Connie Howard never worried about how much the Foothills Animal Shelter in Golden spent to keep its cats and dogs warm.
Then she saw the gas bill for February.
The tab was for more than $21,000, according to the monthly WoodRiver Energy invoice — seven times higher than the shelter’s typical bill, said Howard, its executive director.
State regulators continue to investigate how utilities spent so much money on natural gas during a cold snap over President’s Day weekend. The freezing weather knocked out the power grid in Texas and led millions of people to lose power across the country, sparking a bidding war for natural gas that skyrocketed prices.
Colorado’s utilities had to pay astronomical costs for natural gas over the four-day period. Though there weren’t any major outages in the state, many customers and businesses like Foothills Animal Shelter are now stuck with the bill.
“I can't take the risk of having this kind of huge spike,” Howard said earlier in March. “It's blown my budget for, certainly for our gas for the year.”
Howard’s main concern is similar to one brought up by members of the state’s Public Utilities Commission: WoodRiver, she said, never contacted her to warn about the surge in natural gas prices and to consider using less energy.
Had she known, she could have moved the animals to fewer rooms, closed the shelter’s offices and shut down the heated garage. Instead, the shelter used nearly $16,000 worth of gas in four days, according to WoodRiver’s usage report.
“Never even knowing that this was a possibility was what really took me by surprise,” Howard said.
WoodRiver President Marc Peter said he didn’t know what messages the company sent its customers over the weekend, and that it was also blindsided by the surge in natural gas prices. The company pays Xcel Energy to transport its gas, according to a Xcel spokeswoman.
“In real time things happen very quickly,” Peter said. “We had no idea that prices were going to do anything like this until that Friday morning.”
Foothills Animal Shelter was not an interruptible customer, meaning WoodRiver could not cut off its service to conserve gas. The company could also be held liable if they ask customers to turn off their heat when it’s freezing out, Peter said.
“We provided the service to customers that we were contractually obligated to do,” he said. “We are going to take actions to make sure it never happens again for us.”
The Public Utilities Commission is also taking action. Commissioners said they would like to increase the number of people that can have interruptible service, expand storage for natural gas and for utilities to encourage customers to use less energy during extreme weather events.
“No longer can we consider that this is purely something that should be borne by the ratepayer,” Commissioner John C. Gavan said. “Being able to respond to extreme weather events is really going to be part of your cost of doing business.”
After CPR News contacted WoodRiver Energy, the company offered to cut Foothills Animal Shelter’s daily gas cost for February by 20 percent and split the bill over the rest of the year. Howard said she accepted the offer and will be on a fixed gas price until her contract ends next year.
She will have to dip into savings to pay for the bill, money she hoped to put toward a new van to pick up animals from other states.
“It's just so unfortunate that there was no proactive opportunity,” Howard said. “Maybe it wouldn't have changed the outcome, but it still would have been better to know in advance.”
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