Headaches and a $5.3K bill: Customers say Xcel making it difficult to disconnect from gas

After spending $40,000 to electrify her Boulder home, which included installing heat pumps, K.K. DuVivier was ready to disconnect from natural gas and have her meter turned off. Then she got the bill to flip the switch: $5,333.

The bill marked due Dec. 12 arrived after what DuVivier described as frustrating rounds of calls and emails as she tried to stop the gas service she no longer needs from Xcel Energy. The bill didn’t say why she owed more than $5,000.

When she contacted Xcel again, DuVivier got an email saying the bill was for demolishing and removing her gas line, something she had told the company wasn’t necessary.

The latest development is a bill with a $5,333 credit and a zero balance. Again, no explanation. She still hasn’t heard when or if Xcel will turn off her gas meter and stop the monthly service charges.

“I’m a lawyer and I’m committed to this and I’m having to struggle,” DuVivier said.

The University of Denver law professor, who specializes in environmental and energy law, worries that efforts to electrify homes and businesses will run into roadblocks if the process to disconnect from natural gas isn’t made more user-friendly. She said the forms she had to fill out didn’t address her situation: a customer who wanted the gas off but wasn’t vacating her house.

The state, utilities and several local governments have goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions contributed by buildings. Commercial and residential buildings accounted for up to 30% of the total heat-trapping emissions in the U.S. in 2021, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

A 2021 state law targets the building sector’s impact on emissions that cause climate change. The law, among the first of its kind in the country, requires natural gas providers in Colorado with more than 90,000 customers to use more “clean” energy and other methods to decrease the greenhouse gas emissions from their distribution systems.

Xcel Energy, which has 1.5 million natural gas customers in Colorado, was the first utility in the country to submit a clean heat plan. The Colorado Public Utilities Commission is considering the proposal now.

“K.K.’s issue was not a new one for me,” said Carolyn Elam, sustainability senior manager for the city of Boulder.

Elam has heard from a few residents with problems similar to DuVivier’s, while other people have had little or no problem. She said it seems to vary depending on the age of the house and gas infrastructure. Older homes might not have a built-in means to disconnect from the main line.

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“I had some discussions with Xcel about why they can’t just remove the meter and put a cap on the line at the home,” Elam said.

The company told Elam a concern is if the line stays in place and the gas meter is removed, Xcel couldn’t easily monitor for leaks from the line. Elam said the options have been to leave the meter on site even if natural gas isn’t being used or have crews remove the line.

“In the city’s opinion and in my opinion, presenting customers with the choice between continuing to have to pay for the gas meter for service they don’t want or spending thousands of dollars to get that service disconnected is unreasonable,” Elam said.

The city of Boulder shared its concerns with legislators writing a bill on utility regulations. The 2023 law prohibits an investor-owned utility like Xcel from penalizing a customer or charging a fee if the customer voluntarily halts gas service. A utility can’t pass on the costs of cutting service to individual customers.

Costs associated with terminating the service will be added to the utility’s rate base, which spreads the cost across all the customers in its territory. Xcel is in the process of updating its rate structure to make the change.

“Beginning February 1, we will no longer charge individual customers for the cost of disconnecting from our natural gas system,” Xcel Energy spokesman Tyler Bryant said in an email.

Elam said government officials acknowledge that people who can’t afford the upfront costs of going all-electric could end up bearing a bigger share of the costs for the gas system as others quit using gas. She said Boulder and other communities are implementing programs aimed at lower-income households, small businesses and nonprofits that want to electrify.

Xcel Energy doesn’t charge penalties or fees to disconnect gas service, but has charged for associated costs. Bryant said most of the requests come from developers who want to temporarily disconnect from the system because of demolition or construction and reconnect in the future.

“Other requests, such as customers wishing to permanently disconnect from the natural gas system and fully electrify their homes, are rare,” Bryant said.

However, Xcel expects those kinds of requests to increase with the change in the law and greater local, state and federal incentives for going electric. Bryant said DuVivier received a zeroed-out invoice for permanently disconnecting from the gas system and won’t be responsible for the service charge.

And, Bryant added, Xcel will update its forms and applications to include customers who want to disconnect from natural gas because they are electrifying a building.

The gas meter at the home of KK DuVivier in Boulder on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

Unhooking from the system

The new applications can’t come soon enough for Anna McDevitt. She just electrified her Denver home, had the gas turned off and called Xcel the third week in January about getting the gas meter removed. A week later, she was “still nowhere.”

“I kept getting referred to different people,” McDevitt said. “They weren’t sure if they could disconnect me. One person wasn’t sure if in Colorado they were allowed to remove the meter from someone’s house.”

McDevitt was armed with more facts about what could and couldn’t be done than the average caller to customer service. She is the deputy director of the Sierra Club’s building electrification campaign.

“It seems like there’s just not really a great process for this yet,” said McDevitt.

She noted that the application to lock her gas meter said Xcel won’t disconnect the service if a premise is occupied.

McDevitt wants to make sure her meter is turned off so she’s no longer paying for gas she’s not getting. Then she wants the gas line removed so she doesn’t have to worry about potential mishaps or explosions. She doesn’t want to pay several thousand dollars to have the line removed.

“It makes me wonder how many people are out there who have electrified their homes and are still paying a  monthly fee to be on Xcel’s gas system because there’s not a standardized process,” McDevitt said. “I think this a problem that we need to solve sooner rather than later and by we, I mean Xcel.”

The law that now prohibits utilities from billing customers for the costs of getting off gas also allows the PUC to write rules for voluntary disconnections. Based on comments in a hearing last fall, the PUC has scheduled a workshop Feb. 5 on ways to improve Xcel’s disconnection process and Feb. 12 on capacity constraints on Xcel’s electric system that customers say are holding up new service or service upgrades.

Xcel has 1.6 million electric customers in Colorado.

When Steve Stevens contacted Xcel Energy about shutting off his natural gas, he said it took a few months to persuade the utility to do it. He began working in 2000 to make his home in Golden energy efficient.

About six years ago, with all the improvements, including the addition of heat pumps, Stevens was no longer using natural gas.

“I called up Xcel and they said you can’t get along without gas, especially in a 45-year-old home,” Stevens recalled. “One thing I said was ‘If I weren’t paying my gas bill, you’d come out and do a disconnect. Do I have to not pay my gas bill to get you to come and do the disconnect?’ ”

That seemed to persuade Xcel that he was serious about unhooking from the gas system, Stevens said. The gas to his house was shut off in 2018.

Stevens said he’s never regretted his decision. He wants to do what he can to help combat climate change. He said he wants his grandkids to have a liveable world.

“Us old folks in our 70s or 80s, we have a duty to do everything we can to save a liveable world for the grandkids” and others, Stevens said.

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