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Dave Olson, Published September 09 2010

Agency to investigate Xcel power surge

North Dakota Public Service Commission members voted unanimously Wednesday to open a formal investigation into a power surge involving an Xcel Energy line that recently damaged appliances in about 20 homes in north Fargo.

Commissioner Brian Kalk said PSC officials already have a good idea of what happened on Aug. 27.

“It was a warm day, above 90 degrees,” Kalk said. “A lot of power going through that line, the line sagged and it arced.”

“The question will be,” he added: “Should the company have noticed these problems with the line before it became an issue?”

Kalk said PSC staff will look at both sides of the situation and provide the board with a recommendation.

If it is determined the company was at fault, hefty fines could be imposed, Kalk said.

He said PSC officials are still researching whether the agency can force the company to reimburse customers for damaged property if Xcel is found to be negligent.

“If it turns out that the company wasn’t negligent, that these things just kind of happen, that doesn’t mean we can’t ask the company to do other things,” Kalk said.

Xcel Energy said in a statement Wednesday that it will cooperate with the PSC investigation and continue its own investigation into the event.

“We are in that review process now, and believe it will provide useful information to guide any actions we need to take and to inform the commission’s investigation,” the Xcel statement said.

Xcel said last week that it did not feel the situation was one that warranted the company paying for damaged appliances.

However, the company said it had not ruled out the possibility.

Chris Schmit, who lives at 1622 7th St. N. in Fargo, said the power surge caused by the arcing line zapped the control board and thermostat on a furnace he purchased last year. He estimated it may cost $1,400 to fix.

Schmit, who also lost a garage door opener and a refrigerator, said he was glad to hear that the PSC is looking into the matter.

“It makes me feel a little bit better,” he said.

Xcel Energy’s estimated 80,000 customers in North Dakota represent about 4 percent of the power company’s business, Kalk said.

He said his impression of Xcel workers in North Dakota is that they are hard-working and do a great job.

“It just seems like the leadership of Xcel Energy in Minneapolis doesn’t have the same commitment to North Dakota as they do to other regions they serve,” Kalk said.

Xcel said Wednesday that it provides service in North Dakota that is “consistently as reliable as the other states we serve at rates that are among the lowest in the region.

“The way we have developed this level of reliability is by diagnosing problems as they occur and taking appropriate, prudent actions, which is what we intend to do in this situation,” the company said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555