Xcel customers asked to pay part of execs' jet commute costs

  • Article by: DAVID SHAFFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 16, 2012 - 6:08 AM

The almost weekly trips, which cost $4,600 per hour, raise questions about what the utility charges ratepayers.

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Xcel says the Learjet trips are cost-effective.

Two executives for Xcel Energy regularly commute by corporate jet from their homes in Colorado to the utility's Minneapolis headquarters, and ratepayers are being asked to pay part of the tab.

Regulators in Colorado have questioned the 268 round-trip commutes, typically one per week, that the unidentified Xcel executives have taken since 2009. They traveled on the company's leased Learjets, which cost $4,600 per flight hour to operate, regulatory filings say.

"The company's ratepayers do not benefit by these two employees commuting via the two corporate jets to their primary place of employment" in Minnesota, said Abel Moreno, a rate analyst for the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, in testimony challenging a $142 million electric rate hike request.

The concerns in Colorado come three years after Minnesota's attorney general questioned Xcel's pricey executive travel, prompting passage of a 2010 state law mandating more disclosure about such expenses.

On Thursday, the attorney general's office expressed renewed concerns.

"In difficult financial times, our office's position is that it's not appropriate to charge ratepayers for those kinds of aviation costs," said Ben Wogsland, spokesman for Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson. "A lot of people are hurting out there. Belts are being tightened everywhere."

In Colorado, Moreno also questioned other Xcel travel, saying teleconferencing and webcasts are cheaper options. The travel costs are just one issue in a broader rate case now pending before the Colorado PUC. Its staff has recommended a hike of only $7.2 million.

The names of the two commuting executives have not been released, though filings say one lives in Denver and the other in Boulder, Colo.

Xcel, an electric and natural gas utility that operates in eight states including Colorado, leases two eight-seat Bombardier Learjet 45s. One is based at Denver International Airport and another at St. Paul Downtown Airport, regulatory filings say. The 2011 corporate jet budget is $5.7 million, part of which is spread across Xcel's operations, the filings say.

Xcel defended the corporate jets, saying they're only 9 percent more expensive than flying on commercial airlines when all factors, including staff time in airports, are considered. Xcel said it doesn't seek full recovery of travel costs from ratepayers in Colorado, Minnesota or elsewhere.

"The use of business aircraft increases our ability to manage staff, projects and operations in different states," the utility said in a statement, adding that its service area covers 100,000 square miles and many managers have responsibilities in multiple states.

It is not the first time Xcel's travel costs have been questioned.

In 2009, the Minnesota attorney general successfully argued that ratepayers shouldn't get tapped for "exorbitant spending by highly compensated, high-ranking individuals." The examples then included $45,000 for a trip to Europe by top executives and $113,000 for a board retreat.

The issue of corporate jets also has arisen in Xcel's current electric rate case in Minnesota. According to the state Commerce Department, Xcel initially sought to tap state ratepayers for $1.7 million of its corporate jet costs for 2011.

Xcel later dropped the request to $730,000 -- an amount the attorney general opposed, but an administrative judge accepted. "[W]e demonstrated it is reasonable to include part of our corporate aviation costs in rates," Xcel said in an e-mail to the Star Tribune.

Under a Minnesota law passed in 2010, the state PUC "may not allow" utilities to charge ratepayers for travel expenses that are "unreasonable and unnecessary for the provision of utility service."

Xcel's corporate jets flew 631 trips in 2010, according to an analysis the utility commissioned for Colorado regulators. About eight out of every 10 flights were between Denver and Minneapolis. Other destinations were Eau Claire, Wis., and Amarillo, Texas, where Xcel also does business.

Xcel said about 70 percent of all trips taken were by non- executive employees.

David Shaffer • 673-7090

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