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Questions about Baker’s ability to serve on the PUC

Conventional wisdom in energy policy circles says that Governor John Hickenlooper will re-appoint current Public Utilities Commissioner Matt Baker to another four-year term on the PUC. His State Senate confirmation will be a mere formality, but it shouldn’t be.

Serious questions linger about his lack of honesty regarding energy costs and his ability to be an independent regulator.

Rather than regulate Colorado’s investor-owned utilities, the environmental activist-turned-regulator Baker is more interested in advancing his green energy agenda to the detriment of Colorado ratepayers. He and former PUC Chairman Ron Binz (whose own re-appointment was derailed with an ethics violation after which he withdrew his name for consideration) were instrumental in negotiating the language of HB 1365, a senseless fuel-switching bill and the “crown jewel” of Bill Ritter’s New Energy Economy that will cost ratepayers more than $1 billion.

After a stint at Colorado Public Interest Research Group (CoPIRG), Baker subsequently helmed the advocacy group Environment Colorado from 2003 until his elevation by Ritter to the PUC in 2008. During his tenure he led the campaign for 2004’s Amendment 37 requiring utilities to implement renewable energy standards. Ritter lauded the “architect” of the – now – 30 percent renewable energy standard as a “champion of Colorado’s environment and consumer rights.”

But Baker’s love affair with renewable energy prevents him from being objective about Colorado energy policy and thus not honest with the people he is charged with serving – eroding consumer rights and driving up energy costs with regulatory sleight of hand.

In a recent op-ed in RenewablesBiz.com, Baker gushes over the advancement of his green agenda. He repeats one the biggest renewable falsehoods green activists have perpetuated on Colorado ratepayers: Colorado’s largest utility Xcel Energy can acquire 30 percent of its power from expensive renewable sources while keeping a cap on electric rates.

Most ratepayers believe that means that the renewable energy mandate – energy from sources such as wind and solar – will only cost them an additional two percent on their electric bill. “While Colorado’s largest utility, Xcel Energy, has exceeded its goals, it has stayed within the 2 percent cap set by the legislature,” says Baker.

It is true Xcel stayed within the two percent rate cap line item labeled the Renewable Electric Standard Adjustment (RESA) on customers’ electric bills. But it is not true that the RESA represents the real, total cost of renewable energy to Xcel ratepayers, and Bakers knows it.

Two years ago in the “Great Green Deception,” the Independence Institute exposed how the PUC allows Xcel to hide the real cost of renewable energy by utilizing two line items on a ratepayer’s bill.  Customers pay two percent of their bill through RESA, but the balance of the total cost of renewable energy is captured through another fund – the Electric Commodity Adjustment (ECA) – that is likely the second largest line item cost.

The practice continues today as Xcel’s Robin Kittel explained in direct testimony to the PUC regarding its 2012 Renewable Energy Standard Compliance Plan. According to Kittel, Xcel recovers the cost of renewable energy “through a combination of the RESA and ECA.”

The ECA is NOT subject to the legislatively mandated two percent rate cap. The Public Utility Commission staff’s William Dalton acknowledged the PUC’s role in confusing the public about the rate cap in his September 2009 testimony before the commission:

“This could be a point of confusion to ratepayers and other interested parties…The costs above the retail rate impact limit are recovered through other Commission approved cost recovery mechanisms, primarily the ECA. [Emphasis ours] Once the renewable energy resource cost recovery is allocated to the ECA, cost recovery of these resources is no longer subject to retail rate impact criteria or cost cap.”

According to Xcel’s 2012 Renewable Energy Compliance Plan, ECA costs were $35,280,340 in 2011, but will explode by more than 1000 percent to $354,819,209 in 2021 (thanks also to Colorado’s $20 per ton “phantom carbon tax”). Yet Xcel and Baker can claim to be within the two percent rate cap for the RESA.

It is easy to be angry with Xcel for all the cost shifting shenanigans, but the blame should be placed on lawmakers and PUC commissioners. At best Baker is being disingenuous with Colorado ratepayers. At worst, he is flat out lying about the real costs of renewable energy in order to advance his own personal agenda.

Matt Baker’s re-appointment and confirmation should not be a rubber stamp. Colorado ratepayers deserve better.

Amy Oliver Cooke and Michael Sandoval co-authored this post.