People to Watch 2023: Robert Kenney, Power Broker

Xcel Energy
No subject is likely to get Denver residents hotter than the whopping size of their utility bills. Feeling the heat is Robert Kenney, who became president of Xcel Energy-Colorado in June.

Kenney was previously with Pacific Gas and Electric in California, where he oversaw that company’s efforts to work with the California Public Utilities Commission; he'd served as chair of the Missouri Public Service Commission before that. As a result, he's well positioned to navigate the regulatory landscape in Colorado, where the Colorado Public Utilities Commission oversees Xcel’s activity.

Although the commission has indicated it may start cracking down on the power company's asks, for the most part Xcel has met with success when going for rate increases or approval of other projects this year. But that was before rising utility bills really gobsmacked this state's residents over the past month. And the deep freeze of December is likely to send them soaring higher, making residents even hotter.

Xcel recognizes that rising natural gas prices are impacting customers, particularly vulnerable customers, Kenney told Westword in October. He said that the company encourages people struggling with their bills to reach out to Xcel to work out a payment plan or get connected to the state's Low-income Energy Assistance Program; he also pointed to Xcel’s tips on how to minimize energy usage in order to keep bills low.

Still, many consumers wonder why those tips suggest that they alter their behavior, when the company has a near-monopoly on energy in this state and could be making its own changes, starting with cutting down on its own spending and sharing the savings.

Critics of Xcel's behavior range from the Office of the Utility Consumer Advocate, which argues that Xcel could cut its spending rather than charge customers for costs that could be better controlled, to environmental advocates, who argue that Xcel's work will impede the state's progress in reaching its climate goals.

In 2019, the Colorado Legislature passed a bill designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 90 percent by 2050. Colorado also has a greenhouse gas road map that calls for decarbonization of the building sector by that date. Yet in 2022, Xcel successfully lobbied the PUC to expand its gas system. In 2021, legislators passed a clean heat plan law that will require utilities, including Xcel, to file clean heat plans that will create a 4 percent reduction below 2015 greenhouse gas emission levels by 2025 and 22 percent below 2015 greenhouse gas emission levels by 2030; the PUC is now formalizing rules for that process, which consumers worry could carry more costs that they'll have to shoulder.

“One of my goals is to strengthen and deepen our relationships with our communities, and to make sure that our story is being told,” Kenney told us. “In addition to really leading the clean-energy transition — the work that we're doing to reduce methane emissions and bringing more renewables on the system — we’re also a significant source of good-paying jobs.”

And a source of bills that are taking up a good portion of the paychecks in this state.

Other people to watch in 2023:

"Jami Duffy, Leader of the Band"
"Kourtny Garrett, Downtown Defender"
"Daniel and Luis Ramirez, Hosts With the Most"
"Nga Vương-Sandoval, Welcome Committee"
"Michael Gadlin, Arts Ambassador"
"Penelope Wong, Top Shef"
"Cole Chandler, Speaker for the House"
"Michael Spencer: Anchor Man"
"Scott Gilmore, Playground King"
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Catie Cheshire is a staff writer at Westword. After getting her undergraduate degree at Regis University, she went to Arizona State University for a master's degree. She missed everything about Denver -- from the less-intense sun to the food, the scenery and even the bus system. Now she's reunited with Denver and writing news for Westword.
Contact: Catie Cheshire

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