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After spate of Fargo power outages, Xcel lays out options for boosting N.D. reliability

BISMARCK - Xcel Energy officials on Wednesday outlined millions of dollars in options for improving electric service in North Dakota while assuring state regulators that its Fargo system is fundamentally sound despite a recent rash of power outages.

 

BISMARCK – Xcel Energy officials on Wednesday outlined millions of dollars in options for improving electric service in North Dakota while assuring state regulators that its Fargo system is fundamentally sound despite a recent rash of power outages.

Company officials met with the state Public Service Commission for an informal hearing on reliability after Xcel experienced eight outages in Fargo between April 22 and May 13, affecting more than 24,000 customers.

Commissioner Brian Kalk said he feels Xcel is committed to reliability, but Fargo continues to underperform compared to its systems in Minot and Grand Forks.

“It’s almost like there’s gremlins in the Fargo system, because I know that you’ve worked hard on it,” he said.  

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Xcel blamed two of the eight outages on faults in old underground cable near downtown Fargo, in one case resulting in nearly 1,800 customers going more than four hours without power on April 26. Crews from Fargo, Grand Forks, Minot and St. Paul worked 10 days straight to replace 6,600 feet of cable, wrapping up the work on Sunday, company officials said.

“We take this spate of outages very seriously,” Xcel regional vice president Laura McCarten said, adding the company has worked hard to increase reliability. “We think we’ve moved the needle on that.”

Xcel officials said they see no systemic problems with the Fargo system, pointing out that the other six outages had various causes, including lightning, an animal, a tree branch and a pole fire.

They noted that Xcel’s North Dakota customers experienced the fewest minutes of outages among the eight states served by the investor-owned utility, at 71.6 minutes annually from 2011-2015, compared with 97 minutes in South Dakota and 98.7 minutes in Minnesota.

“Unfortunately, some of these areas go on a bad streak like this and … then you won’t see something for a very, very long time,” said Kelly Bloch, regional vice president of distribution operations for Xcel. “The Fargo system has historically been very reliable. I don’t believe that it is all crumbling and falling apart instantaneously … but we want to make sure that’s not the case.”

Xcel officials laid out options that include accelerating its schedule to replace the type of unjacketed cable that faulted in Fargo by 2018 at a cost of $4 million, retrofitting certain utility poles to make them less prone to fire and installing more devices that automatically reroute power from unaffected areas during outages.

Commissioners said Xcel would likely have to front the costs and seek to recover them from customers later, as the company is barred from seeking a rate increase until 2018.

Xcel has replaced about 40 percent of the unjacketed cable statewide since its last rate case agreement in 2012. Of the 60 percent remaining, about half of it is in Fargo, company officials said, noting underground cable is the top cause of outages.

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“Let’s get it done. We know this is causing trouble,” PSC chairwoman Julie Fedorchak said.

Commissioners will meet with Xcel officials again next month to refine their plans.

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