Voices of 100%: Boulder Takes Bold Steps to Support Local Renewable Energy — Episode 71 of Local Energy Rules Podcast

Date: 6 Mar 2019 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States, Podcast | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

The city of Boulder, Colo., is one of more than 100 cities across the country that has adopted an ambitious goal to transition to one hundred percent renewable energy.

A small city on the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Boulder has long been a national leader in the pursuit of clean and renewable energy and made a community-wide commitment in 2016 to supply all of its electricity from renewable sources by the year 2030.

For this episode of our Voices of 100% series of the Local Energy Rules Podcast, host John Farrell spoke with Jonathan Koehn, Boulder’s Regional Sustainability Director, in September 2018 to learn more about what has motivated the city’s commitment to renewable energy and what strategies it is pursuing to ensure a vibrant, local, and resilient clean energy future.

Jonathan Koehn: As local government, it is the place where we interact and interface with our community values. You don’t see that happening at the national level, or the federal level, or the state level.
Marie Donahue: Across the country, more than 100 cities have adopted ambitious goals to transition to one hundred percent renewable power, but how do these cities plan to get there?

A small city on the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Boulder, Colorado, has long been in the pursuit of clean and renewable energy and, back in 2016, made a community-wide commitment to reach 100 percent renewable electricity by the year 2030.

Our host John Farrell caught up with Jonathan Koehn, Boulder’s Regional Sustainability Director, last fall to learn more about what motivated the city to act and what progress it has made toward reaching its goal.

This is an episode of our special Voices of 100% series of Local Energy Rules, where we’re speaking with local leaders from across the county to understand why their city has made such a goal, how their city plans to meet its commitment, and what these visionaries see as the future of local renewable energy.

John Farrell: This week we’re talking with Jonathan Koehn, Regional Sustainability Director with the City of Boulder, Colorado, which is long in the tooth in pursuit of renewable energy. But, also one of these cities that has made this commitment. Jonathan, welcome to the program.
Jonathan Koehn: Hey John. Nice to talk to you.
John Farrell: So, as I’ve started off with all of our other guests, I just want to start by asking you, what is Boulder’s motivation in this pursuit of 100 percent renewable energy? Why go for this?
Jonathan Koehn: Well, that’s a good place to start. I would say it’s a fairly complex answer. And let me kind of unpack that for you. So, early on, I think Boulder recognized that the transformation of our energy system was essential if we’re going to stop burning fossil fuels. And the reality is that transition presents and unparalleled opportunity also. So, what started many, many years ago in terms of Boulders commitment in terms of sustainability, Boulder was the first city to tax itself to the preservation of open space. We had the first green building requirements. And then, in 2005, 2006, we developed our climate action plan. And, to pay for those strategies our carbon tax.

And, as we moved forward and thinking about what is really beneficial to the Boulder community, what aligns with our values as a community. The idea that renewables is really, I think, is a really important catalyst in exploring and opening up all these opportunities. And what I mean by that is, it’s not just about greening the electrons. It’s about understanding that energy is so much broader than just electricity. So, when we talk about energy, we mean electricity, we mean natural gas, or alternatives for heating, and industrial processing, and of course, petroleum for transportation. So, when you think about energy, or at least as we think about energy, it’s represents 99% of our emissions.

So, when we recognize that in that transition to cleaner resources and cleaner alternatives, it also brings forward all of these amazing opportunities in terms of ingenuity and entrepreneurship. And new ways to develop and deploy technology and really support our low- and fixed-income [residents]. It is that great, kind of, coming together of the ven diagram of the legs of the sustainability model.

And we talk about, of course, the economic, social, and environmental. But we also talk about equitability and resilience. And so, it is a way to kind of bring those pieces together. And I know that’s a very long answer, but, it is what drives our efforts here in Boulder when it comes to climate and energy.

John Farrell: Now, one of things that I’ve always been fascinated with about Boulder has been this long-term commitment now — your first ballot initiative — to approve the city to take over the electric company to municipalize the utility was back in 2011. It’s been going on for seven years now. But for a good reason, in a podcast interview I did with your former mayor, Susan Osborn, in 2013, I sited back to her, the local paper had kind of outlined what the feasibility study had said about this possibility of a city-owned utility. And it said it could “offer lower rates to customers.” Not just on day one, but over 20 years. It could maintain or exceed current levels of reliability. It could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50% within the first year. You get 50% or more of the electricity from renewables. And you could create a model public utility that could, as they said, and I quote, “Allow for innovation in everything from energy efficiency to customer service.”

So, I think it’s pretty clear from that, that you saw a lot of value-add in this particular strategy, municipalization. I just want to ask you because we were chatting before we got online here, before we were recording about Xcel Energy. So that’s your investor-owned utility company that serves Boulder. And they’ve recently put together a resource plan that pretty much gets them to the level of renewables that, five years ago you were talking about a municipally utility could get to.

So, does that take away from what you could get by taking this strategy, by looking at having a city-run utility in terms of the 100% goal, but the other goals that the city of Boulder has?

Jonathan Koehn: Well, a lotta question there. So, let me go back just a little bit and talk just briefly about the intent behind municipalization. So, let me begin my saying that we have never demonized Xcel Energy as our investor-owned utility. I think what is really fascinating is, as local government, it is the place where we interact and interface with our community values. You don’t see that happening at the national level, or the federal level, or the state level. So, we have to react to the needs, and desires, and values of our community. And, what’s critical about that is, we have always thought about our role and job as, looking forward and thinking about the health, safety, welfare, economic prosperity, equitability of our community.

And so, if we’re not really addressing climate issues. If we’re not thinking about the reliance of our energy system, then we’re not doing our job. And so, the idea of municipalization is a really clunky and kind of crude way to get where we want go. And I will just admit that the majority of us in this city are pretty agnostic on how we get there. We developed a whole series of goals, one of which is access to renewable energy.

But there were other commitments that were made, and other goals that related to price, stability and looking at high levels of reliability. Being able to work with entrepreneurs and our local energy companies to test and model some of their devices and technology. And really shifting the notion of what a utility does, and becoming more of a service provider, rather than the seller of the commodity which is kilowatt hours. And there’s been a lot of talk about the utility of the future. Not just here in Boulder, but across the country as markets shift, and the desires shift, and as customers become more literate on choice. So, it’s always been our aim to really figure out how utility functions in a much different way.

Now you bring up a really critical point, which is, we knew Xcel Energy was going to move in the direction that we’ve always hoped they would move in terms of procuring more clean electricity, more clean electrons, and offering that to consumers. But it matters how they do it in terms of ownership structure. So, as we think about a decentralized model, one which everyone has the ability to have a power plant on their roof, have the ability to over-generate and sell or donate excess power. That whole transactive energy concept. How we start to harmonize the components of electrification of our thermal system. Electrification of our transportation system. Those are really, really cutting edge things that we all hear about. And utility plays a central role in that, so we have always said, where we need to go is one, that a utility is that facilitator and it enables those kind of, new ideas, a new marketplace so to speak.

So Xcel is moving in the right direction. The question is, are they going to get their far, are they going to get far enough? Are they going to get there fast enough? And this last round of bids and the selection of their resources and their last IRP [Integrated Resource Plan], just in the past couple of weeks, really is exciting. It’s exciting to see that the market has responds, and it is now much, it’s actually cheaper to build new wind and include storage, than it is to run existing coal plants in the state of Colorado. That is extraordinary.

So what does that mean for our efforts in terms of municipalization? It means that, the differential between status quo and what we could do on day one, may get a little bit smaller. But, our goal is to get to 100% by 2030. That is the goal that our community has committed to. It’s the goal that our city council has codified. And, as I said earlier, what I talk about, it matters how we do it. We have a goal for local generation as well. So, we are looking to get to 100 megawatts of local generation in the city of Boulder by 2030. So, you find that pinch point then between a utility that may be installing and owning large centralized solar and wind plants in the Southeast or Southwest corner of the state, versus, distributed generation on our rooftops that add resilience, adds those benefits back to consumers directly. And so, I think we are seeing that the conversations shift to not, are our renewables viable and should that be the direction we go? But, how do you do it, and what’s the right ownership structure?

John Farrell: I want just emphasize too, and what you’ve said, and what I’ve heard. In particular, I really liked what you were saying about local government being this place where, it’s the level of government where you can most directly interact is community values. And I think that’s really reflected in what you said before. Or in what you’re saying now about this municipalization process. It seems it’s sort of a natural continuation, as you said, the citizens of Boulder have been willing to take on, to apply these values locally in a lot of different ways through the power of their city. Whether that’s, as you said, green building requirements, taxing themselves for open space. One of the first cities to tax themselves for carbon emissions to help drive forward this goal. Are there other complimentary measures that the city is taking? So municipalization is kind of the headline thing? Right?

It’s been going on for seven years. It’s this huge undertaking. There have been a couple of points of big opposition and I’d like to come back to that. What other things is Boulder doing at the city level, at the local level to help accelerate toward 100%? Other than this conversation about the ownership of the system? Although that is obviously a very important one.

Jonathan Koehn: Well, I’m so glad you asked the question. Because I think one of the criticisms we hear regularly is that, all of our resources, all of our time has been devoted to, you said, this kind of crude notion of buying the distribution system and starting up our own electric utility. And that couldn’t be farther from the truth. It is one of our prime focus areas because our community has continued to vote in favor of moving forward until we can’t move forward. But, along the way, we have continued to implement cutting edge strategies related to reducing emissions and accessing clean electricity.

And so, from the things that are kind of central to our competency of local government, looking at energy efficiency requirements, not only from our commercial sector, but for our rental housing. And so we were the first community to have rental housing efficiency requirements, which is extraordinary. It’s really dramatically improved the quality of our rental housing in Boulder.

We have really taken a different approach in thinking about, as a community, that, it isn’t about just one city. If one city is 100% renewable, so what. What really matter is how we share, and how we export learning, and how we work together and lean on one another in terms of communities. And so, big focus area over the past couple of years has been building out our networks of cities. Really relying on one another in terms of going to the state legislature, going to the PUC [Public Utilities Commission], looking at the federal level to change policy.

So we created a couple of coalitions. One is called the Colorado Communities for Climate Action. Or CC4CA. It’s a coalitions of now 22 cities across our jurisdictions. It does include some counties, across the state of Colorado, that is acutely focused on policy reform related to climate. We don’t shy away from it, we talk about resilience, we talk about climate. And we’ve been incredibly effective at working with the Governor’s Office and working with state legislatures to really remove those restrictions that we bump into.

And I think that’s one of the challenges that local communities pay. Say in a regulated state like Colorado, our utility, you know, it’s a regulated monopoly. We say well we’ll do whatever we can do and that really boils down to efficiency or on the customer side of the meter. Yet the things that are the biggest levers we can pull, we continue to bump into either regulation or policy that is restrictive.

So we often throw up our hands and say, “well gosh there’s nothing we can do.” We have turned that around to say no, in fact this coalition represents one seventh of the population of this state. We now have a seat at the table, we are working with our state leadership to really devise and develop new policy that enables really really aggressive local action that really transforms the benefits that we’ve seen in the past.

We are also strongly strongly focused on that electrification of our transit system. And we’ve just launched a program in the last couple of months around that we call Comfort365, really looking at how do we as a community and community members think about the transition off of natural gas. What does that look like? How do we do that so we don’t create winners and losers? And so we’ve done a bunch of pilot projects to figure out how you bundle some of these services and really make this transformational change. And so we’ve done full neighborhood transformations around natural gas conversion.

And just this past week we we’re so honored to host the Climate Neutral Cities Alliance annual meeting. We had 24 cities from around the globe. These are leaders in the world really thinking about some of the transformational strategy. And we are by far the smallest community, but it really speaks volumes to our commitment in this area and we were able to really work collaboratively with those communities to say what are the most effective strategies and how do we pivot away from just offering energy efficiency services to really thinking about the biggest levers we can pull in each community.

John Farrell: So I’d like to hear some examples. You mentioned the, for example, the local policy of energy efficiency for multifamily residential properties, or SmartRegs, and that that’s working out well. One question, I want to ask on behalf of folks here in Minneapolis is how does that effect affordability, and then I’d love to ask you about some of these other specific policies that you’ve been with your coalition advocating for at the state level.
Jonathan Koehn: Sure. So to your question around affordability, I think one of the challenges we are facing, and I know this is not so unusual for a lot of communities, particularly those with universities. Over 50 percent of our housing here in Boulder is rental, which is typically the lowest quality, the least efficient. And so we started thinking about our clean energy future design for new buildings and redesign on moving towards net zero or net positive buildings and neighborhoods.

So as we looked at our code with regard to new construction, we don’t have a lot of new construction in Boulder. We are able to address efficiency and energy requirements for remodels and additions. And we love to say well in terms of equitability, who is hit the hardest? And it really is the renters.

So we worked with our rental housing association to say how do we ease in to this idea if increasing the quality of our housing stock for renters. And so we worked in parallel with our rental housing association. I would not suggest that it was easy at the beginning, but we are nearing the completion of our compliance period where we have been able to get over 90% of our rental housing compliant with our energy efficiency requirements through smart res.

And I think the fear at the beginning is that those costs would be really transferred to the renters. We haven’t seen that occur. There’s been some indication that rent in certain areas have increased. But by increasing the literacy of the renters at the same time, we’re able to work with the whole system to say what does a savings look like, and how to you actually transfer the savings to the tenant, not just the cost for the upgrade.

And so it’s a little bit rocky at the beginning but it really has smoothed out, and we have done a number of studies and analysis to show that the benefit has actually been pretty extraordinary in terms of cost saving.

Marie Donahue: You’re listening to an interview with Jonathan Koehn from Boulder, Colorado, as part of our Voices of 100% series from Local Energy Rules.

Do you know any folks we should interview about 100% renewable energy commitments in their community? If so, send us an email at Voicesof100@ilsr.org. That’s voices – of – 1 – 0 – 0 – at ilsr.org. Stay tuned for the rest of this episode after a short message from our Energy Democracy Initiative Director, John Farrell.

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Thanks again for listening, now, back to the program.

John Farrell: You know I wanted to get into some of these other policy concepts you were talking about in this coalition work that you’re doing at the state level. You mentioned kind of bumping into restrictive policies, whether that’s the fact the it’s electric utilities are regulated monopolies, gas utilities are regulated monopolies. It’s something that’s true of over 30 states. What are some of those things that you’re asking for when you go to state leaders, state legislatures that would give the local community more power to address these issues of climate and efficiency?
Jonathan Koehn:  Yeah. So that’s an interesting one. So if you, anyone can take a look at our website [for the Colorado Communities for Climate Action], which is, you can just type in “C-C-the number four-C-A” or cc4ca.org. And on the website we have our policy agenda that was not a small feat, trying to get a couple of dozen communities and jurisdictions to agree on a policy agenda. But we were able to get there. And the purpose is to be able to identify and really think broadly, but also give specific examples of where do we run into these barriers that either restrict local jurisdictions from going farther faster, or policies that would really shift the entire state.

Now I should say that not every community represented is actually in the regulated service territory. So, Xcel Energy is essentially the only investor-owned utility, but there are a number of municipal utilities, there are co-ops and rural electric utilities that are also represented within CC4CA.

So we try to balance our asks between those that are specific to regulation versus those that are more widespread in terms of a policy or legislation.
Jonathan Koehn: So some examples, the state of Colorado, sure we have our governor Hickenlooper had signed an executive order related to climate, and set some high level goals. But we don’t have an updated inventory. We don’t have and agency within the state government that is actually monitoring and measuring progress. And so that’s an area that we’ve been focused on pretty heavily.

Clean car standards of course. Zero emission vehicles, making sure that that’s included in our state plan. Looking at the transition as we think about decommissioning coal and natural gas. To my earlier comment, it does matter how it’s done. So we are looking at things like increasing the size limitation on qualified facilities. Looking at ways to remove some restrictions on sizing distributed generation in our communities.

So the 120% rule is a perfect example of that where it was a fine intention when it was developed years ago with regard to access to the incentives by the utilities, yet the unintended consequence is now, as we think about solar as a tool for long term affordability, as we think about solar as a tool for energy resilience in our communities, as we think about the integration of storage in our communities, we run into interconnect requirements and sizing limitations. So it’s our goal and our aim to go to the code where those restrictions exist and get sponsorship to relax or remove some of those restrictions. Because I don’t think that the legislature contemplated that it would be affordable and advantageous for community members to start looking at residential storage, neighborhood scale storage, and how that gets deployed within a community. So those are some examples of wat we’re really focused on this upcoming session.

John Farrell: One of the other things I know that either Boulder or Boulder County had done that I thought was pretty impressive, which we’ve covered what we call a Community Power Toolkit. It’s an interactive tool for looking at ways that communities can take action, which Boulder is featured any number of places in there for some examples. But I thought it was really interesting how they we’re helping organize bulk purchasing of solar panels and electric vehicles, and then also now I believe electric bikes. And helping people on the consumer side of things. On the one hand, you have these really cool policy ideas for how you can make it easier for cities to address climate to get to clean energy, but then on the other hand helping consumers actually access that in an affordable way.
Jonathan Koehn: Yeah, and that’s been one of the benefits of working collaboratively. So we work really closely with Boulder County and some of the other communities within Boulder County. And so the bulk purchasing was intended just as you described. How do you perhaps drive down the cost even further? We have local sales tax and rebates along with utility rebates, all good stuff. But the performance based incentive offer by the utility, at least on residential systems is really not the driver or new solar installations.

So we are starting to look at how do we get, how do we start to shift and really think about the future of solar, how it could really be used differently, how do you pair it with storage, how do you bundle it with efficiency, an electric vehicle, and look at the affordability.

And also including that transition, when I talked about natural gas a bit earlier. And so looking at how we work with our local manufacturer, or excuse me, our local distributor of electric vehicles. And trying to answer that question, what is the role of local government? What should we be focused on? Is it the deployment of charging infrastructure, is it looking at rebates and incentives to get more vehicles on the road? Is it to really think about the future of charging infrastructure and where that will head. So does it make sense to really focus on level two charging or should we figure out how to get more DC-fast charging. How do we look at shared lead opportunities between our governmental agency, looking at autonomist vehicles.

One of the projects that I’m really proud of, we used some of our department of energy ready grant, which is really focused on reliability, and resilience, and using some of those dollars to partner with a local transit authority, to help them purchase their solar, to put in some storage, but also this great forward-thinking idea of electrifying their bus system, and then looking at charging those buses with solar and then looking at some autonomous roots on the CU [University of Colorado] campus, so there’s this vision of where we want to go, and these projects are more than just these one-off projects. We’re also looking at a micro grid on the CU campus, but not because just because we can do a micro grid, but what’s the purpose? What are we trying to … What problem are we trying to fix? What questions are we trying to answer? So, we have this great benefit of having a federal lab here, having university and its research applications to really say, “What do we need to do as a community, how do we establish a real clear understanding of roles, and competencies of all of the players?” That’s been really exciting, I think, over the past year or so. It’s been a transition.

Now, back to your earlier question, all of this is in parallel with our work around municipalization. We know what we can get to if we don’t meet our supplies in how far and fast we can go, and we know if we are not a regulated utility. The role of that electric utility shifts pretty dramatically, and it becomes a much stronger player in all of those transitions.

John Farrell: So actually, glad that you got back to the initialization, because I did have a follow up question, you know you mentioned earlier that Xcel Energy, the incumbent utility, a national utility has been presented in its resource planning with all of these low-cost renewable options that are even cheaper than some of their already-built coal plants. Obviously, they’re moving toward renewable energy, how have they been responding to the municipalization campaign? I say this with a little tongue-in-cheek. Obviously at the beginning, they were strongly opposed, they threw a lot of resources into trying to stop the city from municipalizing, but they’re now faced with the cost effectiveness of renewables. They’re moving and that direction. Have they been responsible on some of the other things that Boulder’s interested in, like the 100 megawatts of local energy, or this notion of resiliency, and removing limits from the size of solar arrays?
Jonathan Koehn: Well, you know, let me just … I want to put a very fine point on this comment, which is, you know, Xcel Energy is a for-profit entity, and their business model is one that perhaps is one that just does not align with the values of our community. And so, yes. I have to give them a huge amount of credit, and I won’t debate whether that’s being driven by the market, or by a fact that it is the culture of the company that perhaps is shifting, that really doesn’t matter. I think what it shows up as is that they are moving in the direction that we as a community hope they would move.

I don’t know how far and fast they’ll be able to go in terms of really starting to look at customer choice opportunities, looking at ways for consumers, customers and cities to have more control and more choice over their energy needs and services. They’ve not shown at least a willingness that I have seen yet, to look at some of these more … I’ll call them provocative solutions. Yet, it does create a good starting place for us to think about new ways to partner with the utility.

I remain hugely optimistic and open to the fact that we can still work out some type of deal between the City of Boulder and Xcel Energy. I think that they recognize the benefit and the shift in this utility landscape. When we look at utilities that are really doing great things, Xcel is typically towards the top of the list. But at the end of the day, we as a community have been tasked by our community to really figure out how do we get to our goals related to energy, how do we get to 100 percent renewable electricity, how do we get to 100 megawatts of local generation, and I’ve not seen the pathway yet with Xcel, but again, I remain hopeful.

They are doing what they have been required to do by our Public Utilities Commission after we finalized our transfer of assets, a proceeding at the PUC, we have been working with them pretty closely on the completion of our required contracts to move into the transition. That allows us to go into the combination action.

I can’t say with any amount of certainty that we will create an electric utility, but what I think is important is that we’re able to look back and say it’s been worth it, and right now I can say that. The work that we have done, we have learned so much in the past eight years about our energy system, about the needs and desires of our community, about the role that resilience truly plays, and how energy and electricity really fit into our overall objectives to decarbonize our energy supply.

John Farrell: Well, that’s such a beautiful way to bring me to my last question, which is in that eight years of learning about this process, what advice do you have for other cities that have made this kind of community? I mean, there are now over 70 U.S. cities that have publicly committed to 100 percent renewable energy, I think few of them with the kind of pedigree and history that Boulder has had even before making that kind of commitment. What would you suggest that they do if they look to how to achieve this goal?
Jonathan Koehn: Well, so yeah. I mean, I would not suggest that we are experts on this at all, but I would say that there are complexities and complications for cities that are thinking about a pretty ambitious goal related to electricity or energy, and that actually is my first kind of point. I think it begins with clearly distinguishing between renewable electricity and renewable energy. The former of course is a smaller subset, the latter also includes transportation and heat energy. I think that’s an important one.

A lot of cities get hung up on whether or not they should declare some 100% renewable goal without actually having the roadmap to get there. What I would say to that is whether it’s symbolic or not, I think it sends a very strong signal to the marketplace, I think it sends a strong signal that we as communities are going to stand up straight, and we are going to make our voices heard in terms of where we want to go. That’s really, really important. As I look across the State of Colorado, we have a handful of communities, some of which you would never expect to establish 100% goals, and it is extraordinary because they are looking at it from the perspective of protecting their customers. Protecting their most vulnerable population. Looking at the fact that using renewables to stabilize the cost of electricity, to understand the health implications of budding fossil fuels. It is totally shifting the narrative around what communities can and should be doing.

I would also say that it’s disingenuous and patently false to say that no entity can go 100% renewable. I think the science in the case of getting the grid to 80% would be relatively easy, but that last 20% would be tough. No-one denies that that’s not the issue. The issue is that when a city is run on 100% renewable energy, that’s an accounting reality, not a physics reality, and I think that’s really exciting. So don’t get hung up on someone claiming, “Well, you’re never going to get to 100%.” Looking five years back, we would never have thought that wind would be at price parity, much less solar be at price parity, never in a million years would we have thought that storage would be a potential dispatchable resource for utilities. But here we are.

So, when you think about establishing a target for 2030, much is going to happen between now and 2030, much will happen in the next 30 to 50 years. So, I would say to any community that’s contemplating this, be bold, recognize the benefit and recognize that energy is at the center of the sustainability challenge, and it’s also an indispensable gradient of our modern economic lives.

The last piece is that bringing it back to the idea of climate, we don’t have to talk about energy and 100% renewable energy as the biggest lever around climate change. We can talk about resilience, because it’s equally important.

But the reality is climate change carries serious consequences for us as humans, and for eco systems. It’s a crisis that’s going to affect our food, our national security, our water, our ability to live where we choose and basic human needs, etc., and we see it every day when we look our our windows here in Colorado, and it is extraordinary, it is incredibly hopeful when we see communities across this state declare their intention to go to 100% renewable for whatever reason.

Again, it is a movement, it’s a movement that I think we’re going to see continue, and it’s going to greatly expand in the coming years.

John Farrell: Jonathan, thank you so much for taking the time to share what terrific work that you’re up to in Boulder to advance clean local energy for your community, and to reach that 100% goal, but also many of those other important goals that the city has had for itself. It’s helpful for other communities to be able to hear what the opportunities are and more broadly, than just around climate and energy and I think you guys have been doing that very well.
Jonathan Koehn: Well, thanks very much, and I think the strength of our efforts is the fact that it is really driven from our community, and, so, I’m really honored to be doing the work on their behalf. So, always fun to talk to you.
John Farrell: You too, Jonathan, take care.
Marie Donahue: Thank you so much for listening to this episode of our Voices of 100% series, where our host, John Farrell was speaking with Jonathan Koehn about how far the City of Boulder, Colorado has come in its efforts to build a 100% local renewable energy future.

For more information on cities that have committed to 100% renewable energy, check out other episodes in this series, and explore ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map, which is available at ILSR.org. While you’re on our website, you can also find more than 70 past episodes of the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can sign up for one of our newsletters, and connect with us on social media.

Tune back into this podcast in 3 weeks to hear more perspectives from local communities taking on concentrated power to transform our energy system.

Until next time, keep your energy local, and thanks for listening.


Why a 100 Percent Renewable Energy Commitment?

Koehn shares how Boulder’s long history of pursuing sustainability — from protecting open space and setting the nation’s first green building standards to passing a carbon tax to help pay for these strategies — helped set the stage for the city’s adoption of its 100 percent renewable energy commitment.

In this renewable energy goal, Koehn sees how a transition to not just renewable electricity, but also clean energy in heating, industrial processing, and transportation, follows from the economic, social, and environmental dimensions of sustainability. It also incorporates key lenses of equity and resilience.

“That transition to cleaner resources and cleaner alternatives… brings forward all of these amazing opportunities in terms of ingenuity and entrepreneurship,” Koehn explains. “And new ways to develop and deploy technology and really support our low- and fixed-income [residents].”

All of these benefits have come together to drive how the city is taking action on climate and energy locally, he says.

Shifting the Notion of What a Utility Does

To increase investments in renewable energy, Boulder has seemingly tried it all — the city’s all-of-the-above strategy includes supporting energy efficiency in rental and affordable housing, electrifying the city’s transit system, and making it easier to shift away from natural gas in heating and cooling systems, to name a few.

One effort in particular, however, has the potential to vastly increase Boulder’s ability to make decisions about where to source electricity locally. That strategy is the city’s ongoing effort to municipalize its electric utility.

Instead of being subject to the whim of Xcel Energy — the city’s shareholder-owned, for-profit incumbent electric utility — Koehn explains how shifting to a municipally-owned and operated model would give the city freedom to make its own energy decisions. Local governments are particularly well-suited to make such decisions, he argues.

“We knew Xcel Energy was going to move in the direction that we’ve always hoped they would move in terms of procuring more clean electricity and offering that to consumers,” explains Koehn. “But it matters how they do it in terms of ownership structure.”

Public ownership of the city’s renewable resources can enable more choice in electricity services and ensure that those services align with community values, Koehn explains.

“I think what is really fascinating is, as local government, it is the place where we interact and interface with our community values. You don’t see that happening at the national level, or the federal level, or the state level. So, we have to react to the needs, and desires, and values of our community,” Koehn says.

Koehn summarizes how he sees the municipalization process as “really shifting the notion of what a utility does, becoming more of a service provider rather than the seller of … kilowatt hours.” It would also help Boulder reach some of its clean energy goals related to price, stability, and reliability, as well as its targets to reach 100 percent renewable electricity and 100 megawatts of electricity from local generation.


For more on Boulder’s municipalization efforts, listen to our earlier interviews with former mayor Susan Osborne about the city’s “Clean Energy Takeover,” and Ken Regelson about the importance of community organizing in “Envisioning an Innovative, Local Utility.”

The Power of Networks and the Colorado Climate Action Policy Agenda

In addition to the city’s municipalization efforts, Farrell and Koehn speak at length about another unique strategy that Boulder has pursued to reduce barriers to local clean energy — an effort called Colorado Communities for Climate Action or “CC4CA.”

As part of this collection of dozens of Colorado communities, Boulder has advocated for regulatory and policy change at the state level that better supports local climate and clean energy action.

“The purpose is to be able to identify and really think broadly, but also give specific examples of where do we run into these barriers that either restrict local jurisdictions from going farther faster, or policies that would really shift the entire state,” explains Koehn about the Colorado Communities for Climate Action (CC4CA) coalition’s advocacy efforts.

These regional advocacy efforts have given cities a seat at the table in state policy discussions and helped make that landscape more amenable to local renewable energy commitments.

For example, sizing requirements for distributed energy resources including solar and storage set at the state level have limited cities’ and communities’ ability to effectively plan and interconnect these projects in Colorado. Koehn explains that removing such restrictions is one of the coalition’s top priorities this legislative session.

Following Boulder’s Bold Lead

When asked about what encouragement he would provide to other cities pursuing renewable energy goals based on Boulder’s experience, Koehn emphasizes his optimism. He points out how far Boulder — along with the technology and favorable economics of renewables — has come in recent years.

“Don’t get hung up on someone claiming, ‘Well, you’re never going to get to 100 percent,’” he recommends. “Looking five years back, we would never have thought that wind would be at price parity, much less solar be at price parity, never in a million years would we have thought that storage would be a potential dispatchable resource for utilities. But here we are.”

As it becomes easier to make local investments in clean energy, Koehn describes how extraordinary and hopeful it is to “see communities across this state declare their intention to go to 100 percent renewable.”

Koehn concludes by insisting cities “be bold” in their commitments and actions to shift toward local, renewable energy.

“Be bold,” Koehn recommends. “Recognize that energy is at the center of the sustainability challenge, and it’s also an indispensable gradient of our modern economic lives.”


Want to hear other stories of how communities are supporting local clean energy and pursuing ambitious 100 percent renewable energy goals?

Stay-tuned for the next episode in our Voices of 100% series and other episodes from the Local Energy Rules podcast every three weeks (and shifting to bi-weekly after March 27, 2019!).

Episode Notes

For concrete examples of how communities can meet their ambitious renewable energy goals locally, such as how to create a municipal electric utility, policies that help communities set aggressive building codes to support renewable energy and energy efficiency, and strategies to build grassroots support for local, clean energy, explore ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit, mentioned in this episode.

Locate places that have made 100 percent renewable energy commitments and explore local and state strategies to advance clean energy goals, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.


This episode is part of Voices of 100%, a series of Local Energy Rules and project of the Energy Democracy initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, produced by Energy Democracy Director John Farrell, Research Associate Marie Donahue. Undergraduate intern Eli Crain assisted with editing the audio for this episode.

This article originally posted at ilsr.org. For timely updates, follow John Farrell or Marie Donahue on Twitter, our energy work on Facebook, or sign up to get the Energy Democracy weekly update.

Featured Photo by Kent Kanouse via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

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Marie Donahue
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Marie Donahue

Marie Donahue was a Research Associate with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Energy Democracy and Independent Business Initiatives in 2018-2019. She analyzed and wrote about the implications of corporate concentration and monopoly in these sectors.

John Farrell
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John Farrell

John Farrell directs the Energy Democracy initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and he develops tools that allow communities to take charge of their energy future, and pursue the maximum economic benefits of the transition to 100% renewable power.

Marie Donahue
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Marie Donahue was a Research Associate with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Energy Democracy and Independent Business Initiatives in 2018-2019. She analyzed and wrote about the implications of corporate concentration and monopoly in these sectors.