Other restrictions limited when companies could make money for their shareholders. Under the system, a utility could bill customers for day-to-day operating costs—like delivering electricity and paying workers—but couldn’t charge anything more than what they spent.
Regulators only allow regulated utilities to turn a profit when they build new infrastructure, like utility poles, power plants or new transmission lines. During the Progressive Era, the arrangement was seen as a way to connect more people to gas and power systems without allowing companies to exploit a captive set of customers.
State Senate President Fenberg says the arrangement sense in the past, but some reforms are likely necessary to protect ratepayers.
Fenberg said the select committee should consider if the current structure creates the right incentives. By exclusively allowing a profit on construction projects, he said, companies have become far too inclined to new build power plants, transmission lines and wind turbines.
“We should be asking ourselves if it’s still the right arrangement or if the return should be more connected to performance,” Fenberg said. “Should it be less about how much you can build and more about the service you provide to customers?”
Fenberg said the committee might also consider ways to help businesses and households rapidly move away from natural gas appliances to electric alternatives, which could insulate them from volatile commodity markets. Gov. Jared Polis directed his administration to take similar action last week.
Another option could be adding more competition to the electricity market. California pioneered the approach in 2002, allowing local governments to band together to buy electricity directly from wholesale suppliers.
Leslie Glustrom, a founder of Boulder-based Clean Energy Action and long-time critic of Xcel Energy, said the approach — known as community choice aggregation — uses market forces to discourage power companies from raising prices. In addition, it gives communities a direct route to benefit from the falling price of renewable energy.
“That’s the opposite of what Xcel wants to do. It wants to keep charging us more for a product that keeps costing less,” Glustrom said.
The Colorado Public Utilities Commission held a public hearing on the idea last year. While many testified in support, some environmental groups and the Colorado Energy Office worried it could reduce demand for large-scale renewable energy projects that have already won approval.
Other Xcel Energy critics worry Colorado Democrats might not examine their own role in propping up monopolies— and driving up energy prices.
Jon Caldara, the president of the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute, said the committee shouldn’t neglect the role of state laws, like renewable energy standards.
“Legislature, investigate yourselves,” Caldara said
Statehouse Democrats have expanded laws to require utility companies to shift from fossil fuels to get more of their power from wind and solar, including a bill codifying Xcel Energy’s goal to provide 100 percent carbon-free electricity in Colorado by 2050.
Caldara wants voters to weigh in on another approach to reign in power and gas companies. Last year, he pushed for a ballot initiative to require investor-owned utilities to return 5 percent of their profits to Colorado ratepayers.
Caldara acknowledges his organization is partially financed by fossil fuel interests. He dropped the ballot bid due to the high cost of collecting signatures, which he says could have been avoided if those companies contributed more to the effort. “If they were smart, they’d really fund us,” he said.
He now plans to try to get a similar measure before voters in 2024.