threat of wildfires. Xcel customers who had their power turned off have complained that they weren’t given enough notice and that the company wasn’t good at updating them.

In Boulder, officials said the city fell short when power was cut to two power stations that run a wastewater treatment plant. Crews had to act quickly to prevent sewage from entering Boulder Creek, giving the city time to have Xcel turn on one of the substations.

Energy companies are increasingly turning to the tactic of preemptive shutdowns as the climate has warmed and dried out, meaning wildfire season could last all year long.

A combination of intense 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 a total of more than $2 billion in property damage.

An investigation by Boulder County authorities found that the fire started in two places: on the grounds of the Twelve Tribes religious sect, when embers from an earlier fire reignited; and near part of Xcel’s electrical distribution system, where a power line came loose.

Xcel Energy is facing nearly 300 lawsuits from homeowners, local governments and retail giant Target over the fire. Xcel disputes that its equipment caused any of the fires that turned into one 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 helped start the fire. A homeowner has filed a lawsuit Company.

Posts on social media complaining about Xcel’s decision to turn off power in parts of the Front Range this weekend accused the company of trying to avoid more lawsuits.

“The reason we’re doing this is to protect the public from wildfire, period,” Kenney said. “Obviously, no one likes being 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 looked at the moisture level of the vegetation in the area. Computer models were used to map weather conditions and determine where possible fires could break out.

The National Weather Service had issued red flag warnings, indicating a high risk of wildfires. Wind gusts of more than 90 miles per hour were recorded in parts of Boulder County, the weather service said.

Xcel informed customers Friday evening that their power may be turned off Saturday. Kenney said the company called and emailed its 55,000 customers directly and contacted them again Saturday morning when the decision was made to turn off their electricity.

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

“I wish there was more information available. I felt like it was pretty vague,” Forrest said

“We received an overwhelming amount of feedback from customers wanting more attention than the night before. It is feedback that we hear loud and clear and that we process in our systems,” said Kenney.

More than 500 workers worked Monday to restore power, Kenney said. Turning on power to the lines that have been shut down requires more than flipping a switch, he said. Workers had to visually inspect 600 miles of pipes and make any repairs before they could turn the power back on.

At this time it is unclear whether any of the lines that were shut down as a precaution were blown over or damaged.

Sarah Huntley, speaking on behalf of the Boulder County Office of Disaster Management, said communities want utilities to look out for public safety. She said a few blown lines caused 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)