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After five outages in two weeks, Xcel assures PSC of efforts to improve Fargo reliability

BISMARCK – Xcel Energy assured North Dakota regulators Thursday that it’s taking steps to improve reliability for Fargo customers after five power outages in the past two weeks and paying out nearly $400,000 in credits to customers for failing to meet performance targets set in 2012.

Minneapolis-based Xcel blamed failures in the same underground cable for outages Sunday and Monday that affected about 4,600 Fargo customers, some for nearly two hours.

A squirrel was the suspected cause of a nearly three-hour outage that affected 3,350 customers on April 22, while a lightning strike left more than 2,200 customers in the dark for 90 minutes on April 25.

The longest outage happened April 26, when an overhead feeder line came into contact with a tree, affecting 3,956 customers – nearly 1,800 of whom went without power for more than four hours.

Xcel informed the state’s Public Service Commission this week that it is completely replacing the segment of buried cable near downtown Fargo blamed for this week’s outages and will likely accelerate its schedule for replacing all of its unjacketed underground cable.

The company also is going outside of its normal schedule to conduct a complete infrared scan of all above-ground feeders in Fargo next week to identify weak spots.

Under a reliability performance plan that Xcel agreed to as part of a rate case in 2012, it also has accelerated its tree-trimming cycle from about 4½ to four years, hired a full-time electrical engineer for the Fargo area and installed switches that automatically reroute power to affected areas.

“I know that the company has its full attention focused on this,” PSC chairwoman Julie Fedorchak said Thursday after meeting with Mark Nisbet, Xcel’s manager for North Dakota.

Just a few hours after the PSC meeting, another power outage affected nearly 7,000 customers in north Fargo as temperatures hit 90 degrees. Fedorchak called it “a real concern.”

“It certainly underscores the importance of taking a closer look at what’s happening with Xcel’s system in Fargo, what’s causing the outages, and what are the  best steps to be taken to fix the problems and restore reliability and stability in the system as quickly as possible,” she said.

The PSC had already scheduled an informal hearing for 1:30 p.m. May 18 to discuss Xcel’s electric reliability.

The 2012 agreement requires Xcel to provide a $50 bill credit to customers who experience more than three power outages lasting 5 minutes or longer in a calendar year.

Xcel credited $84,050 to 1,681 customers for multiple outages in 2013 and $24,650 to 489 customers for 2014. This month, the company will credit $284,100 to 5,682 customers in Fargo and Grand Forks for outages on just two feeder lines in 2015.

Nisbet said Xcel hasn’t hit the threshold this year for having to pay customer credits, as the recent outages affected different customers in Fargo.

“We would hope to stem that tide,” he said.

Xcel can collect incentives of up to $1.5 million from its North Dakota customers if it holds the average annual outage time per customer to 57 minutes or less, not including major event days such as storms. But the company has yet to meet the threshold, missing it by just six seconds in 2014.

Fedorchak said Xcel is the only one of the state’s three major utilities with a reliability performance plan, calling it “one of the more creative ways we’ve been trying to work with the company to address this problem.”

Xcel operates in eight states and serves more than 94,000 customers in North Dakota, including Fargo, Grand Forks and Minot.

Fedorchak said Xcel’s track record of outages in North Dakota has been no worse – and in some years better – than those of Montana-Dakota Utilities Co. and Otter Tail Power Co.

Still, Commissioner Brian Kalk said it’s been “perplexing” that the Fargo system hasn’t performed as well as those in the other two cities, which is why additional measures have been ordered.

Nisbet said Xcel is “seeing some real value” in the automatic switches and may install more in Fargo, where they cover about half the system, and possibly some in Grand Forks and Minot.

If not for a battery failure, the switches would have prevented 1,164 customers from sustained outages Sunday and Monday, according to Xcel.

“This is a learning curve for the company,” Fedorchak said.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.

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