Boulder Electrified

Corporate interests and environmentalists face off in a Boulder, Colo. vote over ecofriendly public energy.

Nat Stein October 19, 2013

Nicky Toor, 15, tubes in the flooded North Boulder Park on September 12. The thousand-year flood lent urgency to Boulder's efforts to blaze a trail for climate-change mitigation at the local level. (Dana Romanoff /Getty Images)

Roads are crum­bling, homes are in ruin, bridges are impass­able and more than 22,000 gal­lons of crude oil have spilled out of dam­aged tanks into the flood­plain of the South Plat­te Riv­er val­ley in the wake of cat­a­stroph­ic flood­ing in Col­orado in September.

For Col­oradans, the effects of cli­mate change are no longer a dis­tant prospect. While progress toward stem­ming the tide of cli­mate change seems to have stalled at the nation­al lev­el, folks in Boul­der are tak­ing mat­ters into their own hands by try­ing to reclaim con­trol of their ener­gy pro­duc­tion. A cru­cial vote on Novem­ber bal­lots will deter­mine whether Boul­der becomes a blue­print for grass­roots move­ments across the coun­try in the fight against cli­mate change.

In 2002, vot­ers in Boul­der set the ambi­tious goal of cut­ting their green­house gas emis­sions to 7 per­cent below 1990 lev­els by 2012. But to get seri­ous about meet­ing this goal, Boul­der need­ed to address the car­bon foot­print left by dirty coal. It’s the most car­bon-inten­sive mode of ener­gy pro­duc­tion, and it’s how more than 60 per­cent of Boulder’s ener­gy is pro­duced. So in 2002, a coali­tion of sci­en­tists, aca­d­e­mics and ordi­nary cit­i­zens began work­ing on a plan to make Boul­der ener­gy self-sufficient.

In 2011, vot­ers approved a plan for the city to sev­er ties with its cur­rent ener­gy provider, Xcel, and cre­ate a new munic­i­pal util­i­ty — or muni” — based on local, renew­able sources. If its rates and reli­a­bil­i­ty were at least equal to those of Xcel, the city could be its own ener­gy provider. (Xcel is an investor-owned elec­tric util­i­ty that has an unreg­u­lat­ed monop­oly in some West­ern states.)

About 2,000 pub­lic munis already exist in the U.S., some 29 in Col­orado. But Boul­der is head­ing into unchart­ed waters by cit­ing envi­ron­men­tal con­cerns as the sole impe­tus for its move. A work­ing group devel­oped detailed mod­els show­ing how Boulder’s car­bon emis­sions attrib­ut­able to elec­tric­i­ty could be cut by more than half by 2017 by using region­al wind, solar and hydro options. The mod­el­ing also sug­gests that the muni could actu­al­ly pro­duce ener­gy at a low­er cost, giv­en the ris­ing cost of fos­sil fuels and recent inno­va­tions in renew­able ener­gy production.

Of course, Xcel has no inter­est in giv­ing up its dis­tri­b­u­tion infra­struc­ture — that is, the poles, wires, sub­sta­tions and meters need­ed to trans­mit elec­tric­i­ty into people’s homes. So to reclaim its pow­er grid, Boul­der is turn­ing to emi­nent domain. Nor­mal­ly, such a trans­ac­tion would be facil­i­tat­ed by a judge in con­dem­na­tion pro­ceed­ings. The city would offer a price, Xcel would counter, and they would set­tle on some­thing in the middle.

But last spring, a group call­ing itself Vot­er Approval of Debt Lim­its began peti­tion­ing for a cit­i­zens’ ini­tia­tive char­ter amend­ment to appear on bal­lots in Novem­ber. The mea­sure, if passed, would cre­ate a catch-22 by requir­ing vot­ers to approve a spe­cif­ic debt lim­it for cre­at­ing the muni before the city can enter con­dem­na­tion — an amount that can only be deter­mined by con­dem­na­tion. The mea­sure also requires affect­ed non-city res­i­dents of Boul­der Coun­ty to vote in city elec­tions, which is cur­rent­ly ille­gal under state law.

In response to Xcel’s amend­ment, Boulder’s City Coun­cil drew up its own mea­sure as an alter­na­tive. It would estab­lish a $214 mil­lion debt lim­it, which is pro­ject­ed to be more than suf­fi­cient to cov­er the cost of acquir­ing Xcel’s infrastructure.

The pro-muni cam­paign is being dri­ven by Empow­er Our Future (EOF), a coali­tion of non­prof­its and envi­ron­men­tal groups, includ­ing Bill McKibben’s 350​.org and the Sier­ra Club, which has donat­ed $25,000 to EOF. New Era Col­orado, a feisty local non­prof­it, launched a crowd­sourc­ing effort that raised more than $190,000 for the cam­paign, but as field orga­niz­er Bec­ca Moser put it, Sure, we’ll have a cou­ple glossy mail­ers, but we know neigh­bor-to-neigh­bor, hon­est con­ver­sa­tions are the only way to win this.”

In late Sep­tem­ber, Xcel donat­ed $300,000 direct­ly to Vot­ers For Approval of Debt Lim­its in a move to even the play­ing field,” as the group’s spokes­woman Katy Atkin­son put it. So the bat­tle lines are drawn. With the burn scars left by record-break­ing wild­fires of recent sum­mers still vis­i­ble in Col­orado, the stakes of the muni project are clear-cut. But if oth­er com­mu­ni­ties catch on that dif­fer­ent ways of doing things are pos­si­ble, Boul­der might ignite a blaze of its own.

Nat Stein was a Fall 2013 Intern. She is cur­rent­ly a junior at Col­orado Col­lege where she stud­ies Phi­los­o­phy and Jour­nal­ism, with a minor in ski­ing and beer. Don’t fol­low her on Twitter.
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