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Boulder Likely to Adopt Its Own Green Utility—and Risks of Going Solo

Boulder could soon be on a long-fought path to break from utility Xcel Energy, control its own electricity and ramp up clean power. But obstacles await.

Jan 23, 2013
Renewable energy advocates protest against Xcel Energy

For the past decade, the people of Boulder, Colo., have pursued an elusive goal: getting more clean energy into their grid. To do so, they pushed and prodded utility company Xcel Energy to give them a say in electricity decisions.

But nothing satisfied citizens and politicians, so several years ago they organized themselves into a movement for "municipalization," in which the city would split from Xcel and become its own utility. In April, the City Council is expected to vote in favor of pursuing the controversial idea, putting coal-heavy Boulder on the vanguard of efforts to break the monopoly of corporate utility companies.

"Somebody has to stick their neck out and try this," said Boulder Mayor Matt Appelbaum, who believes Boulder will inspire other cities. Already, residents in Minneapolis are preparing a ballot measure by November for municipalization, and advocates in Santa Fe, N.M., are not far behind.

Under municipalization, cities take over utilities' local electricity operations. They buy the wires, substations and meters, run the electrical grid and select which power plants will supply their power. Most Americans get electricity from mainly fossil fuel-generating plants, usually owned by large utilities. Breaking away theoretically gives cities freedom to add as much clean energy as is technically and financially possible.

While some 2,000 municipal utilities exist across the United States, only half a dozen were formed in recent years. Boulder's would be the first established to increase clean energy and combat climate pollution.

Xcel, which operates in eight states and opposes municipalization, denies it's blocking clean energy development in Boulder. The firm is on track to meet an aggressive state requirement that utilities get 30 percent of their energy from renewables by 2020, and it has long been the nation's top wind provider.

"We have always believed that we can help Boulder reach its goals quicker, faster and cheaper with us" rather than through municipalization, said Jerome Davis, Xcel's regional vice president for Colorado.

But the fight is about more than just reaching renewable targets, according to Boulder Deputy Mayor Lisa Morzel, a vocal proponent of municipalization. The goal is to "decentralize, decarbonize and democratize energy," she said. In Germany, those same ideals inspired a 2000 federal law that let citizens produce their own clean power and compete with utilities, helping turn the country into the world's biggest solar market.

Boulder's circumstances made it fertile soil for the effort.

The city of nearly 100,000 people is one of the most politically progressive and Democratic in Colorado. It also boasts an unusually high number of climate and environmental scientists and energy experts working in nearby institutions, including the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Those citizen experts became the backbone of the municipalization movement, volunteering to carry out feasibility studies and educating the community to win residents over.

Alison Burchell, an environmental geologist and one of the movement's founding leaders, said she and others revved into action in the early 2000s when they became frustrated with Xcel's continued investment in coal. The utility gets 60 percent of Colorado's electricity from coal plants, more than the national average of about 40 percent. About a quarter comes from natural gas, 12 percent from wind energy and the rest from nuclear, hydroelectric, solar, oil and biomass.

In 2002, Burchell helped establish a volunteer working group to figure out a long-term renewables and energy efficiency plan for the city. The City Council adopted many of its recommendations, including its first greenhouse gas reduction goal of 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012, which it still hasn't met.

"At some point, we the people have to do our homework, and when we lead the leaders follow," Burchell said. She explained that while municipalization wasn't the group's initial goal, it quickly emerged as a potential way for Boulder to shift to a cleaner energy mix.

By 2004, the group had pushed city leaders to form a municipalization task force, which commissioned a feasibility study.

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