Colorado State Senator Steve Fenberg on Local Power Versus Corporate Power (Episode 39)

Colorado State Senator Steve Fenberg (Photo Courtesy of the Boulder Reporter)

When author local activist saw that his community wanted a better, more renewable future he took action — now he’s doing the same work in the Colorado State Senate.

This week’s episode of the Building Local Power podcast features a great conversation between the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Energy Democracy initiative director John Farrell and Colorado State Senator Steve Fenberg. Fenberg, the former executive director of New Era Colorado, joins Farrell to discuss the status of local control and renewable energy in the Centennial State.

The conversation focuses on Boulder’s continuing march toward municipalization for reasons that will save citizens money and integrate a higher percentage of renewable energy. They also tackle the growth of lobbying efforts by massive utilities and what that means for concerned citizens across America.

“It’s about saying people want a cleaner energy future,” argues Sen. Steve Fenberg (D-Boulder). “Technology has caught up to the point where technologies are out there that can get us there much faster than the path we’re currently on. There shouldn’t be these regulatory barriers to keeping individuals, as well as communities, from being able to use these technologies and new opportunities to have more control over their energy future.


Our guest recommended the following items:

Nick Stumo-Langer: Hello, and welcome to Building Local Power, a podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. My name is Nick Stumo-Langer and I’m the Communications Manager for ILSR.

This week’s episode of Building Local Power is a conversation between John Farrell, the Director of ILSR’s Energy Democracy Initiative, and Steve Fenberg, a Democratic state senator from Boulder, Colorado. Farrell also spoke with Fenberg way back in 2014 when he was Executive Director of New Era Colorado about the work his grassroots group was doing to fight the power of monopoly electric utility Xcel Energy in his city.

This conversation focuses on the ins and outs of local activism for renewable energy. Fenberg explains to our audience how local organizing power can translate into solid political wins and it’s not just about fighting against something, but fighting for something. In his case, committing Colorado to a bolder and more renewable future.

You can find links to everything John and Steve talk about on the show page for this podcast at That’s I-L-S-R dot-org. Support this podcast by going to ILSR’s donate page at Help keep us going.

Finally, please rate, review, and share this podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you find your podcasts. Your engagement helps us get great guests like Senator Fenberg and helps other to find this feed. Now, here’s the interview.

John Farrell: Welcome to another edition of Building Local Power, a podcast talking about the ways in which communities can build their local authority over their economies and the strategies that have been employed across the country. I’m John Farrell, the Director of the Energy Democracy Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and today I’m speaking with Stephen Fenberg, who I last spoke with three years ago for a different podcast, almost four years ago, actually, in March 2014, when he was with New Era Colorado. At that time, they had just won a ballot initiative by a narrow margin to keep the city of Boulder, Colorado on track to take over its electricity grid from the incumbent shareholder-owned corporation, Xcel Energy. Stephen, welcome back to the program.
Steve Fenberg: Well, thanks for having me, John. I appreciate it.
John Farrell: I just wanted to read a quote from that interview that we had back in 2014 to give some context for what you were working on then because I think it really captures the theme of what I see as the work that you’ve done since then. I had asked you about what your intentions were and you said that your goal in terms of what you saw the work in Boulder being as a model for other cities was, “Not everybody [municipalizes 00:02:39]. Not everybody is taking over the electric grid, but there’s the threat that 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 provided a product that’s not in line with their values, they should be able to have the leverage to demand something better.”

I was curious. Could you just share briefly what it was that Boulder was trying to do back then three years ago and why that incumbent utility company wasn’t doing enough to satisfy Boulder’s residences and businesses?

Steve Fenberg: This is, I think, a conversation that more and more is happening around cities in Colorado, but all over the country really. The idea is that more communities are demanding that their energy sources are from cleaner sources. That was the case in the city of Boulder when it started the conversation as a community about the prospects of [municipalization 00:03:37]. But it wasn’t necessarily out of some deep desire to not be a customer of that particular utility. It was more about they wanted something that the utility wasn’t able to provide and that’s a much cleaner energy source and also to have the decision at the local level about where those energy sources come from, but also things like being able to deploy new technologies and make decisions about what they think is the best policies for their energy future. That was the idea.

Other communities have been watching Boulder, I think, very closely, and the city of Pueblo here in Colorado is in conversation in their community about what the future might hold for them. Then there’s other cities, especially large cities, that clearly use a lot of energy are having conversations with their utilities about making sure that maybe they’re not going to [municipalize 00:04:35], but making sure that they have an energy source and portfolio that meets their community’s values.

The city of Denver has said that they want to be on a path to 100% renewables. Their utility is Xcel Energy, so Xcel Energy has to take that seriously, not just because of Boulder, but because the city of Denver is such a huge customer base for them that it’s only the smart business thing to do to try to please them and give them what they’re asking for.

John Farrell: One of the things that we talk a lot about on this podcast, Building Local Power, is about monopolies, and about the concentration of economic and political power. One thing that is striking about the work that you are doing in Boulder is that Xcel Energy is a monopoly. They’re a state-granted monopoly. We have these in lots of places across the country, 30 states do the electric market this way and give companies a monopoly. What Boulder is doing is essentially saying, “We need a different choice entirely. We can’t operate, we can’t successfully get what we need from this company that controls the system.”

You mentioned Denver. Do you think that when they have these requests that Xcel really does have to respond to them? Is that threat of [municipalization 00:05:50] significant enough that it will motivate them to change? Or do they have that advantage of incumbency and they control over the system that allows them to ignore that local interest?

Steve Fenberg: I think it’s on a case-by-case basis. I think overall and historically we’ve seen that the incumbent utility typically can ignore that. They had the ability to get away with that by saying that it would be a horrible path to go down as a community, and there are so many unknowns, it would be expensive. That’s a pretty compelling message. I would say yes, they typically do get away with it, and they are typically able to kick the can down the road.

They did that with Boulder really for decades because this isn’t a new conversation for Boulder. It was going on for a long time. These contracts, these franchise agreements with the utility, are often 20 years. Communities don’t have the opportunity or the option to hold that threat over the utility very often if they’re in 20-year contracts.

I do think you’re right. These utilities do have an immense amount of power and authority and financial resources behind them. That’s a challenge. That’s why I think what’s happening in some of these communities is really exciting because there’s not a technical problem. There’s not a technical inability or a technical barrier that is keeping the communities from being locally-controlled and having democratic choice of deciding where their energy comes from. It’s really a political and sort of a legal barrier that is the real issue.

That’s why I think having these successes, no matter what these cities and communities actually end up doing, but the fact that we are having this conversation, they pushed the envelope to where we even are today. I think that means that legislatures, politicians, elected officials, need to have the conversation of how do we provide communities more choice? Whether that’s Community Choice aggregation, allowing a smoother path to [municipalization 00:07:56], competition, there are many policy options. But I think we’ve proven that we’ve gotten to a point where the options on the table right now are not nearly enough. 

John Farrell: One of the things I think was really terrific is that after what happened in Boulder in 2013, and then they’ve had to have a subsequent ballot initiative to keep the process rolling, another quote you offered in our 2014 interview was that, “What happened in Boulder gave folks hope that there are things you can do on the local level that can have a big impact.”

One thing, obviously, that you can do at a local level is to elect representatives to higher levels of government. I hear that since 2014, when we spoke last, the folks in Boulder have a new state senator.

Steve Fenberg: That’s right. Some young guy that has no experience. No, yeah, I in 2016 decided to throw my hat in the ring and run for state senate. I was fortunate enough to get elected, so I have been in the legislature now for a little over a year. We did one complete legislative session and we just started our 2018 session a couple of weeks ago.
John Farrell: You already have a couple of energy-related bills that I’ve seen that seem focused on local power, one about the rights of folks to install energy storage, and another one asking utility companies to make better plans for distributed energy like rooftop solar. Why is local energy like that important? I guess are you proposing other legislation that promotes local power, whether you’re talking about electricity and energy or in other forms?
Steve Fenberg: Colorado, historically, is a state that really embraces the concept of local control. Sometimes that meets my policy objectives and sometimes it doesn’t. I would say we’re somewhat not predictable in when we want to give communities local control and when we do. But in this case, I think it’s clear that Colorado’s constitution allows for communities to do things like have local control over their energy decisions. In fact, 29 cities in Colorado already do that.

I am interested in the issue. I think it’s part of the Colorado way of life, and philosophy, and way of governing. The bills that I’ve been working on so far in my short legislative career are in many ways in line with that concept. One of which is to not necessarily on a community or city level, but to actually on an individual level, to give individuals more choice, and options, and more authority over their own personal energy future, such as allow them to install energy storage systems in a way that makes sense and in a way that engineers think is safe and reliable and reasonable, even when utility might prefer them to do it in a different way so they can retain control.

But for me, this isn’t being anti-utility. This isn’t being anti-certain types of utilities. It’s about saying people want a cleaner energy future. We know that’s the case these days. Technology has caught up to the point where technologies are out there that can get us there much faster than the path we’re currently on. There shouldn’t be these regulatory barriers to keeping individuals, as well as communities, from being able to use these technologies and new opportunities to have more control over their energy future.

In some ways, it’s little-d democracy. In some ways, it’s about clean energy. In some ways, it’s simply about individuals being able to have control over their own destiny. I think, frankly, it’s important in a whole different variety of issue areas. There’s the utility energy issues, but it’s also I think important when it comes to communities having decisions of where oil and gas extraction activities are allowed to occur. Right now, they’re happening pretty much next to homes, and schools, and areas where many would say it’s not somewhere an industrial activity like that should occur. But right now in Colorado, communities don’t have an opportunity to decide where those activities are.

I think it crosses more than just energy use. It’s also energy extraction. Then even down to things like decisions of relating to school funding and taxes. I think it’s important for communities to have direction over their own destiny.

John Farrell: It looks in another way, too, and a hat tip to my colleague, Chris Mitchell, who works on this issue, but Colorado seems to also be a leader in cities taking charge of their broadband infrastructure and passing resolutions in order to build out their own fiber networks to make sure that their economies are not dependent on outside corporations providing them affordable and accessible internet access.
Steve Fenberg: That’s right. That’s been a big issue at the capitol over the last couple of years and a big issue for local communities. It actually intersects in an interesting way with the local power issue because we are seeing the communities that have control over their own energy utility are actually the ones that are able to move forward on public broadband much faster than others because they can essentially just use the lines and the infrastructure of the energy utility that’s already owned by the citizens and basically just add broadband to that infrastructure.

Whereas, here in Boulder, or in the city of Denver, or some other communities that have a monopoly on energy utility, they have no ability to force the utility to allow them to use their infrastructure to run the wires. We’re seeing communities like Longmont and Fort Collins move forward on public broadband. We’re seeing that it’s significantly faster than what the companies are offering and also significantly cheaper. It’s a better product. It’s better for consumers. It’s better for community development to have accessible internet for everybody. Again, it’s one of those issues where it’s a regulatory problem that has created a landscape where local communities don’t have a decision or don’t have a feasible option for making them the best decision for themselves, but instead have to do essentially whatever the monopoly utility or the private broadband company wants them to do.

John Farrell: I have kind of a bigger-picture question that plays off of that around this notion of local versus state oversight or control. When we talk about energy, we have utility companies that are regulated at the state level. That’s often true with broadband providers. There are a couple of recent events in the past year in the energy sector, at least, I think that highlight this question.

One was just in the past few weeks, a huge exposé about the political power of the big monopoly shareholder utility companies making very risky bets with customer dollars thanks to state legislation that gave them the power to essentially collect money for power plants that were incomplete that have now failed. There was a very big nuclear power plant project, both in South Carolina and in Georgia, and just a remarkable exposé of the enormous cost that’s going to be borne by folks for many, many years because state regulators were either handcuffed by the legislature or didn’t really do their job in terms of due diligence.

Then you have another example that actually involves Xcel Energy, your utility company there in Colorado, your electric utility. In Minnesota last year, the state regulators were saying about a new gas plant the utility wanted to build, “Well, we’d just like to think about it a little more and make sure that we’re making a cost-effective choice.” Well, the utility unleashed its 50 lobbyists on the 200 legislators in Saint Paul, Minnesota, at the state capitol, and got a bill passed to allow them to go ahead and build that power plant. It’s going to be $1 billion infrastructure investment that will significantly reward the company’s shareholders and as much as a $5 billion expense over the life of that power plant.

My question is is the oversight that we have of these companies when they get so big sufficient to manage and make sure that the public interest is protected? What do you see as the future here? You mentioned before the technology is moving really quickly. There are these opportunities that we can jump on and these folks don’t necessarily move very quickly. How do we address that and what can we do, if anything, at the local level?

Steve Fenberg: That’s a good point. We all probably have our opinions on private interests and corporations lobbying elected officials. It’s something that I think we have come to recognize as just a part of our system. It’s been held up in courts as free speech and, for better or for worse, it’s a core part of the democratic process right now.

But when that company or that private interest is a regulated monopoly, a state-sanctioned monopoly, I think there’s something even more obscene about it in that they are making their profit entirely off of ratepayers that have no other choice but to buy the product from this company. When they influence the process, it creates I think a pretty vicious cycle where regular individuals don’t have much of a voice or a seat at the table. In many industries, in many situations, their voice is by saying, “Well, I’m not going to buy your product.” In this case, they don’t have that option. I do think it’s very problematic.

I think the other thing is in many states and Colorado, the utility is mostly regulated by a public utilities commission. I think that’s appropriate because a lot of it is very complicated in the legislature, probably isn’t going to have the expertise to manage the regulations of a utility industry on a day-to-day basis. But if we think Congress or state legislators are complicated for regular people, the public utilities commissions are very complicated. You basically can’t participate unless you have a very high-powered attorney. Not only that, but you probably are going to need a team of high-powered attorneys, because that’s what the utilities always have. This is what they do. They live and breathe the regulatory arena and so they know everything about it. They control the system. Maybe not in an overtly-corrupt way, but indirectly they’re pretty much running the show in the regulatory scheme of things.

I do think it’s a problem. I think we need to allow more public input and more voice to the regular ratepayers, consumers, and the like. I also think we need to think about when it’s appropriate to not have monopoly utilities in charge of every aspect of some of these industries. It may make sense in many states to have a monopoly run the transmission, for instance, but when it comes to the distribution and maybe the generation, I don’t know that we’re at a place where we still need to have that as a government-regulated monopoly. I think those are conversations we’re starting to have more and more here in Colorado. I hope they’re happening elsewhere around the country, too.

John Farrell: Do you think that there are any spillover from the trends in national politics over the last year that are either helping or hurting this effort to talk more about local control and authority?
Steve Fenberg: Yeah, I think so. You look at the decision around net neutrality at a federal level. Immediately, a lot of people at the local level were saying, “Well, we’ve never had a better reason to create a local community broadband system because then we could have net neutrality essentially on the system because it would be publicly-owned at the local level.”

On the positive side, I think people are reacting to what’s happening federally and hopefully being in a lot of ways demanding more of a voice, and more control, and more attention than maybe they otherwise would. On the negative side, a lot of what’s going on at a federal level is going to have ramifications for decades to come. I mean, on the FTC, as we were just talking about net neutrality, that’s had a profound impact in the near future and for years to come after that.

But there’s also decisions have to be at the federal energy courts as well, where a lot of the regulatory rules and guidelines really do come down from the federal government and that the states implement. The current conversations happening at the federal level, generally speaking, are not positive for local control and for local decision-making for people’s energy future.

I think it’s having good and negative impacts, as a lot of things do in politics. The best part, though, is I do think people are working up and getting more involved and engaged and paying a lot more attention. In the long run, that’s what we’re going to need to make this shift.

John Farrell: We always ask guests on this program to give us a reading recommendation: a recent book, magazine article, web article. I know I’m springing this question on you unprepared, so take a few seconds, but you probably don’t have as much time to read these days, either, now that you’re busy being a legislator. But if there’s something that you would recommend-
Steve Fenberg: Well, I’m reading a ton, but none of it is all that interesting.
John Farrell: Is there anything you could recommend to our listeners that you’ve across recently?
Steve Fenberg: Yeah, I think there’s a handful of things. I think the Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything book raises critical points for the time we’re living in right now. I think my biggest recommendation is read from time to time something other than the news because right now the news, I think, can be pretty depressing. It does sometimes, I think, make us angry and want to mobilize into action to do something to fight back.

But at the same time I think it’s good for the long-term health of the movement, and for the individuals that do a lot of this work, to make sure they’re thinking past just the immediate political circus that’s going on and thinking about what we need to do now in this moment and this opportunity that’s going to lay the groundwork for a much more profound and longer-term impact in the long-term. I guess in some ways I would say whatever you can get your hands on that provides tools, resources, information, and guidance on how to capitalize in the current moment to create long-term impact rather than just short-term electoral impact in the near future.

John Farrell: Sounds great. Well, Stephen, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. I really appreciate it.
Steve Fenberg: Sure.
John Farrell:  Take care. Keep up the great work for the people of Colorado.
Nick Stumo-Langer: Thank you so much for tuning into this episode of the Building Local Power podcast. You can find links to what we discussed today by going to our website and clicking on the show page for the episode. That’s I-L-S-R dot-org.

While you’re there, you can sign up for one of our many newsletters, connect with us on Facebook and Twitter, and rate and review this podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you find your podcasts. Join the conversation online by using the hashtag #BuildingLocalPower on Twitter and Facebook.

This show is produced by Lisa Gonzalez and me, Nick Stumo-Langer. Special thanks to cohost Stacy Mitchell, John Farrell, and Christopher Mitchell, all excellent ILSR experts. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL.

For the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I am Nick Stumo-Langer. I hope you’ll join us again soon for another episode of the Building Local Power podcast.



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Audio Credit: Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL Ft: Fourstones – Scomber (Bonus Track). Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

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Nick Stumo-Langer

Nick Stumo-Langer was Communications Manager at ILSR working for all five initiatives. He ran ILSR's Facebook and Twitter profiles and builds relationships with reporters. He is an alumnus of St. Olaf College and animated by the concerns of monopoly power across our economy.