By Faith Miller
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left many people without a reliable source of income as businesses closed to prevent the spread of the virus, Colorado Springs Utilities announced March 17 it would not disconnect services through at least March 30.
Then, after Gov. Jared Polis asked Colorado utilities to suspend disconnections through April 30, CSU extended its timeline.
“We have agreed to support this request to ease the financial burdens on our customers, especially knowing many may be temporarily out of work,” CSU spokesperson Amy Trinidad said in an email March 20.
Trinidad said the new “skip your payment” program allows customers to create a plan for paying a missed bill in future months. The bill doesn’t just disappear — customers are asked to call CSU if they don’t expect to be able to pay right away, so they can work out how they will pay it later.
The Utilities Board of Directors also gave preliminary approval March 18 to implement a planned rate decrease that will save the average residential customer around $2.50 a month on their electricity bill, starting April 1. City Council approved the decrease during its meeting March 24.
The public utility adjusts rates quarterly based on the prices of energy resources such as coal and natural gas. The electricity rate reduction of around 2.9 percent for residential customers, 3.9 percent for commercial customers and 4.6 percent for industrial customers is based on economic conditions.
“We’ve never seen natural gas prices this low, I don’t think,” Utilities Board member and City Councilor Andy Pico remarked at the March 18 meeting. “Certainly not in winter, or early spring.”
Trinidad later confirmed that the reductions are mostly based on lower natural gas prices. As a public utility, CSU passes fuel costs directly on to its customers.
Even with more people working from home, CSU doesn’t expect a significant increase in residential energy use.
“Use typically declines this time of year,” Trinidad explained. “Natural light is increasing and use of heating and cooling systems usually declines with more favorable outdoor temperatures.”
And with businesses and restaurants closed, any increase in residential demand would likely be offset by lower commercial use.
However, Trinidad said residential water use could increase up to 40 percent with people working remotely and increasing the amount of water they use to clean and sanitize their homes.
Water bills are split into three tiers, with a big jump in cost from tier one to tier two. CSU doesn’t think the increased water use will make customers jump up a tier.
“We expect most residential customers to remain in tier one, as at this time of year customers aren’t increasing water use for irrigation,” Trinidad said.
COVID-19’s strain on CSU’s human and financial resources means the utility will have to decide which projects to prioritize over the next few weeks, she added: “It’s definitely not business as usual, so we need to plan accordingly.”
For now, Trinidad said, CSU is sticking to the planned timeline for creating a new Energy Integrated Resource Plan, the roadmap for the next five years — which could include shifting to more renewable energy, and potentially decommissioning the Martin Drake Power Plant sooner than scheduled.
CSU is still planning on sending a survey to customers in the first part of April to gather input about the relationship between cost and environmental impacts, and to help establish carbon reduction goals beyond state requirements, Trinidad said. According to the current timeline, the Utilities Board will be presented with a recommended energy portfolio in early summer.
At the March 18 Utilities Board meeting, the strangeness of the times was on stark display, as a table was sanitized in between presenters, and two councilors — Bill Murray and Richard Skorman — phoned in remotely to the meeting.
“I’m really concerned about my community, District 4, because we have finally started to make some headway in the city and started to level the playing field,” said Councilor Yolanda Avila, who represents Southeast Colorado Springs. She expressed the need for city councilors to serve as role models for the larger community, following social distancing recommendations to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Skorman encouraged his fellow councilors to support restaurants and shops forced to downsize, mentioning that he has had to lay off employees from his own business and look for new ways to stay viable.
“We’re trying to remake ourselves, and there’s a lot of other small businesses out there that are in the same boat,” Skorman said.