Boulder, Colo., votes for energy independence -- from its utility

  • On election night at Hotel Boulderado, Ken Regelson (right) of Citizens for Boulder's Clean Energy Future, and Steve Fenberg, executive director of New Era Colorado, celebrate results showing Measure 2C pulling ahead. The measure allows Boulder to create a municipal electric utility if costs allow.

    Daily Camera
  • Workers install solar panels last year on the roof of the University of Colorado Center for Innovation and Creativity in Boulder.

    Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado
  • Various logos from Boulder's election. Top: The city of Boulder spent $860,000 preparing two public power ballot measures, a key component of the city's energy planning, but could not participate in the campaign. Middle: The Boulder Clean Energy Business Coalition "marshalled the significant intellectual resources in the business community" to support the new utility. Bottom: Opposing municipalization, the Boulder Smart Energy Coalition brought citizens and businesses together to fight the ballot measures.


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The city and Xcel have tried to work out their differences. In 2008, Xcel offered to make Boulder the testing ground for a "smart grid" that lets consumers monitor their energy-use rates and save energy by changing their habits. But by 2010, rising costs thwarted the program's completion. This February, Xcel dropped a popular rebate for solar panel installations, and cut subsidies when a settlement with the solar industry restarted the program. Xcel also opposed state legislation to look at paying homeowners more for rooftop solar power -- an incentive for local power production. As a last-ditch effort, Xcel offered to offset most of Boulder's energy use with renewable energy credits from a wind farm being built in eastern Colorado. But the long-term cost to ratepayers was uncertain, so in July, Boulder said no.

"They are stuck in this business model that isn't compatible with our goals," says Jonathan Koehn, regional sustainability coordinator for the city. Xcel and other private utilities make money by building large power plants and transmission lines, and then increasing rates in order to collect a return on those investments. Xcel still gets most of its power from coal plants and has little incentive to shut down or cut production from existing facilities, beyond what the state requires. And it's not easy to dial down a coal plant's power generation when weather conditions drive wind and solar production up, further limiting the amount of renewables that can get on the grid.

"The whole system seems to be rigged against maximizing non-coal-based electrical energy," says Osborne. "We were just being hog-tied." Instead of adding renewables to a coal-fired base, a Boulder-run utility could start from scratch. Estimates vary widely, but by using cleaner-burning natural gas power, the city could provide about 40 percent renewables and cut carbon emissions by over 60 percent without increasing rates, according to one local study by pro-muni experts. Eventually, Boulder aims to increase small-scale renewable energy, produced locally rather than at distant, sprawling wind and solar farms. And by expanding the smart grid and using innovative gadgets developed by Boulder companies, the city hopes to pioneer the electric grid of the future -- one where excess wind power is automatically diverted to charge electric cars, and consumers set appliances to run when demand is low and rates cheaper.

But first, Boulder must determine if a municipal utility is financially feasible and the best way to meet its environmental goals. It must confront sizable and uncertain start-up costs, a steep learning curve and a divided community. The city will have to negotiate the exact costs of the separation with Xcel - and likely go to court - while Xcel continues to power the city. That process alone could take five years and cost up to $10 million, paid for by the new tax.

Actually starting the utility will cost much more: at least $286 million, according to the city, which would recoup that cost by selling power. Xcel's consultants, however, estimate the tab could run as high as $1.2 billion. Boulder would have to purchase electric poles and wires from Xcel for about $121 million to $150 million. It may also have to reimburse Xcel for investments it made for the city's future energy needs, possibly running into the hundreds of millions. "We're skeptical that the city will be able to meet the terms of the initiative and match our rates, let alone match our level of renewables," said Xcel CEO Ben Fowke after the election.

Boulder says municipalization will only proceed if the city can match Xcel's rates when it takes over. And public utilities do have some financial advantages: The city can take on debt at cheaper interest rates than Xcel can and isn't obligated to turn a profit for shareholders. (Boulder ratepayers contribute $14 million to $18 million annually to Xcel's profits, the city estimates.) According to the American Public Power Association, in 2009, residential customers of privately owned utilities paid, on average, 15 percent more for electricity than those using public power.

Judging by the close vote, though, many Boulderites wonder if it's worth the upfront expense. The city isn't required to match Xcel's rates in the future.  And although clean energy is clearly a priority, nothing in the ballot measures requires Boulder to provide more alternative energy. "Municipalizing doesn't shut down a single coal plant," says David Miller, a Boulder attorney and chairman of the citizens' opposition group. "(It's) really a reckless way to get to your renewable energy goals." Leaving behind statewide efforts to cut carbon emissions is counterproductive, Miller says, and the millions spent to study the new utility would be better spent reducing energy use.

For now, Boulder is keeping its options open. A month after the election, the city began exploring other paths to local control such as legalizing community choice aggregation in Colorado -- and discussed using the support for public power as leverage to bring Xcel behind the effort. "We didn't go into this with the aim to own power poles and wires," says Koehn. "The goal is to have control over the decisions being made."