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.

 

On election night this November in Boulder, Colo., under the stained-glass ceiling of the Hotel Boulderado, about 100 progressive-leaning voters crowded around a screen showing preliminary results. Early in the evening, the odds of the city breaking its ties with Minnesota-based corporate utility Xcel Energy to pursue locally produced, clean power seemed as dark as the storm clouds accumulating over the Rockies. But around 9 p.m., Measure 2C, which gives the city permission to create a municipal electric utility, took the lead. Cheers and upward-thrusting thumbs  burst from the crowd. Sometime after midnight, another ballot measure -- which would raise a tax to pay for planning that utility -- also edged ahead, eventually passing by just  50.4 percent.

The campaign had been bitterly fought. Xcel poured over $960,000 into the opposition, which hired canvassers for $12.50 an hour on Craigslist. The four pro-municipalization groups spent about a tenth of that, but mustered celebrity support from President Obama's ex-green jobs czar Van Jones and Boulder author Jon Krakauer. At one point, Xcel threatened to cut Boulder customers off from renewable energy programs if the measures passed, a move Mayor Susan Osborne told the local newspaper was "a transparent ploy by a desperate corporation."

If Boulder actually creates its own utility, Xcel does have a lot to lose: about 46,800 customers and some $114 million in annual sales. The city, however, has much to gain, supporters say. With a local utility, Boulder could choose its power sources, boosting the city's ambitious efforts to shrink its carbon footprint. It also would be the first U.S. city driven to municipal power primarily for environmental reasons. "For a municipalization campaign to go ahead based on that kind of worldview is something new," says Paul Fenn, an energy consultant for the city.

Xcel Energy, which operates in eight states, actually leads the nation's utilities in wind power and is on track to meet Colorado's 30 percent renewable energy standard by 2020, the second-highest in the country. But Boulder activists say that's not enough to address climate change. By ditching coal and encouraging local power production and energy efficiency, the city hopes to cut more carbon while keeping rates competitive, and perhaps reinvent the electric grid in the process. Many questions remain, however, about whether Boulder can strike out on its own.

"Our example right now is a plucky, little liberal place that decided to make a move away from coal-based electricity," said Osborne the morning after the election. "If we are ultimately successful, that really will be a path for others to follow."

Known for its über-fit, ultra-green, extra-educated progressivism, Boulder has led efforts toward urban sustainability for years. In 2002, the city committed to cutting its carbon emissions below 1990 levels within 10 years to meet the Kyoto Protocol, the international standard shunned by the federal government. In 2006, it became the first U.S. city to impose a carbon tax to fund energy-conservation programs, hiring roaming technicians who change light bulbs and even inflate car tires for free. The idea was to reduce emissions by cutting consumption. But though Boulder's emissions haven't grown since these programs began, they haven't declined either. In 2009, city officials concluded they couldn't meet their climate goals without addressing the supply side of their energy equation.

Municipal utilities allow local governments to do just that by buying power on the open market or building generation facilities. But making the switch isn't easy, and many attempts fail under intense opposition from powerful utilities. San Francisco tried to municipalize in 2002, but a $2 million campaign by Pacific Gas and Electric helped defeat the ballot initiative. Actually creating a new utility is a complicated, expensive endeavor that requires a city to buy electric poles and wires and often haggle over costs in drawn-out legal fights. In 2000, Las Cruces, N.M., gave up when the amount it owed its corporate utility for already-made local investments ballooned.

Still, over the last decade, 13 municipalities have succeeded. Jefferson County, Wash., voted in 2008 to split from Puget Sound Energy to reduce rates, create local jobs and increase renewables; its new utility will start up in 2013. Winter Park, Fla., citing unreliable service, did the same in 2005, and now its public utility is recovering from early financial problems.

Other communities have used a softer approach to take control of their power supply. Community choice aggregation, or CCA, lets communities buy energy from where they choose, while the utility continues to own and manage the power lines, removing much of the upfront cost of municipalization. Marin County, Calif., adopted CCA in 2010 and now offers at least 27 percent renewable power at competitive rates. But CCA is not legal in Colorado or any other Western state except California, so Boulder had to go it alone.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...