Boulder Votes Yes On Clean Energy

Nat Stein November 13, 2013

Boulder residents advocate for clean energy in front of an Xcel Energy coal plant in 2011.

In recent years, politi­cos have been abuzz about demo­graph­ic trends in Col­orado that might yield a left­ward polit­i­cal shift. And the state’s new­ly revamped elec­tion sys­tem, fea­tur­ing expand­ed access to reg­is­tra­tion and a mail-in bal­lot for every vot­er, has cer­tain­ly helped to boost vot­er turnout. So far, though, it’s been a mixed bag. Last week’s elec­tion, which includ­ed a num­ber of local and state bal­lot ini­tia­tives, saw sev­er­al pro­gres­sive vic­to­ries, as well as some set­backs: Col­oradans deci­sive­ly struck down a tax hike to fund pub­lic edu­ca­tion but approved a hefty sales tax on their new recre­ation­al mar­i­jua­na indus­try, while three cities passed frack­ing bans, and five north­ern coun­ties vot­ed to secede from the state.

But one city in par­tic­u­lar deserves cred­it: In Boul­der, res­i­dents vot­ed over­whelm­ing­ly to move for­ward with their plan to cre­ate a pub­licly owned munic­i­pal util­i­ty — or muni” — based on local, renew­able sources.

As I report­ed ear­li­er this fall, in 2011, cit­i­zens in Boul­der vot­ed to break away from their coal-based cor­po­rate elec­tric util­i­ty, Xcel Ener­gy, and begin explor­ing ways to form a pub­lic munic­i­pal util­i­ty based on renew­able ener­gy sources. Work­ing groups found that a pub­lic muni could pro­duce clean­er and cheap­er elec­tric­i­ty, so the city began to make moves to acquire Xcel’s dis­tri­b­u­tion infra­struc­ture — all the poles, wires and sub­sta­tions need­ed for a func­tion­al ener­gy grid.

Here, oppo­nents of clean ener­gy appar­ent­ly saw an oppor­tu­ni­ty to throw a wrench into the process. In May, Vot­ers For Approval Of Debt Lim­its, a new­ly-cre­at­ed group with links to Xcel Ener­gy, pro­posed Mea­sure 310, a char­ter amend­ment which would have required vot­ers to approve a spe­cif­ic debt lim­it before the Boul­der could enter con­dem­na­tion (the process by which a city uses emi­nent domain to nego­ti­ate a trans­ac­tion in court). The prob­lem is that the exact cost of acquir­ing Xcel’s assets can only be deter­mined after con­dem­na­tion has begun. The mea­sure was thus designed to put the city in a legal Catch-22, effec­tive­ly grind­ing all progress on the util­i­ty con­ver­sion to a halt. 

In response, the City Coun­cil drew up Issue 2E, an alter­na­tive pro­pos­al to estab­lish a $214-mil­lion debt lim­it — an amount that city apprais­ers had deter­mined would be more than enough to cov­er acqui­si­tion costs, giv­ing the city the flex­i­bil­i­ty it needs to move for­ward with con­dem­na­tion ear­ly next year.

Lead­ing up to the vote, Xcel con­tributed at least $500,000 to Vot­ers For Approval of Debt Lim­its, whose ads pushed the mes­sage that a muni would cost tax­pay­ers an untold amount of money.

Pro­po­nents of the muni, mean­while, raised less than $350,000. But what they lacked in fund­ing, they made up for with a grass­roots army of fierce­ly ded­i­cat­ed vol­un­teers. Instru­men­tal in orga­niz­ing the cam­paign against 310 was local non­prof­it New Era Col­orado, whose exec­u­tive direc­tor, Steve Fen­berg, esti­mates that their team had over 100,000 con­ver­sa­tions with com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers about what the vote meant for their city’s ener­gy future. More than 500 vol­un­teers gave their time to reg­is­ter vot­ers, knock on doors, talk to their neigh­bors and call vot­ers. They even rent­ed a fleet of golf carts to offer vot­ers a ride to polls. We real­ly left it all on the field for this cam­paign,” says Fenberg. 

And it paid off. On Tues­day, the peo­ple of Boul­der spoke loud­ly and deci­sive­ly: Mea­sure 310 was struck down, and Issue 2E passed by a resound­ing 2:1 mar­gin.

In a lot of ways, Boul­der is still exact­ly where it was before the elec­tion. The city’s apprais­ers are still try­ing to esti­mate acqui­si­tion costs before the city enters con­dem­na­tion ear­ly next year. If any­thing, the tan­gi­ble result of the vote is lever­age: The city, hav­ing been giv­en a vote of con­fi­dence, is now embold­ened as it pro­ceeds in nego­ti­a­tions. But, more than any­thing, the land­slide vote shows that when it comes to ener­gy pol­i­cy, peo­ple are sick and tired of work­ing with­in the con­fines of what the fos­sil fuel indus­try tells them is pos­si­ble. And with sim­i­lar munic­i­pal­iza­tion move­ments already spring­ing up across the coun­try, Boul­der may serve as a blue­print for the kind of bot­tom-up ener­gy rev­o­lu­tion that we so des­per­ate­ly need.

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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