On Tuesday, residents of Boulder, Colorado will head to the ballot box to decide on two dueling ballot measures: one would advance the city’s longtime goal of establishing and maintaining its own electric system and the other would likely stall or even sink those plans. Tired of waiting for investor-owned utility company Xcel Energy to meet their demands for clean energy, the reason the city and many of its citizens want to create their own utility is simple. “Energy use is the largest contributing factor to climate change,” said Steve Fenberg, executive director of New Era Colorado, a major supporter of the effort. “Boulder would be the first city in the country to create an energy utility for the reason of reducing that and targeting climate change.”
In order to split from Xcel and form its own energy utility, a process known as municipalization, the city will need to acquire all of Xcel’s infrastructure — wires, substations, meters — and then run the electrical grid and select which power plants will supply their power. In theory, this will allow them to choose as much renewable energy as possible. The process of acquisition, however, will carry a hefty price tag.
The first ballot measure, 310, is put forth by opponents of the city’s municipalization plans and would require a public vote before the city can incur any debt related to municipalization. The measure has been largely bankrolled by Xcel, which has given $500,000 to a group campaigning for 310. The utility also indicated in its November 1 filing that it intends to spend $196,000 more before Election Day, according to the Boulder Daily Camera.
“We are supporting a citizens’ initiative,” said Jerome Davis, an Xcel regional vice president told the Denver Post. “But we are not campaigning.”
After 310 was filed, the Boulder City Council responded with its own ballot measure, 2E, which generally places a limit of $214 million on the amount of debt the city can incur as a result of its municipalization effort. As of November 3, three grassroots committees supporting a municipal utility had raised $311,000 through internet crowdsourcing and a $65,000 donation from the Sierra Club, according to the Denver Post.
In endorsing 2E, the Boulder Daily Camera said it “supports continuing to explore municipalization” and urged a strong ‘no’ vote on 310, which it says “was solely designed to derail the voter-approved exploration.”
In 2011, Boulder voters approved two ballot initiatives that allowed the city’s leaders to move forward with municipalization, as long as the electricity would be as reliable and cost the same amount as that provided by Xcel, and raised a utility bill tax to help cover some of the initial costs. As is the case with this year’s vote, Xcel dropped a substantial amount of money to thwart the city’s quest for energy independence. According to Inside Climate News, “Xcel spent nearly $961,000 to defeat the measures. Proponents spent about $107,000 to pass them.”
Despite the provisions contained in the 2011 measure, many of the plan’s detractors fear that a city-owned and operated utility simply couldn’t provide the same reliability they’re accustomed to with Excel. September’s unprecedented flooding, and the widespread power outages that accompanied it, added to that concern. “If we had been new at this, and we had municipalized, would we be able to handle a major catastrophe?” Boulder Councilman George Karakehian asked.
Though the path will be a difficult one, for those who are determined to address climate change and deliver the clean energy Boulder residents have long demanded, there is too much at stake to back down from the fight to divorce itself from Xcel and become its own electricity provider. In a City Council vote to authorize taking over Xcel’s assets earlier this summer, council member Lisa Morzel said simply, “It’s about having a voice in our energy supply.”