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Few turn out for Xcel rate increase session

BISMARCK -- Fargo, Grand Forks and Minot customers of Xcel Energy got to hear each others' worries about a proposed electric rate increase and the company's response Friday during public input about the rate hike.

Xcel has applied for a 14 percent rate increase for North Dakota customers.

The state Public Service Commission is considering the increase and sponsored public input sessions in Fargo, Grand Forks, Minot and Bismarck on Friday. A formal hearing is tentatively set for late June.

The PSC already approved an interim 11.5 percent increase that went into effect Feb. 5.

Ruth Lewis of Fargo, who uses electric heat in her home, said she found the company's explanation of the increase "misleading," and wondered if she wasn't actually going to see a 21- to 24-percent increase.

Already, she said, her bills are higher while her use is lower.

Company official David Sederquist, who presented Xcel's information, recommended someone from the company meet with Lewis to see what the explanation might be.

He said afterward that Lewis may already have received a bill with the interim increase and is computing a 14 percent increase on top of that.

Lewis is also worried about a neighbor who, to save on his Xcel bill, has lowered his thermostat to 64 degrees, closed off most of the rooms in his house and retreated to one room with a space heater.

"He's living in his bedroom," she said.

An unidentified woman in Minot said she's concerned about this increase coming "when the economy is so bad right now....And it isn't just electricity. It's everything. Where are people going to get (the money) from?"

Sederquist said it seems high because the company has not had a rate increase since 1992. In fact, he said, Xcel's electric rates were lower last year than any other utility in a seven state region including North Dakota. Since 2001, Xcel has had the lowest price in the region four of those years and was fourth, fifth and ninth the other years.

Sederquist said the rate increase is necessary because of upgrades to power plants and investments in transmission lines. The company will also soon introduce new energy saving incentives for North Dakota customers, including greatly reduced prices for an energy audit.

In Grand Forks, Larry Zitzow of the University of North Dakota's Facility Department attended the session. He told Public Service Commissioner Kevin Cramer that UND is worried about what the increase will do to its budget and noted that three state universities are located in Xcel cities - UND, Minot State University and North Dakota State University.

Anyone who wants to formally intervene and become a party to the case has two weeks to apply to the PSC.

Janell Cole works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Dickinson Press.