The Battle for Boulder's Future

In the placid university town of Boulder, Colorado, a battle rages that will shape the future of the city and its citizens. On November 7th, Boulder voters will choose to keep the City on a course to more affordable energy, renewable energy and municipal sovereignty. Or they will compromise themselves and remain in energy serfdom to Colorado’s large investor-owned utility, Xcel Energy. The battle focuses on three ballot options: 2L, 2O and 2P. But at issue is a community’s right to choose how to meet its energy needs.

It’s a local struggle with national implications. Who can best power your home: distant corporations or you, your neighbors and your community? In Boulder, a small group of renewable energy activists suggested that the only way their community would meet its aspirations to become 100% renewable was to create a municipal utility. City staff had less than no interest. It was easy to re-up their franchise with Xcel. Staff members trying to negotiate with their coal-fired provider finally decided to join the activists. They asked residents which way they wanted to go. Xcel outspent clean energy activists ten to one, threatened lawsuits, and generally revealed their corporate bias. And residents voted to municipalize.

Xcel forced another vote. And another. To residents of Boulder, such elections now feel never-ending. This is the fourth. Or fifth…. Each time what seems a straightforward choice becomes opaque. The latest effort to muddy the waters is an assertion from a few advocates that giving Xcel what it wants will somehow convince the company to go green. Environmentalists are fighting environmentalists and people are confused.

They shouldn’t be. Such appeasement is worse than naïve. It would throw Boulder under the bus to appeal to a disinterested corporate entity that has a long history of doing only and no more than what it is forced to do by citizen action. Giving in will not result in a cleaner Colorado. Xcel clings stubbornly to its coal-fired heritage.

It is governed first, foremost and only by its perceived obligation to its shareholders. NOT its customers. It calls itself “responsible by nature,” but little could be further to the truth. Xcel has been dragged kicking and screaming into any move away from fossil fuels and the big, centralized power plants whose cost it cheerfully imposes on ratepayers.

The company has also opposed every effort to force it to add renewables to its mix. It only begins to act better when citizen action implements a state-wide renewable portfolio standard, or when citizens in one of its franchise cities force it to make concessions to retain the franchise. Xcel now promises it will clean up its act, but that means it will just burn more fracked natural gas.

Voters in Boulder should not stop now. Make no mistake: Xcel’s current actions are undertaken solely because Xcel fears that citizens will take power into their own hands. A utility serious about going renewable would not just shutter two old coal plants, but phase out ALL fossil energy, and do so within ten years. Why? Because renewable energy is now cheaper than just the running cost of coal plants. This is why the Saudis, who sit on oceans of oil, just commissioned an 800 MW solar array at 1.7¢ per kilowatt hour. What are you paying for electricity? More than that. If Xcel can be trusted to deliver the cheapest power, why did it just approach the Colorado Public Utility Commission asking for yet a $245 million rate increase for residential electricity to strip another $9.7 million out of Boulder. Since 2007, Xcel’s base rates have gone up 47%.

There’s a bigger risk of staying with Xcel. Anyone fortunate enough to hear Tony Seba when he spoke in Boulder last June knows that renewable energy is sweeping our economy. Missed it? See the video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2b3ttqYDwF0. Seba, who teaches at Stanford University, argues that the fall in the cost of solar, the fall in the cost of storage (batteries), the advent of the electric car and soon the driverless car will drive an inevitable shift to a world that is 100% renewable by 2030. If that happens all of Xcel’s rate-payer financed investments in coal and natural gas will be stranded.

Could this be true? Consider the events of the last month: China announced that it will phase out internal combustion cars (ICE). Governor Jerry Brown of California is considering doing the same. This follows commitments by India, UK, France and Norway to ban ICE vehicles. General Motors announced that its future would be electric. And Nissan rolled out its suite of grid-intertied solar, battery and EV options. [Full disclosure, I drive a Leaf. It is powered by the solar on my ranch.] Why? Because it is cheaper. It’s also more secure. In the 2013 Boulder floods, I was fine.

Why has little Tesla has soared to a market capitalization either just above or just below GM, despite selling 300 times fewer cars. Tesla is also a battery company. And a solar company. But mostly Tesla is integrating all of the components that you would need to leave the grid entirely. It’s now helping Puerto Rico build a world class distributed solar grid.

We are all in the midst of one of the most profound industrial transformations in all of history. Utilities will wholly transform or they will go broke. Because Xcel is guaranteed a rate of return so that it can handsomely compensate its shareholders, Boulder will be on the hook for its mismanagement of this transition and its stranded assets. The European utilities that have underestimated the speed of the renewables transition are losing trillions of dollars.

The voters of Boulder have an historic opportunity to put themselves on the right side of history. Voting for municipalization is a vote against the Koch brothers, fracking, the flurry of bankruptcies in the coal industry and Xcel’s constitutional right to be idiots. Mired in the thinking of the last century, Xcel will not change, and it will take its customers down with it.

Boulder is only the first of many cities that should make its own decisions. This should not be squandered because a few people believe they can appease a dinosaur. It’s time to evolve, to become a bird, and to fly.

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