A stronger utility consumer advocate and more transparency for utility customers

The 2021 Colorado General Assembly took major steps forward in protecting utility customers and our planet. HB21-1131 will result in better transparency and more open and accountable governing practices for members of utility cooperatives and SB21-103 reauthorizes and strengthens Colorado’s Utility Consumer Advocate. 

Gas_meter_indicator credit Wikimedia Commons, RadRafe Photographer, Public Domain

You can’t shop around for a utility. 

Where you live determines who you have to pay for power. It also determines how much you pay and whether your utility is working to ensure the energy you get warms your house, not our planet. 

In 2021, Colorado legislators stepped up and strengthened the protections for utility consumers like you and me to get fair prices without the pollution.

Here in Colorado, there are dozens of utilities across the state. And they all come in different shapes and sizes.

Some are municipally owned and operated like the utility in Colorado Springs. Many are electric cooperatives, owned by the customers it provides energy to and governed by an elected board made up of those customer owners. A few are “investor-owned” — entities like Black Hills and Xcel Energy — that are allowed to make a profit on the kilowatts they sell you. 


A renewed Utility Consumer Advocate

Investor-owned utilities provide energy to about half of Colorado and are regulated by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission (PUC). That means if Xcel Energy wants to raise rates or build new power plants (wind or coal), they need to get permission from the PUC. 

Consumers need a voice at the PUC. The decisions made by the PUC have huge impacts on the rates we pay to light and heat our homes as well as whether the energy we get is endangering our health and the environment. 

Proceedings before the PUC are complicated to say the least requiring incredible levels of technical expertise and in-depth legal knowledge. While the utilities have the resources to ensure their voice and position is heard, consumers and ratepayers like you and me would not without a consumer advocate. 

One of CoPIRG’s first accomplishments decades ago was to successfully advocate for the creation of a consumer watchdog, the Office of Consumer Counsel (OCC), that represents consumers in the cases that go before the PUC. They bring the technical and legal expertise to ask the tough questions and drill down into the proposals that impact our future. 

The OCC is effective at protecting utility consumers. Over the last 30 years, the OCC has saved consumers $1.7 billion – with average annual consumer savings of $113 million over the last five years. The OCC has a cost/benefit ratio of 63:1.

Here in Colorado, even the most effective entities like the OCC have to go through a reauthorization process every few years. It’s called a sunset review. 

In 2021, Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, Senator Faith Winter, and House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar led the charge to ensure the OCC was not only reauthorized but strengthened (and gave it a new name – Colorado’s Utility Consumer Advocate).  

One of the ways the OCC was strengthened was by ensuring their advocacy for consumers takes into account the cost of our energy decisions on our health and the planet. 

For example, Colorado has ambitious but necessary goals to tackle climate change and cut pollution. We’re not going to hit those goals without switching to renewable energy and transitioning away from fossil fuel vehicles to cleaner, electric-powered vehicles fueled by our electricity grid. 

One example of how this new mandate impacts all of us – the OCC is squarely in the middle of our transition to a 100% electric vehicle future, watchdogging proposals from Xcel Energy and Black Hills to ensure our transition to cleaner transportation is done swiftly and responsibly, and the cost savings flow to utility customers not to unnecessary profits for utilities.   

The OCC’s ability to watchdog utility proposals had to be protected from a late-session bill, HB21-1324, which originally included a provision that excluded the OCC from digging into the benefits and costs for ratepayers of energy projects that were defined as “innovative.” CoPIRG helped raise the alarm to ensure that consumers did not lose out on having the OCC watchdog even these innovative utility proposals.   


More transparency and strong governing standards for utilities across Colorado 

A majority of rural Coloradans receive electricity from publicly owned electric cooperatives. These co-ops are owned, funded and governed by the very member-owners who rely on them for their power.  

The decisions these electric cooperative boards make affect the lives, health, and pocketbooks of the Coloradans that own and rely on them for energy.

Unfortunately, across the state the rules electric co-ops have in place for making decisions — from how open and transparent public meetings are to the election processes and who has access to the basic information needed to run for your co-op board — have been inconsistent. 

Just like your local city council or board of trustees, elections need to be open and transparent for anyone who wants to run and governing decisions need to be made in ways that foster and encourage participation among its members.

Not only does this undermine participation but it can create roadblocks for the community to ensure their utility is moving toward a cleaner, healthier, more affordable energy future. 

In 2021, Senators Faith Winter and Don Coram, and Representatives Judy Amabile and Marc Catlin led the charge to pass HB21-1131 and create a set of basic good governance and transparency benchmarks for all electric cooperatives to meet. Some of these good governance rules extend to the entities that provide coops with power (sometimes called generation and transmission associations — Tri-State is an example –, which might sign a long-term power contract with local coops and wind up limiting efforts to move towards renewable energy).

Signed into law by Governor Polis, the bill brings clarity and modernizes election procedures to ensure all members can participate in board elections both by running and/or voting. It also increases transparency around compensation practices and conflict of interest policies for board members, public meeting notices and minutes, rates and net metering requirements. 

As more Colorado utility customers call for more sustainable energy, both environmentally and economically, these policies will help ensure cleaner, affordable energy is a growing part of their future. 

While these good governance reforms were a big step forward, the legislature did miss an opportunity to fully empower Colorado’s Utility Consumer Advocate to watchdog its implementation. 

As I said earlier, the Utility Consumer Advocate (formerly OCC) has the expertise in the utility space that most consumers lack but their mandate is mostly limited to the PUC. They could serve a similar watchdog role around rural coops as they do at the PUC to ensure proper implementation of these good governance measures. 

After last February’s extreme cold and the surcharges that were passed on to rural Coloradans, there may also be a role for the Utility Consumer Advocate to be helpful in protecting western slope consumers from price spikes.     

This year we can celebrate some major steps forward in Colorado to reauthorize and strengthen consumer protections in the utility space and help people secure a cleaner energy future for their communities. As we look to the future, we should be aware that additional measures may help maximize the benefits that can come from open, transparent utility decisions and an empowered voice for consumers in more of the spaces where energy decisions are made.  


Danny Katz

Executive Director, CoPIRG

Danny has been the director of CoPIRG for over a decade. Danny co-authored a groundbreaking report on the state’s transit, walking and biking needs and is a co-author of the annual “State of Recycling” report. He also helped write a 2016 Denver initiative to create a public matching campaign finance program and led the early effort to eliminate predatory payday loans in Colorado. Danny serves on the Colorado Department of Transportation's (CDOT) Efficiency and Accountability Committee, CDOT's Transit and Rail Advisory Committee, RTD's Reimagine Advisory Committee, the Denver Moves Everyone Think Tank, and the I-70 Collaborative Effort. Danny lobbies federal, state and local elected officials on transportation electrification, multimodal transportation, zero waste, consumer protection and public health issues. He appears frequently in local media outlets and is active in a number of coalitions. He resides in Denver with his family, where he enjoys biking and skiing, the neighborhood food scene and raising chickens.