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Colorado PUC Investigates Utility’s Use of Public Safety Power Shutoff

The Colorado Public Utilities Commission on April 10 announced a set of actions in response to the power outages over the weekend of April 6-7 and Xcel Energy’s deployment of a precautionary outage that impacted tens of thousands of residents.

The investor-owned utility earlier this month said that for the first time in Colorado, it conducted a public safety power shutoff. More than 600 miles of lines were proactively de-energized.

With exceptionally high winds and the high risk of wind-driven wildfires in Colorado, Xcel Energy proactively shut off power to about 55,000 customers in Boulder, Gilpin, Larimer, Douglas, Broomfield and Jefferson Counties. This move is known as a Public Safety Power Shutoff.

Xcel Energy also used wildfire safety settings to reduce wildfire risk. Typically, when there is an issue that causes a power outage on a line, such as a tree branch contacting a power line, equipment on the system will attempt to restore power automatically, usually within a few seconds.

During this extreme weather event, Xcel Energy changed the settings on those systems in many areas to prevent the automatic restoration of power. Instead, crews will patrol the area to ensure it is safe to restore service before re-energizing the line. This safety measure means power outages are likely to last longer than they typically would.

PUC Opens Investigatory Process

The Colorado PUC voted unanimously to open a formal investigatory process to document actions taken by Xcel during the storm, including customer notification and power restoration as well as to hear customers’ concerns.

“In initiating this process, the Commission will investigate what immediate and long-term regulatory actions might be needed for future prescribed outage events and deployment of alternative system operations intended to reduce the risk of wildfire,” it said.

The Commission will request detailed information from Xcel on the wind storm response and outages, including planning and communications, and seek input from impacted residents, local governments, businesses, and critical care providers.

Governor Weighs In

On April 9, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis noted that he had directed the Colorado PUC to seek reforms to protect customers in the event of future Public Safety Power Shutoffs including: 

  • Ensure PSPS decisions are made in the best interest of Coloradans including adequate communication allowing individuals and businesses to prepare, especially the most vulnerable Coloradans. 
  • Guarantee Coloradans receive timely, simple, and relevant information about outage locations, support services, and expected restoration timelines. 
  • Provide Coloradans with updated and more actionable maps that provide transparency on anticipated or current outages and service restoration activities.
  • An investigation to understand how Xcel has fallen short in informing and protecting customers, businesses, and communities during the public safety power shutoff, and what additional strategies can improve operations in the future. 

He also sent a letter to Xcel Energy on April 9 in which he said the Public Safety Power Shutoff “significantly impacted, and in many cases surprised, tens of thousands of Coloradans.”

Polis said that “We know that increasing drought and climate change leads to drier conditions and the possibility of wildfire, so Xcel must recognize the shortcomings of this incident, learn from it, and be prepared to change your approach to these incidents to minimize loss of power. Lessons-learned should be addressed in your upcoming Wildfire Mitigation Plan”

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