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.
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But the “yes” campaign for 2B and 2C drew on Boulder’s strengths – it’s a college town populated with progressives and technical experts, a hub for clean energy start-ups and atmospheric research. The campaign support group, RenewablesYes, was able to assemble an impressive and all-volunteer “Citizen Technical Team” who worked out a model that used solar, wind, and electricity use data to analyze Boulder’s electricity mix. Then they publicized their analysis – that a local energy utility could reduce the city’s carbon emissions by 66 percent, increase its use of renewables to 40 percent, and keep rates the same as, or lower than, those charged by Xcel.Skip to next paragraph
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The list of endorsements for 2B and 2C grew, and eventually included dozens of elected officials, a roster of businesses, three local newspapers, and over 1,000 residents. Political action organization New Era Colorado put additional vitality into the effort by mobilizing young people, who worked phone banks and pounded the pavement to counter Xcel’s advertising.
The ballot measures passed by a whisker – a major victory given that the corporation outspent the grass-roots campaign 10-to-1. Ken Regelson, a leader in the campaign, thinks that community organizing tipped the balance. Personal contacts with voters, he says, “are worth more than a utility can spend.”
Municipal utilities aren’t the untested experiments Xcel’s “vote no” campaign made them out to be – there are more than 2,000 public utilities serving 46 million customers in the United States. While some of these utilities are in small or rural markets, Boulder is a big, growing market – it generates at least $100 million in annual revenue for Xcel. The revolutionary potential of Boulder’s ballots is that producing renewable energy for a municipal utility could keep millions of dollars in the local economy instead of exporting them to the headquarters of an investor-held company.
Boulder officials estimate it will take three to five years to create the power-and-light utility. Climate change activists working on the plan hope it will be a successful model for other cities.
“Everything we are doing,” says Ken Regelson, “we plan on sharing as widely as possible … there are lots of lessons to learn and share.” As Boulder works out the details, other cities are watching. They may already be planning to “go Boulder,” ditch the corporation, and take control of their own local power.
• Valerie Schloredt wrote this article for 9 Strategies to End Corporate Rule, the Spring 2012 issue of YES! Magazine. Valerie is associate editor at YES!. John Farrell, at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, contributed to this story.
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