By Trish Zornio
The Colorado Public Utilities Commission (PUC) recently approved a controversial proposal by Xcel Energy to revitalize natural gas pipelines in the west Denver metro area.
The new project will cost an estimated $32 million with Xcel customers footing the bill, despite concerns of the project being at odds with goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Construction of the new pipelines began in January and is expected to continue through fall 2023.
The new installation will include 1.6 miles of 12-inch-diameter natural gas lines along 14th Avenue, between Wadsworth and Sheridan boulevards, and 1.8 miles of 8- and 6-inch-diameter natural gas lines along Benton, Yates and Wolff streets, as well as 10th, Colfax and 16th avenues.
The new system will also service homes in the surrounding areas. The project is currently expected to primarily affect Denver residents located in District 1, as well as some residents located in District 3.
However, after Denver City Council redistricting takes effect in July, much of the affected area will become District 3. Contacted for her thoughts regarding the new construction, Councilwoman Amanda P. Sandoval of District 1 was unwilling to say whether or not she supported the development.
“I have never received a briefing from Xcel on this project so (I do) not feel I have adequate information or any information to reflect and respond to your questions,” Sandoval replied.
Denver City Council President Jaime Torres of District 3, who will represent the bulk of the project region after redistricting takes effect, also stated she had not yet been briefed on the project. Torres added that it is not standard for council members to be automatically notified by the PUC of proposals, even if those projects would take place within their districts.
A spokesperson for Xcel reiterated the company’s long-standing community engagement, noting that the project had been discussed at the PUC since at least 2021.
“Before investing in any major project, we meet regularly with community leaders, community associations and customers to outline project (needs) and details,” Xcel responded. “We listen to feedback, respond to questions, and work to proceed with the best possible project. In this case, we did all of these things.”
Xcel representatives further stated that they had reached out to Denver council members regarding the natural gas expansion in the Sloan’s Lake area, but were unable to offer details about who they had spoken to or any proof of contact, including for Sandoval and Torres.
The natural gas expansion has exacerbated tensions between groups working to uphold climate change goals set by the city and state and Xcel’s arguments of the pipeline expansion being critical to meet growing demand in the area under extreme weather conditions. Xcel has cited that up to 6,000 customers in the area could lose service without the expansion.
But some experts took issue with the method of analysis used by Xcel, countering that the company failed to adequately involve local stakeholders or consider non-pipeline alternatives. They also took issue with the exorbitant cost, Xcel’s ability to accurately predict regional growth, and the state’s projected natural gas and hydrogen use that reflected later concerns about costly stranded assets.
Justin Brant, co-director of the Utility Program at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, was one expert who testified at the PUC in opposition to the project.
“Major gas capacity expansion projects, such as this project proposed by (Xcel), should receive significant scrutiny from the commission to ensure that the utility explored all viable alternatives. This is necessary to ensure that we are not encouraging continued reliance on natural gas when the state must move aggressively to electrify end uses that use gas over the next 28 years,” Brant testified.
A review of publicly available PUC hearing videos revealed commissioners heavily debated the ultimate approval of the project. In the end, Xcel’s argument that the expansion was necessary to prevent energy delivery shortage proved successful, with commissioners noting they felt their hands were tied. But despite the outcome, Brant is optimistic about future energy collaborations.
“I’m hopeful,” Brandt said. “We spent a lot of work to make the rules more rigorous to see a better analysis of non-pipeline options, and I’m hopeful that we’ll see better results moving forward.”