Colorado Springs Utilities bracing for COVID-19's impact 

Keeping the lights on

click to enlarge Because of COVID-19, it’s not business as usual at Colorado Springs Utilities. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Because of COVID-19, it’s not business as usual at Colorado Springs Utilities.

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 their 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 says 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 was expected to approve the decrease during its meeting March 24, after the Indy’s press time.

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 says 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 says.

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 adds: “It’s definitely not business as usual, so we need to plan accordingly.”

For now, Trinidad says, 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 says. 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.

For the March 24 City Council meeting, councilors were expected to discuss agenda items via teleconference to minimize opportunities for the virus to spread. City Hall is closed to the public, but the meeting was set to be broadcast online and on the @coscitycouncil Facebook page.

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.

Resources for those affected by COVID-19

On March 19, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment extended the closure of dine-in restaurants, bars and other businesses to April 30 from April 16, adding salons, spas, and massage and tattoo parlors to the list of those impacted.

If you, like many people (and more to come) have found yourself in need of assistance during this time, here are a few ways to get immediate help:

• Pikes Peak United Way 2-1-1, powered by Ent Credit Union and GE Johnson, connects people with agencies that can help them with food, housing, utilities and more. Dial 2-1-1 or visit 211colorado.org for more information.

• El Paso County school districts are offering free grab-and-go meals for children younger than 18. Visit bit.ly/COSSchoolMeals for a map of locations.

• Visit colorado.gov/cdle to file an unemployment claim. Because the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment’s website has been experiencing a high volume of claims, the CDLE asks people whose last names begin with the letters A through M to file on Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday or after noon on Saturday. Those whose last names begin with the letters N through Z are asked to file unemployment claims on Monday, Wednesday, Friday or before noon on Saturday.

If you’d like to volunteer your time or make a donation, visit HelpColoradoNow.org for opportunities. (Nonprofits and organizations can post opportunities there as well.)

And finally, if you’re experiencing mild symptoms of COVID-19 (such as fever, cough or body aches), the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment asks that you isolate yourself from others until you’ve had no fever for at least 72 hours, and other symptoms have improved.

If symptoms become more serious — including shortness of breath — CDPHE wants you to call a provider to see if you should be tested. Visit covid19.colorado.gov/telehealth-and-nurselines for a list of phone numbers.

Those with severe shortness of breath or difficulty breathing can call 9-1-1. CDPHE says hospitals are building the capability to test for COVID-19 in-house, and will separate those who test positive, or those suspected to have COVID-19, from the general population.


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