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Solar energy panels line a rooftop on Oct. 20, 2022 near Lookout Park in western Arvada. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The Public Utilities Commission will explore requiring Xcel Energy to refund grid connection fees for homeowners adding solar panels if the utility misses deadlines, after weeks of Colorado politicians and customers blasting the company for severe backlogs. 

Xcel told the commission in filings this week that its approvals of home solar panel connections are speeding up and said a 4,000-application queue should be cleared by mid-March. But the company also blamed solar developers and installers for some of the delays through incomplete connection applications, a charge the solar industry rejected. 

“We didn’t have these problems en masse with the old system,” said Mike Kruger, president of the trade group Colorado Solar and Storage Association.

Xcel also blames the large backlog on a surge of solar applications in fall of 2022 after the Inflation Reduction Act passed with multiple new incentives for clean energy directed at homeowners and businesses. But customers with expensive, unconnected projects have been complaining bitterly to the PUC that Xcel just doesn’t seem interested in adding home solar generators to its system.

Tom Chinn spent more than $50,000 to put solar panels on his home in Lakewood, the last step in making his house a net-zero or carbon neutral dwelling. Xcel acknowledged Nov. 28 it had all the necessary paperwork to finish Chinn’s connection to the grid. But Chinn says Xcel then started a series of delays involving software reprogramming of his smart meter, a common explanation for recent delays. 

Solar customers need a metering system that runs in both directions in order to give credit to the homeowner when their solar panels are generating more than they need and are putting electricity out onto Xcel’s grid. 

His system was finally turned on Jan. 20, Chinn said in an interview, losing him nearly two months of generating credit. Since then he’s spent 10 hours on the phone with Xcel trying to get them to explain why his first smart meter bill was far higher than any past bill, and “they never call back” with promised answers, Chinn said. 

“I know I’m not the only one going through this. If I hadn’t contacted the PUC, I’d still be waiting,” Chinn said. 

Homeowners and installers filing complaints with the PUC in recent weeks took similar digs at the company. 

“I have been waiting on Xcel Energy for solar for my house for nearly a year,” Rifle homeowner Kelly Thompson said in a comment filed to the PUC’s docket exploring the late interconnection questions. He started a project with a Grand Junction installer in March, finally got approved by Xcel in December, and is now waiting for Xcel to install the right meter.

“Xcel purports to be all for alternative energy, but looking at their actions would show that this is not true,” Thompson wrote. 

Xcel’s spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. But in an 11-page commentary filed with the PUC this week, the company said many of the complaints should be directed at the installers, who are often failing to fill out paperwork properly or have delayed filing the connection applications to Xcel. 

“The company acknowledges that it has contributed to delays,” Xcel said in the filing. But officials added they’ve had to reject more than 4,000 connection applications, or 40%, since October “due to inaccurate or incomplete applications.” 

Xcel has hired outside technical help and reassigned 20 internal engineers to work on the backlog, the company said. Xcel said it has also increased training opportunities for installers and streamlined documentation of engineering and permitting steps, and “expects to be caught up with completeness reviews by the beginning of March.” A chart filed by the company shows the catchup date falling the week of March 19. 

The PUC commissioners said Wednesday that while they are not yet ready to penalize Xcel for the delays, they do want staff to propose ways to prod the company to improve service to solar owners. One way would involve the commission debating and implementing fines against Xcel for missing connection deadlines. 

Housing at Geos is seen on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021, in Arvada. The neighborhood’s 28 net-zero, carbon-neutral units are built to optimize natural sunlight through window placement and insulation. Each unit features solar panels and an individual underground heat pump to regulate interior temperatures as well as monitor carbon levels. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

But the commissioners Wednesday appeared to prefer another route, requiring Xcel to publicly file its grid fees and mandate refunds of those fees to customers if Xcel misses deadlines.

The delays call for “some link to revenue of the company to their success in delivering on interconnection requests,” Commissioner Megan Gilman said. 

New carrots or sticks for Xcel can’t come soon enough, said Cathy Boies, director of policy for the solar association. 

“We are tired of the he said, she said. We are just asking Xcel to do their job and follow through with what is allowed by law,” Boies said. “If people want to put solar on their homes and businesses, Xcel shouldn’t be the barrier to accomplishing that.” 

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...