People who lost their homes in the 2021 Marshall fire, Colorado’s costliest at $2 billion in property damages, have spent much time going back and forth with insurance and mortgage companies as they rebuild their homes and lives. Those who want to add solar-power systems say there’s another entity they have had to keep prodding: Xcel Energy.
Xcel Energy serves Louisville, Superior and unincorporated Boulder County, where on Dec. 30, 2021, the fire, stoked by winds of up to 90 mph and drought-parched grasses, killed two people and destroyed more than 1,000 homes.
A recent drive on a long road that winds up and down a hill in Louisville revealed a neighborhood abuzz with the sounds of saws, hammers and the beeps of construction equipment. The street was lined with work trucks and full of people in hard hats putting up homes to reestablish what was lost.
Susan Nedell stood on the sidewalk as workers went in and out of the 3,000-square-foot house being built on the site of the home she and her husband lived in for 10 years before it burned.
Like the previous house, the new one will be powered by solar and will have many new energy-efficient and fire-resistant features. Nedell said the solar installer fortunately started the process in April because “it’s August, almost September, and we’re still waiting” for approval.
“That’s one of the things that is heartbreaking. We’re battling insurance companies. It turns out you battle your mortgage company, too,” Nedell said. “And now we’re battling Xcel.”
A few days later, Xcel Energy told Nedell she had the go-ahead to connect the solar system to the grid when she’s ready to flip the switch.
“I appreciate that for myself, but I do know there are neighbors and other Coloradans who are still hanging out there waiting and waiting,” Nedell said. “It’s an important issue for our community and for the state.”
Important, Nedell said, because Xcel Energy, communities and the state have goals of transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy to improve air quality and reduce the heat-trapping emissions fueling climate change. Experts said a warming climate laid the groundwork for the devastating wildfire in winter.
Boulder County and Superior officials have heard from residents who have had problems with their applications for solar systems. The county, Superior and Louisville have building codes requiring new construction to meet standards for energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
“There are really strict energy codes. You end up having to have solar to meet their point system,” said Mark Feuer, who is rebuilding his home in unincorporated Boulder County.
Feuer’s application for a new solar system was supposed to go through a supplemental review. After waiting several months for approval, Xcel gave Feuer the all-clear in late August and dropped the review.
A solar Catch 22?
Mike Kruger, president and CEO of the trade group Colorado Solar and Storage Association, said he has heard from solar companies whose customers worry that they won’t get approval to move into their homes if they can’t meet the building codes.
“I’ve heard from multiple installers who were getting blamed for families that couldn’t take possession of their house. They were ready to move in but needed a certificate of occupancy,” Kruger said.
Before the families can get the permit to move in, they have to show they’ve met the building codes, Kruger said. But they couldn’t because their solar applications hadn’t been greenlighted.
“And the solar wasn’t ready because Xcel hadn’t gotten them through the process,” Kruger added.
There seems to be a disconnect between a section of the company that deals with providing service to new homes and one that handles solar connections, Kruger said. Customers and solar installers get passed back and forth between the section that approve data for new accounts and locations and the section that deal with solar applications.
“I tried three different parts of the company. I tried all different ways and I got pushed to that person and that person. One person sounded hopeful and the other person said ‘I can’t tell you,’ ” Nedell said.
Getting Xcel to approve solar for new homes is an ongoing problem not limited to the Marshall fire area, Kruger said. He believes the problem was exacerbated in the areas that burned because of a huge volume of new houses trying to plug in at the same time.
Xcel, Colorado’s largest electric utility, was the focus of outspoken frustration earlier this year when homeowners and companies complained that it was taking several months to connect solar systems. The company pulled its teams together to attack the backlog and cut most wait times to less than 30 business days, said Hollie Velasquez Horvath, regional vice president of state affairs and community relations.
And Xcel Energy has been working with Boulder County and the communities to ensure homeowners in the Marshal fire area get what they need, Horvath said.
“Whenever we get notice of a customer that is confused or facing challenges, we immediately work with that customer,” Horvath said. “We understand that they’re navigating a really hard system right now in rebuilding and we want to make it as easy as possible on our end.”
Tyler Will, Xcel Energy’s team leader of Colorado’s solar programs, said the utility is making more information available about the process and reminding solar installers to keep customers informed so no one “gets caught in a loop.”
“It’s not to say it won’t ever happen again,” Will said, “but we are trying to minimize the risk of that happening as much as we can.”
Superior and Louisville are allowing residents rebuilding their homes in the Marshall fire area to follow the 2018 International Energy Conservation Code instead of the newer requirements in the 2021 code.
“There are different levels of energy efficiency and readiness for things like electric vehicles or solar” in the 2018 code, said Alexis Bullen, the town’s sustainability manager.
Superior has also been meeting with Xcel Energy to try to smooth the way for residents looking to hook up solar. “These issues have typically been on Xcel’s side as opposed to the town’s permitting side,” Bullen said.
Staffers with Boulder County, Superior and Louisville have met with Xcel Energy since March to discuss solar-energy service. People confused about the process have contacted Boulder County with questions, said Zac Swank, the county’s deputy director for the office of sustainability, climate action and resilience.
“I think in hindsight there certainly could have been more clarity sooner,” Swank said. “But Xcel has been partnering with us on tracking down issues where we’ve heard of them and working to resolve those problems.”
Shining a light on the process
Boulder County is seeking more clarity on another solar-related development. Swank said the county started hearing from homeowners who wanted to add solar and were told by Xcel that the installation would exceed the grid’s capacity in the area, therefore the customers would have to pay for upgrades to the system.
“If you’re the 10th person and your project is the one that would cause the need for the grid to be upgraded, that homeowner has to pay for the grid infrastructure. Not Xcel, not other homeowners,” Swank said.
He believes Xcel has been absorbing the costs in the Marshall fire area and he doesn’t know of anyone who’s been charged for infrastructure upgrades. “If there’s anyone out there where that’s not the case, we’d love to know because we’d love to help.”
State regulations allow Xcel Energy to charge the homeowner in that instance. A new state law directs the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to reassess the policy.
Xcel Energy has had to rebuild and repair its equipment and infrastructure damaged in the fire. Boulder County investigators said the wildfire was started by embers from a fire thought to have been extinguished on private property and by sparks from an Xcel power line that broke loose.
The two fires merged, investigators said. No criminal charges were filed, but Xcel Energy faces lawsuits by nearly 250 residents, businesses and property owners and more than 150 insurance companies.
Horvath said as Xcel rebuilt damaged parts of the distribution system, the utility worked closely with the county and communities to accommodate the code changes that are aimed at more electrification of buildings.
“What you’re really doing is almost doubling the electric load for homes and we wanted to make sure that we had done as much as we possibly could in advance,” Horvath said.
Xcel doesn’t anticipate any problems with the grid’s capacity in the area, Horvath said.
“We don’t believe there should be an additional cost for customers unless there’s something unforeseen that we aren’t anticipating,” she added. “But based on what we’ve learned from the community and our customers, and what we’ve evaluated, it shouldn’t be something our customers should see.”
Current regulations covering upgrades to the distribution system are flawed, Horvath said. They force utilities to be reactive rather than allow them to plan and finance improvements ahead of time, as they can with generation and transmission.
“We’re talking to stakeholders in hopes that we can put some legislation forward in the next session, in 2024,” Horvath said.
Louisville homeowner Nedell hopes Xcel Energy will concentrate on making it easier for people to hook up solar-energy systems to the grid. She said doing so is in communities’ best interest and in the utility’s interest because it has committed to cutting its greenhouse-gas emissions by 85% by 2030. She wants residents to be able to take advantage of the state and federal renewable energy tax credits.
“We really need to rebuild for our future. It’s going to get hotter. We’re going to stop fracking sooner or later,” Nedell said. “Why are we building for the past when we need to build for the future?”