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Xcel hearing wraps up with combative consumer advocate

BISMARCK -- A feisty consumer advocate sparred with Xcel Energy's lawyers in the final day of the company's electric rate hearing Wednesday, calling parts of Xcel's case "patently wrong," "inappropriate," ludicrous" and "ridiculous."

Charles King of the Washington, D.C., consulting firm Snavely King even sparred with Xcel lawyer Michael Bradley on whether North Dakota has fewer trees than Minnesota and at times began his responses to Bradley with, "Oh, come on!"

The North Dakota Public Service Commission is considering Xcel Energy's request for a 14 percent increase in rates, its first in 15 years. The hearing began Monday in the Capitol. Before the hearing, another consultant, Michael Majoros, said the company should have to decrease rates instead of getting an increase, but testified Tuesday he had more information and now believed it is entitled to an increase of about 3.5 percent.

Commission President Susan Wefald said after the hearing ended Wednesday the three-member commission would begin discussing the case within two or three weeks after lawyers in the case file their post-hearing briefs. Lawyers were meeting after the hearing to set a schedule for briefs.

David Sederquist, a senior consultant for Xcel at its Fargo office, said Wednesday that Xcel appreciates the PSC's "thoughtful questions" and is hopeful of "a reasonable outcome."

But, he said, "Certain proposals put forth by the (PSC) staff's consultants depart from time-tested rate-making practices and we believe they would ultimately be harmful to our customers."

Xcel serves about 87,000 North Dakota customers, including in Fargo, Grand Forks and Minot. It is the largest electric utility in the state but owns no electricity generation in the state, a situation that is playing a significant role in the case.

King argued that Xcel's recent projects in Minnesota were unjustifiably expensive and now are to be charged to North Dakotans.

"It's all a done deal and now the bill is being put to the North Dakota ratepayers," he said.

King said Xcel's North Dakota customers are being asked to pay for Xcel's electric generation facilities in Minnesota that were built or improved because "Minnesota put a gun to the company's head" and forced it to spend money on a Minnesota wind farm, a transmission line to serve it and emission reductions at other plants.

He also said Xcel agreed to new Minnesota laws in order to keep one of its two nuclear plants, at Prairie Island.

"The price to pay to keep Prairie Island was all this wind energy in Minnesota," King said. Minnesota has no areas with the same quality of wind energy as the best areas of North Dakota, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

King and Cramer both noted that the PSC has nothing to prove in the case.

"The burden is not on the people to prove the company is not entitled to an increase, but on the company to prove that it is," Cramer said as the hearing ended.

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