Boulder, Colorado can now form its own municipal power utility. Two ballots were passed in November to eliminate their dependence on corporate utilities and manage the city’s power as part of the city’s municipal apparatus.
Xcel Energy currently provides electricity for Boulder. Xcel has been the target of environmental activists for years due to their lack of expansion into alternative fuel sources (over 60% of their power comes from coal).
Despite plenty of renewable energy alternatives available in the region, Xcel has continued to fail to expand into alternative energy sources at a rate acceptable to Boulder’s large activist base.
Xcel’s gradual increase in use of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power is scaled to grow to only 30% by 2020 and remain at that level for nearly a decade afterwards. This rate of advancement was found unacceptable to the city, which has a long history of clean energy activism, and the result of November’s ballot initiative is the result of growing concern over the apparent lack of willingness on the part of Xcel to work with the city’s goals to minimize fossil fuel dependence. According to analysis conducted on behalf of the city, a workable plan for a city-run utility can be enacted that would be able to advance environmental goals by removing the corporate need to meet shareholders’ increasing profit expectations.
Boulder has been entertaining the idea of municipalization of their power supply for nearly a decade. In response to the city’s 2004 consideration of taking over the utility, Xcel devised a smart grid for Boulder in 2008, which was accepted. However, the projected cost to consumers for this initiative has proven unreliable. An originally projected price tag of $15.3 million for consumers has ballooned to $44.8 million.
Because Xcel relies so heavily on coal for its energy production, use wind power efficiently, as coal plants aren’t able to respond to decreasing demand when wind generates more power than needed. As a result, the corporation reduces its purchases for wind power so it can sell its own coal-based power, even when the alternative source provides all the power that is required.
The plan that ultimately resulted in the ballots just passed began in 2011, when they were originally drafted. The first (Ballot 2B) would fund planning by raising the utility occupation tax, and the second (Ballot 2C) authorized Boulder to create a city-run utility, paid for by the issuance of bonds. The imposed condition was that the rates to consumers would be less than or equal to those charged by Xcel.
Xcel responded to this initiative with a campaign of its own, locking the corporation and the city into a fight that has lasted two years. The company financed a nearly million dollar “vote no” campaign that included mass advertising and house to house canvassing. But despite their efforts, Boulder’s demographic just wasn’t listening.
Boulder is a progressive college town with a long history of environmental activism. Grass roots efforts, such as the RenewablesYes group, successfully made use of a large and varied pool of volunteers.
The RenewablesYes “Citizen Technical Team” constructed a complete model of the city’s power using solar and wind sources, while using the collected data for analysis to determine the actual demand for power in a mixed energy system.
According to this study, the group determined that they could reduce Boulder’s carbon emissions by 66% and increase the use of renewable power by 40%, all while keeping consumer rates at or below Xcel’s rates. The popularity of the ballots grew and eventually surpassed the efforts of the corporate campaign against them. Several elected officials, many local businesses, three local newspapers and more than 1,000 residents all endorsed the passage of the ballots. Voter support was aided greatly by the efforts of New Era Colorado, who organized the youth segment of the city to work the phones and canvass the town in response to Xcel’s million dollar “Vote No” campaign.
In the end, the grass roots work paid off. Although the ballots just barely passed, it was considered a great accomplishment, as they were outspent by the corporation 10-to-1. Energy consultant and leading supporter Ken Regelson thinks that it was the community activism and volunteer efforts that made the difference, stating that personal contacts with voters “are worth more than a utility can spend.”