How Can Communities Leverage a Better Energy Future? – Episode 17 of Local Energy Rules Podcast

Date: 6 Mar 2014 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States, Podcast | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

How can a community take control of its energy future from a 100-year monopoly electric utility?  Citizens of Boulder, CO, are testing answers to that question, trying to discover how a single city can do more for its economy and the environment with more power over its energy system. At the core of their efforts is a grassroots campaign to form a city-owned utility, an effort that faced an enormous test at the ballot box in November 2013.

We spoke with New Era Colorado executive director Stephen Fenberg about the grassroots campaign to fight Xcel Energy and build a better energy future via Skype on Dec. 6, 2013.

Stephen Fenberg: Community should have leverage to be able to get what they’re asking for at the end of the day, they’re the customer. And if they’re being provided a product that’s not in line with their values, they should be able to have the leverage to demand something better. And if the energy company doesn’t provide it, then they should be able to have the leverage to municipalize.
John Farrell: Last November, citizens in Boulder, Colorado had a huge victory in the pursuit of a city owned utility. When they defeated the incumbent monopoly electric utility Xcel energy at the ballot box, they were outspent two to one, but defeated the utility’s poison pill ballot measure by a two to one margin. To share how they won in Boulder, I’m joined this week by Steve Fenberg of New Era Colorado to learn how a powerful local grassroots campaign is giving Boulder a brighter energy future. I’m John Farrell and this is Local Energy Rules, a podcast sharing powerful stories of successful local, renewable energy and exposing the policy and practical barriers to its expansion. Steve, welcome to the program.
Stephen Fenberg: Thanks for having me, John. I really appreciate it.
John Farrell: So, Steve, you had this great success here in 2013. And does this mean that the war for Boulder’s energy future is over?
Stephen Fenberg: I wish I could say it was, you know, if there’s one thing we learned from this whole fight and whole process is that it’s a long game and we did just win a pretty remarkable election. But you know, in a lot of ways, we won that exact same election, albeit by a more narrow margin, once before in 2011, which is the first time this issue was actually on the ballot. In this past election, was actually just Xcel trying to take back the victory that we already won. So, you know, in, in a lot of ways, the electoral side of it has already gone on for much longer than the expected. And there’s no saying that there were won’t be another electoral fight. We’re pretty sure that we, we sort of knitted into blood in a lot of ways and that we had such a solid victory and an overwhelming response that it wouldn’t be wise to have Xcel go to the ballot again, to try to have voters vote on it again. But there’s no saying that they won’t do it.

And then on the, on the policy front, in the actual implementation of creating our municipal utility, that piece of the fight has just begun and the city starting condemnation proceedings in January of 2014. So once that gets rolling, you know, we’re not sure exactly how long it’ll take, but it definitely could take a couple of years before we’re actually able to officially pull the trigger and, and create the utility of our own. So, no, it’s definitely far from over and it’ll be a long process and we’re gonna learn a lot of things along the way. And you know, hopefully the community will be very involved in shaping what our energy future looks like. And at the end of the day, we’ll have something that we can be proud of here in Boulder, but also something that other communities can learn from.

John Farrell: Now, you mentioned that 2011 fight at the ballot box. And in that year, the citizens of Boulder passed a ballot measure, which really kicked off this formal exploration of a city owned municipal utility. But the victory was, as you said, by a much narrower margin, although it’s worth pointing out, you were still outspent by Excel 10 to 1 or more. Now this time around, you had $200,000 from a remarkable crowdfunding campaign. Was money the only difference?
Stephen Fenberg: It did make a difference. Absolutely. I mean, it’s always good to have the resources that you need to get your message out there, but it wasn’t the only difference the, the money helps to have the resources to spend, but the visibility and the megaphone that we had, because of that campaign in a lot of ways was the most important part. So it wasn’t the only difference, although it did help, you know, we had more organizers on the ground, we knocked out more doors, we made more phone calls to voters partially because of those resources. But you know, in, in politics you can either run a campaign with money or you can run it with people. And, and although we had more sources this time around than we did last time at the end of the day, the core of our campaign with people, and it was volunteers that came outta the woodwork and, you know, have been with our organization for a while. People’ve never met. And they saw our video on the crowdfunding effort and walked in our doors and wanted to see what they could do to help. We had hundreds and hundreds of volunteers that were just there for the right reason: they were there because they’re passionate about clean energy. They’re passionate about local control. They’re passionate about making sure a corporation wasn’t buying our elections in our local community. And, um, and that was really what made the difference was people being here and doing the hard work every day for the right reasons.

And on the other side, our opposition and other campaigns that you see sometimes will have people, but they’re not always there for the right reasons. They collected a lot of signatures to get on the ballot. And that took a lot of people, but almost every single one of them was paid 50 cents a signature. And at the end of the day, that’s why they were there. So I think the success of our campaign is completely owed. So the really, passion of volunteers and people that put of hard work that not just happened this year, but happened over the course of probably almost a decade that got us to the point that we are right now. And that that’s what really made the difference at the end of the day.

John Farrell: And I, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that there’s some credit might be due to the fact that you guys had golf carts that you used to actually get people to the polls.
Stephen Fenberg: We, we did. We got to a point toward election day, where, where we didn’t know what else we could try. So we just started trying weird things, you know, I mean, we did everything that we could in a campaign. We, we were calling voters, we were knocking on their doors. We were sending them some mail pieces that explain the issue. We were even on TV, which was the first for us as a grassroots nonprofit organization, but we were lucky enough to have some professional filmmakers make a TV spot. So we did everything we did. We did all the like formal and official things that you do on a campaign to get your message out there. But then we also tried to kind of kinda weird, off the wall things. And yeah, as you said, at the last couple of days were in Colorado, were an all mail ballot state. So people actually were voting for about three weeks or so. And towards the end, we knew we needed an extra push to get especially young people to the polls that hadn’t turned in their ballots yet. And so we, we rented some golf carts on the CU Boulder campus, which was about 30,000 students, and most of them were eligible to vote on this issue. So we had golf carts that made it super easy, and we got students on the golf carts and drove them to the on campus polling center. So they, they could make their voice heard on the issue. And we probably brought in like maybe a thousand votes just from that funny tactic. But, it worked and, and that’s the fun thing about campaigns like this is you can just try things and see what works and see what doesn’t work and you learn for next time.
John Farrell: Now in the recap video that after the successful passage, or defeat, I should say, of the ballot measure, you note that Boulder is setting a model for the rest of the country. And I also talked recently in a podcast with Ken Regelson, from Boulder who helped doing a lot of the citizen modeling about how much renewable energy could be, could be produced by a city owned utility and the opportunity. Now what’s the most important lesson that you can share with other cities that are considering pursuing a municipally utility that is focused on clean energy?
Stephen Fenberg: Well, the most important lesson I would say is that you pursue something that works for your community. So, you know, in a lot of ways, we see this as a, as not an opportunity to create a model for the communities, but it’s not that we’re hoping to create a model that’s a one size fits all and can work everywhere, because every and state laws are different around this kind of stuff. Some have different regulations in terms of like who’s allowed to provide them power, or if the city’s even allowed to [inaudible] and what the process is, it’ll take to do that. So it’s gonna be a little different everywhere. So the important part is that you have a process where the community is bought in and the community is thinking about what needs to happen in their local community to, to create a more cleaner energy supply.

And, you know, I will say municipalization might not be the answer for everybody. It could be an answer for a lot of communities, but our goal really is, is to, to make sure that not everybody municipalize it, but that there’s the threat that everybody put municipalize immunity should have leverage to be able to get what they’re asking for at the end of the day, they’re the customer. And if they’re being provided a product that’s not in line with their values, they should be able to have the leverage to demand something better. And if the energy company doesn’t provide it, then they should be able to have the leverage to municipalize or to do something to, to go alone or to go with another company or something like that. So that in a lot of ways, that was what we were after. Um, and I think that’s something that communities can learn from is that they can ask for big things that are in line with their values and expect an energy company to respond. And if they don’t, there are paths that you can take to get closer to those goals.

John Farrell: Have you talked with folks in other cities or, you know, are there people that reached out to you having seen what’s happening in Boulder?
Stephen Fenberg: We have. Yeah. Especially when our, when our crowdfunding campaign was sort of at a tight, I mean, we had thousands of people getting in touch with us to be honest, calling us, emailing us, people from all over were reaching out, asking what they can do in their community. And it really was from all over. It was from conservative towns, progressive towns, west coast, east coast, middle of the country. It, it was really exciting to see people are hungry for a solution, and we’re not getting that solution from the, the federal government right now. In a lot of ways, people feel like their, their hands are tied on a local level. And so people were excited and it gave them hope that there actually are things we can do on a local level, like, and have a big impact, not only for your community, but could set an example for other communities as well.

So, so yeah, many cities were reaching out to us where there was an Arizona in the south. I think we even had a couple of places reach out to us that were excited about this several places on the east coast and you know, other communities in Colorado as well. A couple of our neighbors are actually starting to look into this, and it’s not something that’s gonna happen tomorrow, but having this conversation get started. And especially if it can get started in more than one place. And it tips off the energy companies that this is something they have to think about is, is that communities actually want cleaner energy supply. Then maybe they’ll start thinking more critically about their business model and, and what products that they’re providing the community.

John Farrell: You had a terrific campaign. The crowdfunding campaign in particular caught so much interest. It went viral. There’s an enormous amount of attention being paid to this election and, and the ballot measure you won, you won big. How do people stay in touch? Now that that particular part is over and stay informed with what’s gonna be happening in Boulder as the city moves forward with this locally owned utility?
Stephen Fenberg: Yeah. So on a local level, we’re gonna be doing some things with community partners and with the city itself to make sure that folks in the community are very much staying in touch and aware of the progress. And, and what’s happening on the ground in Boulder. When, when you stop talking to the community about progress and the goals that as a community decided we wanted to pursue, I think that’s when it creates an opening for a company like Xcel to start messing with a process is that people are not informed and not aware of all of the great work that’s really happening to get us to a more cleaner energy future. So we’re gonna be doing some events and some, a lot of outreach here in the community locally. For people that are outside of Boulder, can definitely stay in touch with us as an organization. We’re gonna have a lot of outreach stuff. And a lot of the information on, on what’s happening on our website at on our page, this is just new area, Colorado. And then the city also has great resources. They’ve set up a website. It has pretty much everything you could want on this process. And it’s, I believe it’s They lay out the, the wonky nerdy stuff about the model, if that’s what someone’s interested in and seeing how we did it and how they can apply some of those models and thinking for their community there’s information about sort of the public process and how the community is involved and decision make there’s information on there about what the city is doing on the legal front and what the negotiations are like, and what are the next steps with combination and what different court processes we’re gonna have to be going through. So there’s a lot of information that’s available if someone’s interested in finding it through the city’s website as well.
John Farrell: Well, Steven, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. And of course, congratulations on your tremendous success in November.
Stephen Fenberg: Thanks, John. Really appreciate it.
John Farrell: That was John Farrell, ILSR’s director of Democratic Energy speaking with Steven Fenberg, executive director of New Era Colorado in December, 2013. You can read more about Boulder Colorado’s efforts to take control of its energy future at or the home of the local energy campaign at Until next time, keep your energy local and thanks for listening.


Is the War Won?

I asked Stephen if the victory at the ballot box in November 2013 meant the war was won for local control of the energy system.

“There’s no saying there won’t be another electoral fight…in a lot of ways, we won that same election (albeit by a much narrower margin) in 2011.”

While it’s less likely that Xcel will go back to the ballot for another fight after this defeat, says Stephen, the implementation and policy battle is just beginning.

“The city is starting condemnation proceedings in January of 2014…it could take a couple of years before we’re officially able to pull the trigger and create the utility of our own.”

Was Crowdfunding the Difference?

Unlike their 2011 ballot fight (see this video from former Boulder mayor Susan Osborne), the grassroots team had stronger financial support – nearly $200,000 – from a remarkable crowdfunding campaign.  We asked Stephen if that was the only difference, and he said that the money helped, but it was the passion of the people that mattered the most.

“We had more organizers on the ground, we knocked on more doors, we made more phone calls to voters…You can run a campaign with money or run a campaign with people…the core of our campaign was people…we had hundreds and hundreds of volunteers who were there for the right reasons…because they were passionate about clean energy, passionate about local control, passionate about making sure a corporation wasn’t buying our elections.”

What’s the Most Important Lesson for Other Cities?

“Municipalization might not be the answer for everybody,” says Stephen, but its most important to “have a process where the community has bought in.”

He notes that state laws are different around municipalization and that communities should pursue what works for them.

His goal in being a model for other cities is “not everybody municipalizes, but the there’s the threat…communities should have the leverage to get what they’re asking for.  At the end of the day, they’re the customer.  And if they’re being provided a product that’s not in line with their values they should be able to have the leverage to demand something better.”

Building Interest Across the Country

Thousands of people reached out to the Boulder campaign, especially at the peak of the crowdfunding campaign.  They wanted to know what they could do in their own town and they were from all across the country: West Coast, East Coast, conservative, liberal. They all had the same message:

“We’re not getting [a] solution from the federal government. People are excited and it gave them hope that there are things you can do on the local level that can have a big impact.”

For more information on the Boulder electric utility municipalization campaign, see:

This is the 17th edition of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Senior Researcher John Farrell that shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion. Other than his immediate family, the audience is primarily researchers, grassroots organizers, and grasstops policy wonks who want vivid examples of how local renewable energy can power local economies.

It is published twice monthly, on 1st and 3rd Thursday.  Click to subscribe to the podcast: iTunes or RSS/XML

Thanks to ILSR intern Jake Rounds for his audio editing of this podcast.
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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.