The state watchdog Office of Consumer Counsel announced a name change Wednesday and broader powers to intervene against utilities on behalf of the public in areas like climate change, career changes for energy workers and environmental justice for pollution-impacted communities.
The renamed Office of the Utility Consumer Advocate is also hiring additional attorneys for the first time in 16 years, and will take on the battle over $750 million in proposed February 2021 storm surcharges by Colorado utilities as one of its fall priorities, said executive director Cindy Schonhaut.
The office has saved Colorado consumers more than $2 billion since the 1980s by fighting against “huge corporations that have many resources and tons of attorneys,” Schonhaut said.
“We are motivated by the fact that we represent the public interest, and we are the only state agency that does that. And that means we represent you, the consumers who pay the bills,” she said.
The legislation authorizing a consumer counsel in utility rate cases was set to sunset this year, though it was never in danger of going away altogether. In negotiating for changes to the office, the legislature agreed to expand the duties to include the authority to intervene in cases on questions of “decarbonization goals, just transition and environmental justice.”
The consumer office is funded through an assessment on the utilities.
Schonhaut and the co-hosts of the Wednesday news conference, the nonprofit consumer advocacy group CoPIRG, offered two examples of how a newly organized consumer office might intervene with its new mandate.
The Martin Drake power plant in Colorado Springs just stopped burning coal, and guaranteed its coal-trained employees other jobs within the city utility departments. Such guarantees may not be available, Schonhaut noted, when coal-fired plants owned by Xcel and Tri-State Generation are shut down in the coming years in Craig and Hayden, Colo. The consumer office can both push for a more rapid transition away from coal, as well as opportunities for coal-trained employees to find other work without unfairly burdening the existing ratepayers of Xcel or Tri-State’s member co-ops.
“How do you preserve and protect that community’s interest,” Schonhaut said.
In the case of the state’s desire to move toward clean electric vehicles, said CoPIRG’s Danny Katz, the consumer office can intervene in cases to make sure the costs utilities want to recover for charging networks or other needs are divided fairly among ratepayers and shareholders.
It shouldn’t just be homeowners buying new EVs and installing expensive chargers who benefit from subsidies or other help, Katz said. Equal opportunity to benefit from electrification is one key to environmental justice, he said.
“These new responsibilities give us the chance to fight for consumer-centric decarbonisation in the fast changing energy landscape,” Schonhaut said. “So as we go forward with these responsibilities our office will always put consumers at the forefront of climate and energy policy-making here in Colorado.”
The consumer advocates also mentioned that Xcel’s Comanche power plant in Pueblo emits massive coal-fired pollutants, yet the Pueblo area is served by Black Hills Energy. So Pueblo’s lower-income neighborhoods “get all the dirt and all the pollution, but none of the electricity. So that’s a disproportionately impacted community,” Schonhaut said.
In the rate cases emanating from the February winter storm in the southwestern states, Schonhaut said the consumer office has not yet filed its conclusions about who should be at fault for the price increases Colorado utilities said they need to cover spikes in natural gas rates that month.
Regulators had looked into charges of price-gouging by natural gas suppliers as a result of the storm and supply disruptions that devastated Texas and boosted costs in Colorado. Schonhaut said the utilities appeared to have plenty of advance warning about the storms.
“So we’re looking for ways to deduct or subtract from the total amounts that the companies are seeking to recover for a whole variety of reasons,” she said.