Commission grills utilities about outages during deep freeze

During last month’s dangerously cold stretch of weather hundreds of people lost heat in a time when they needed it most.

Now, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission wants to know what went wrong.

The state’s five energy and three electric utilities answered to the Commission as to why there was a shortfall in service.

The Commission grilled the utilities Thursday about the severe winter weather and the impact on consumer services statewide.

During the polar vortex in Princeton, Minn., subzero temperatures plunged to the double digits.

To alleviate pressure on its system, in late January, Xcel Energy cut service to more than 150 residents, forcing residents like Andy Ekker and his family out of their home for more than a day.

 “It was 30-something below zero and it doesn’t take long, so it started to get cold in there really fast when the furnace went out and there was no other way to heat it,” said Andy Ekker, a Princeton-area resident.

Xcel provided residents with food, shelter and space heaters that Ekker says weren’t efficient enough to prevent the pipes in his home from freezing.

“That’s the frustration thing with these utilities,” he said. “It’s I can’t shop around. I mean mean, you’re stuck with the company you get and that’s it. And they have all the control and all the say.”

Now, the Public Utilities Commission is pressing energy companies to analyze what went wrong and correct it.

“The neighborhoods out here are just growing and growing,” Ekker said. “I mean, they have to be prepared for this to happen again. They can’t just cut people off like that with no warning and expect us to put up with it. I mean, we pay these utilities for a reason.”

The Commission will pose a notice with questions for the utilities to respond. Then, there will be another public hearing and discussion on how to prevent this from happening in the future.