Published in the Denver Post on April 27th, 2024

After nearly 20 years at the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, I still wonder what parts of “climate crisis” and “extreme weather,” are not understood by Xcel, Colorado’s largest investor-owned utility (IOU), and its regulators at the PUC.

After many years of advocacy by customers in Boulder and around the state, Xcel is making steady progress on decarbonizing its electrical system. The good people who work for Xcel deserve recognition for this progress, but Xcel and its regulators seem to think we can experience a “climate crisis” but still have the same weather we had in the 20th century. Not likely that!

How many demonstrations do we need before we recognize that the weather in the 21st century will be very, very different from the weather of the 20th century and that we should be building and operating an electrical system that reflects this new reality?

In the past 11 years in Boulder County, we’ve seen the floods of September 2013, the Marshall fire of December 2021 and now the strong winds and the public safety power shutoff in April. There is every reason to believe that we will be seeing many more extreme weather events in the months and years to come.

Sadly, Xcel, with the approval of its regulators, keeps spending large amounts of money on 20th-century technologies — coal plants, methane (a.k.a. “natural gas”) plants and big transmission lines with no apparent consideration for what happens when this 20th-century model fails in the face of the extreme weather of the 21st century.

There can be no argument that the costs of the 2013 flood, the 2021 Marshall fire and the 2024 power shutoff are extremely large, financially and emotionally — yet they are essentially ignored by Xcel and the PUC when planning the future electrical system.

Although there are many things that can be done to increase the ability of the electrical system to withstand current and future extreme weather events, one of the key concepts is to start building a system that uses the thinking and technologies of “islandable” microgrids that can keep operating independently when the transmission and distribution systems fail.

Building a cost-effective and resilient 21st-century electrical system will require the best and most innovative thinking our country has.

One way to unleash the needed innovation and provide price discipline is to allow communities to “go shopping” for their electrical provider under a system referred to as community choice energy in Colorado and community choice aggregation (CCA) in other states.

In states where CCA has been allowed, many communities are finding they can get lower rates, cleaner energy, more local generation and a significant revenue stream to help fund a more resilient and equitable electrical system.

In Colorado, politically diverse communities, that used to be wholesale customers of Xcel (including Fountain, Steamboat Springs and the Grand Valley around Grand Junction) have found that they indeed can get better deals by “going to market.” All have left Xcel and chosen another provider.

Sadly, communities such as Boulder that are retail customers under franchise with Xcel, are not allowed to seek out the best prices and programs and instead are forced to accept Xcel’s decisions, monopoly rates and often poor customer service with no option.

One might think Gov. Jared Polis — sometimes described as the country’s most “libertarian” governor — would want to support competition and innovation and allow market forces to work.

Sadly, however, Polis and his administration generally have decided to support Xcel’s monopoly, oppose competition and drag their feet in moving microgrid policy forward. It is past time for Polis and his administration to do more than write self-serving letters admonishing Xcel!

Here’s hoping Colorado’s leaders soon start to support competition in our electrical system to help provide price discipline and unleash successful innovation so that we can build a more equitable 21st-century electrical system that reflects the new climate realities of this century — instead of being forced to accept Xcel’s attachment to its 20th-century business model and thinking with no recourse. Here’s hoping they begin soon. The climate clock is ticking — for sure!

Leslie Glustrom is trained as a chemist and biochemist. She has spent most of the past 20 years participating at the Public Utilities Commission working to decarbonize our electrical system and helping to build the climate movement in Colorado and beyond.