Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Change Agent

Why Boulder, Colo., took charge of its electric company

Running its own electric utility will allow Boulder to use more sun and wind energy instead of coal – at the same or lower cost.

By Valerie SchloredtYES! Magazine / March 29, 2012

A Boulder-Denver 'Power Past Fossil Fuels' bike ride in September served as a rally for an initiative to create in Boulder, Colo. a locally owned power company that would emphasize renewable energy over coal.

Zane Selvans

Enlarge

The city of Boulder, Colo., has won the right to take its power supply – and carbon emissions – away from corporate control.

Skip to next paragraph

YES! Magazine is a nonprofit, ad-free publication that covers social, political, economic, and environmental problems and the people who seek to solve them.

Recent posts

The change for Boulder came in November when voters passed two ballot measures that allow the city to begin the process of forming its own municipal power utility.

The city’s current electricity supplier, Xcel Energy, is a large corporation that sources more than 60 percent of its power from coal. Colorado climate activists tried for years to persuade Xcel to transition from coal to renewables, arguing that the state’s plains, mountains, and 300 days of annual sunshine give it abundant potential for the development of wind and solar power.

But they found Xcel’s take-up of renewables was frustratingly slow. Xcel is investing $400 million in its coal-powered plants, and its plans for renewables stops at just 30 percent in 2020, with no further increase until 2028. 

City officials were increasingly skeptical about the corporation’s willingness to meet their clean energy goals. Analysis showed a municipal utility could work, while prioritizing climate change action over profits to shareholders.

Boulder has long cherished the goal of becoming a leader in tackling climate change. In 2002, the city council passed the Kyoto Resolution on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In 2006, residents voted for the nation’s first city carbon tax to achieve those targets.

“Municipalization” – the legal process whereby the city would form its own utility company – has been on the table since 2004. When Xcel countered with the offer of an ambitious city-wide smart grid in 2008, Boulder accepted. But Xcel and its partners didn’t do a cost-benefit analysis prior to starting the project, and the portion of the costs consumers would pay rose from a projected $15.3 million to (at last count) $44.8 million.

Meanwhile, the corporation’s reliance on coal affected its use of wind power. Coal plants can’t be switched on and off as the wind blows. So when there was more electricity generated than needed to meet consumer demand, Xcel would curtail its wind power purchases in favor of selling power from its own coal plants.

As Xcel’s 20-year franchise with Boulder came due for renewal, city officials were increasingly skeptical about the corporation’s willingness to meet their clean energy goals. Analysis showed a municipal utility could work, while prioritizing climate change action over profits to shareholders. In 2011, the city drafted two ballots for voter approval: Ballot Issue 2B would increase the utility occupation tax to fund the planning process. Ballot Issue 2C would authorize the city to form the utility and issue bonds to buy the distribution system – providing that the new municipal utility’s rates would be equal to or less than Xcel’s.

Thus began a closely fought battle between corporate money and grass-roots activism. Xcel financed a “vote no” campaign to the tune of nearly $1 million, buying extensive (and some said, misleading) advertising and hiring door-to-door canvassers.

One development that climate activists found particularly galling was when Leslie Glustrom, research director for climate group Clean Energy Action, was banned from carrying out her watchdog role at the Public Utility Commission – which regulates Xcel.

Read Comments

View reader comments | Comment on this story

  • Weekly review of global news and ideas
  • Balanced, insightful and trustworthy
  • Subscribe in print or digital

Special Offer

 

Doing Good

 

What happens when ordinary people decide to pay it forward? Extraordinary change...

Danny Bent poses at the starting line of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass.

After the Boston Marathon bombings, Danny Bent took on a cross-country challenge

The athlete-adventurer co-founded a relay run called One Run for Boston that started in Los Angeles and ended at the marathon finish line to raise funds for victims.

 
 
Become a fan! Follow us! Google+ YouTube See our feeds!