Voices of 100%: Shifting the Paradigm toward Renewable Power in Pueblo, Colo. — Episode 60 of Local Energy Rules Podcast

Date: 29 Aug 2018 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States, Podcast | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Marie Donahue: Across the country, more than 50 cities of all sizes have adopted ambitious goals to generate 100% of their electricity from renewable resources. But how do these cities plan to get there? In our new multi-part series Voices of 100% from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Local Energy Rules podcast, we’re speaking with local leaders with insights about their city’s 100% renewable energy commitments, how their cities plan to achieve their goals, and what these visionaries see as the future of local renewable energy. In this episode, John Farrell, director of the Energy Democracy Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance speaks with Larry Atencio, council member and mayoral candidate from Pueblo, Colorado, a small city on the front range of the Rocky Mountains once well known for its steel production. With the vocal support of council member Atencio, Pueblo recently made the plunge to commit to 100 renewable energy as the city continues to transform its local economy and energy system. This is Local Energy Rules, a podcast sharing powerful stories about local, renewable energy.
John Farrell: Larry, welcome to the program.
Larry Atencio: Hello, thank you for the call.
John Farrell: So I am really excited to talk to you first of all, about what it is that motivated Pueblo to make a commitment to a hundred percent renewable energy.
Larry Atencio: I am a Pueblo city Councilman and I represent district two, which is made up of mostly low to moderate income individuals. And my thinking was they’re having a hard time with their electricity bills and their energy costs are sky high. We have the highest electricity costs in the state of Colorado here in Pueblo, Colorado. And my thinking was how do we relieve some of the pressure finance on low to moderate income people and getting together with the Sierra Club and with other environmental groups, we talked about 100% renewable energy. And I thought that is going to be a great way to reduce energy costs, not only for my constituents, but for the city of as a whole. So that is the first thing that made me think about renewable energy to begin with. And then the 100% renewable for cities came up and I thought that was perfect. So I proposed a resolution to city council that Pueblo commit to 100% renewable.
John Farrell: And is there a date by which you’re hoping to reach that goal that’s in the resolution, or is it just open ended?
Larry Atencio: It’s not open ended. We hope to make that commitment and become 100% renewable by the year 2035. Now that’s only an aspirational goal, but it’s a goal nonetheless. And I think we can achieve it.
John Farrell: Could you tell me a little bit about how you worked with like local residents, residents, or the organization Pueblo’s Energy Future to garner support in the community for making this goal?
Larry Atencio: I got myself a member of Pueblo’s Energy Future. And through that organization, they are looking at three basic concepts and one is renewable energy, sustainable energy. Another one is having utility costs at a moderate level. And then the other is climate change. So between those three things, our efforts in the Pueblo’s Energy Future is to bring forward things that will attain those goals.
John Farrell: So how is the-  I’m curious, this has been an interesting debate in different cities. In Georgetown, Texas, who I spoke with you know, their, they have a municipal utility, so it’s owned by the city and they can kind of make their decisions. You have an incumbent utility there, Black Hills Energy. It’s an independent company it’s not run by the city. How have they reacted to the city’s goal? Have they offered up any ideas about how they might help the city reach that goal?
Larry Atencio: They, for the most part are somewhat receptive to the idea. I’m working with Black Hills Energy and the company to build a few low cost solar gardens that will benefit low income customers. And we also work with Black Hills in terms of deposits, when somebody gets their electricity turns off and their reconnect fees and then other items that would benefit low income customers.
John Farrell: And there’s been a little bit of history there that was alluded to in an article in Grist about, I guess they were relatively new in terms of their ownership of the utility that you had a problem with the utility, was it going bankrupt or, or was no longer able to serve the community?
Larry Atencio: No. The prior utility that was here, they just decided they were gonna go outta business, I guess. And I don’t know exactly why they did, but Black Hills stepped in, bought the infrastructure and everything that went with it. They built a new power plant right outside the city of Pueblo. So we’ll have sustainable energy for the city for years and years and years to come, but they took over and, they’ve been our electric provider for the last, almost 10 years.
John Farrell: But in, in that timeframe, I think you alluded to earlier that the electricity costs are the highest in the state. And that that’s, is that a more recent phenomenon or is that true even before Black Hills took over?
Larry Atencio: No, it came about when Black Hills took over, they built this new power plant out, a gas fired fire plant outside of the city of Pueblo because they are the only electric provider for the city of Pueblo. So they had to, they literally had to build their own power plant to serve the city. Now, the public utility commission of course gave them permission to recoup all of the cost. And that is what led to the high electricity bills for everyone.
John Farrell: So I wanted to talk to you a little bit about what’s going on in other places in Colorado. So Boulder, Colorado, a university town relatively progressive has famously been in a seven year fight to take over its utility. They did, among other things, a feasibility study that suggested that by taking over the utility company, by making it a municipal utility, they could make the city’s electricity system more renewable and more affordable. I’m curious if you’ve had a lot of conversation yet about what strategies playbook could consider. You mentioned working with Black Hills around some low cost solar gardens, which I think sounds really interesting and I’m definitely gonna look to see how those develop. Are there other strategies that have been discussed in terms of projects that Black Hills would build specifically for Pueblo or, or anything else?
Larry Atencio: Yeah, the city of Pueblo, we develop, we put together an electric utility commission to see whether it would be feasible for the city of Pueblo to municipalize. I’m co-chair of that committee. And we are looking into each and every possible combination or option that we could use to bring those electricity costs down for our residents and for industry too, by the way.
John Farrell: And is that process then ongoing, have it, or maybe you could talk a little bit more about some of the questions that you’re looking at. So municipalization is one of the options on the table. Have any other interesting ideas come up so far that you’re hoping to flesh out more?
Larry Atencio: You might have some information on a gentleman by the name of Paul Finn.
John Farrell: Yes.
Larry Atencio: He is the kind of the guru of community choice aggregation. We don’t know a whole lot about what that entails, but we are looking at that. We’re gonna ask Mr. Finn to come and give a presentation to our elected utility commission and look into what that might entail. I, I was told by literally by the people in Boulder, that if Colorado had community choice aggregation that their possibility of going to municipal, it just might be different than what they’re doing now. So, I think that would be a real big thing to look at. And, aside from that, rooftop solar has gotta be considered and of course, storage is a big thing with that’s coming down the pike in the next few years, it’s going to be possible that literally an individual homeowner just might be able to get off the grid completely. So the whole electric industry is going to change. This paradigm is gonna change completely over time.
John Farrell: Are any of the strategies that you talked about, are looking at in terms of, for example, rooftop solar, things where the city is looking at strategies to help people go solar? I, you know, for example, I think, I don’t know if it was Boulder, but some other cities have done some interesting work around like group purchasing sometimes they’re called solarized campaigns, where you get a bunch of people to go solar at the same time. Has the city done anything like that yet? Or is that in the works?
Larry Atencio: No, not yet. What I hope to do, like you said, I’m gonna hopefully get to be mayor of the city of Pueblo. But if I do, what I’ll do is one of the first thing is commission a committee to look into our electrical needs and our energy needs and have a whole energy plan for the city of Pueblo. And that would entail all of the aspects of energy, transportation, solar, everything we would look at, absolutely everything and, and then come up with a plan for the city of Pueblo and how we’re going to meet our energy needs for the next 50 years.
Marie Donahue: You’re listening to an interview with Larry Atencio from Pueblo, Colorado as part of our Voices of 100% series from Local Energy Rules. Do you know of 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 one zero, zero at ilsr.org. Stay tuned for the rest of the episode, after a short message from our Energy Democracy Initiative Director John Farrell.
John Farrell: Hey, thanks for listening to Local Energy Rules. If you’ve made it this far, you’re obviously a fan and we could use your help for just two minutes. As you’ve probably noticed, we don’t have any corporate sponsors or ads for any of our podcasts. The reason is that our mission at ILSR is to reinvigorate democracy by decentralizing economic power. Instead, we rely on you, our listeners. Your donations not only underwrite this podcast, but also help us produce all of the research and resources that we make available on our website and all of the technical assistance we provide to grassroots organizations. Every year, ILSR’s small staff helps hundreds of communities challenge monopoly power directly and rebuild their local economies. So please take a minute and go to ilsr.org and click on the donate button. And if making a donation isn’t something you can do, please consider helping us in other ways. You can help other folks find this podcast by telling them about it, or by giving it a review on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. The more ratings from listeners like you, the more folks can find this podcast and ILSR’s other podcasts, Community Broadband Bits and Building Local Power. Thanks again. Now back to the program.
John Farrell: One of the things that I think was really highlighted in the Grist piece in which you were interviewed was this issue that you’ve already mentioned in terms of the, your constituents being low and moderate income individuals or facing really expensive electricity bills. What do you see as the two with renewable energy helping to address that cost issue? You know, how does renewable a hundred percent renewable energy going to help?
Larry Atencio: Well, by going 100% renewable, for instance, lemme give you an idea, the city of Pueblo and all of its facilities, we will probably go 100% renewable for city within the next five years. Reducing the cost of energy for the city of Pueblo will give us money from the energy cost that we’re spending. Now, if we go renewable, our energy costs will be much less. We’ll be able to use that money in low income neighborhoods, or we’ll be to provide programs by which we can raise the income level or education for instance, or job training or whatever it might be. We might be able to have some money left over from our energy costs, if we go 100 to be able to put into the neighborhoods.
John Farrell: Excellent. One of the things I thought was really interesting is in the energy wonk world, we kind of follow the cost of renewables across the country and have found exactly what you mentioned that we’re seeing incredibly low prices for renewables. I know Excel energy, which also serves a lot of Colorado, big utility out there recently, some very low cost bids for renewable energy, both from solar and from wind power combined with energy storage has that, you know, the, I, I guess I shouldn’t assume that that information is spreading like wildfire among ordinary folks, but it certainly has had a big impact in my world where we look at energy prices and talk about costs of renewables a lot. Has that, has that conversation trickled down to the conversation in Pueblo about how it, it, it could be so inexpensive?
Larry Atencio: Yeah, it really has. Xcel energy, they have, Commanche one, two and three power plants here in Pueblo. It’s the largest power plant in the state of Colorado and probably one of the largest in Western United States. But all of that energy in Pueblo goes 100 miles north to the metropolitan Denver. So Pueblo gets none of that. It Xcels plan, hopefully if the PUC accepts it and hopefully in September, they’ll accept it. Excel will shut down numbers one and two power plant thereby reducing their CO2 emissions by over 60%, which will really help the city of Pueblo in terms of our health. And then they are going to replace that with solar gardens and then, some solar gardens here in Pueblo, but also wind energy across the state and up north. And then, out on the Eastern Plains. So, with them going to renewable their whole portfolio, I believe somebody said will be renewable. By 60% they’ll be generating from renewable sources in the future, which is really big.
John Farrell: Is that comparable to what Black Hills Energy is doing? I mean, are they similarly shifting to renewables? Are they, you know, in the near future or is, or is that Xcel very different from the utility that’s serving Pueblo?
Larry Atencio: Frankly, I think the mindset of it at Xcel because they’re shutting these power plants down probably 10 years ahead of schedule going to renewable. So it takes a mindset to go towards renewables rather than stay with the old paradigm of gas and coal fired power plants. I might understand Black Hills staying with their gas fired power plant because it’s only seven or eight years old. So it’s brand new, it’s life span, probably 25, 30, 40 years, 40 years. So their reluctance to go a hundred percent renewable is, might be understandable, but by the same token, the flood is coming and renewable energy is here and it’s gonna get bigger and better all the time. And I don’t think many power company is gonna be out there is gonna be able to fight the tide.
John Farrell: Larry, I’m curious, what advice would you give to either elected officials or to folks who are concerned about affordable energy in other communities across the country, in terms of what they can do, what would you recommend, you know, if they’re looking, should they follow your lead and be talking about a hundred percent commitment? Is there some other next step what’s the best way to get started in this conversation? If you’re, if you wanna talk about affordable, clean energy.
Larry Atencio: Yeah. I, I think what most elected officials should probably know is that the electric, delivering of electric power, the paradigm and the industry is changing completely. And in the next, whether it’s 50 years or a hundred years, fossil fuels are a finite energy source, renewable energy is not exhaustible, we’re gonna have sun for millions of years. We’re gonna have winds for millions of years. That is the future. And for those who don’t think so, you’re gonna get left behind. That’s all there is to it. So thinking, uh, 25, 50 years ahead is not a bad thing.
John Farrell: Well, Larry, I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with me, and I wish you the best of luck in your forthcoming campaign.
Larry Atencio: Well, thank you for having me.
John Farrell: You’re welcome, Larry. Nice to talk to you.
Larry Atencio: Thank you.
Marie Donahue: This has been our second episode of the Voices of 100% series with John Farrell, director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Energy Democracy initiative, and council member Larry Atencio from Pueblo, Colorado, speaking about what motivated Pueblo to commit to 100% renewable energy and how the city plans to get there. Tune back into the program in three weeks for our next episode in this series where we’ll be featuring the city of San Diego, California, and hearing the latest updates on their commitment to go all in on renewable energy. For more information on cities that have committed to 100% renewable energy, check out the other episodes in this series and explore ILSR’s interact community power map, which is available at ilsr.org. While you’re on our website, you can also find more than 50 past episodes of the Local Energy Rules Podcast. You can sign up for one of our newsletters and connect with us on social media. Until next time, keep your energy local and thanks for listening.

 


A growing number of U.S. cities have set goals to generate 100 percent of their electricity from renewable resources in the coming decades, each with its own unique circumstances and motivations. Pueblo, a small city of just over 100,000 residents located in southeastern Colorado, is one of these forward-thinking communities.

Situated along the Rocky Mountains’ Front Range, Pueblo was once well-known for its steel production, but its local economy has since undergone a transformation. It is now home to a large wind turbine manufacturing facility and a growing number of both wind and solar developments. It also became the first city after President Trump took office in early 2017 and the third in Colorado to commit to shifting 100 percent of its electricity to renewable power.

A vocal supporter of renewable energy, Pueblo city council member Larry Atencio represents the city’s second district and is also a candidate in the city’s upcoming mayoral election. Atencio sponsored and was instrumental in the adoption of the the city’s 100 percent commitment ordinance.

In the second episode in our multi-part Voices of 100% podcast series, Atencio spoke with John Farrell, ILSR’s Energy Democracy director, about the city’s renewable energy commitment, what tools Pueblo can use to reach its goal by 2035, and how to be part of the energy sector’s paradigm change.

Relief for Low-Income Customers

Relief from rising electricity bills provided a major motivation for Atencio to champion Pueblo’s recent commitment to 100 percent renewable power. His district is made up of a large number of low- to moderate-income residents, many of whom have struggled to keep up, as energy costs have soared over the last decade.

“My thinking was — they [our residents] are having a hard time with their electricity bills. Their energy costs are sky high. We have the highest electricity costs in the state of Colorado here in Pueblo … How do we relieve some of the pressure financially on low- to moderate-income people?” Atencio explained.

Active community partners, including advocates from Pueblo’s Energy Future, the local chapter of the Sierra Club, and other environmental groups, have been working in support of these efforts, fighting for affordable utility rates, sustainable energy supplies, and actions that will help address climate change.

With this grassroots support and a clear case for shifting toward renewable power, Atencio proposed a resolution that passed city council in a six-to-one vote in early 2017, committing the city to get 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by the year 2035. Atencio acknowledges the ambitious nature and timeline of this commitment, but he is confident the city can get there.

“It is an aspirational goal, but it’s a goal, nonetheless, that I think we can achieve,” he insists.

Later in the interview, Atencio explains how he sees this renewable goal as an opportunity to support low income customers. When municipal facilities shift to less expensive renewable power, the City of Pueblo can use the money it saves on energy bills to improve other essential city services.

“The energy costs we’re spending now … we’ll be able to use that money in low-income neighborhoods, to provide programs to raise the income level, improve education, job training, or whatever it might be,” Atencio explains. “Money left over from energy costs … can be put into neighborhoods.”

He believes the city is on track to transition its own buildings to renewable power within the next five years, at a faster clip than the city as a whole.

How Might Pueblo Reach Its Goal?

While the city can start taking steps to power its own buildings renewably, additional strategies are needed to provide relief to customers facing high energy bills and reach Pueblo’s ambitious 100 percent goal of renewable power citywide. So far, the city hasn’t settled on any strategy with the capacity to get it to the goal.

View of Pueblo, Colo., from Interstate 25

Atencio explains that, in collaboration with Pueblo’s “somewhat receptive” incumbent utility Black Hills Energy, the city has been developing several community solar gardens to benefit low-income residents, who can’t afford their own rooftop arrays. There are also efforts to pressure the utility to lower deposit and reconnect fees that have fallen disproportionately on the city’s most economically vulnerable.

Even with these wins, Pueblo continues to evaluate its relationship with Black Hills Energy, a subsidiary of Black Hills Corporation based in South Dakota. This relationship started just a decade ago after the city’s previous incumbent utility went out of business and was bought out by Black Hills Energy. As the new utility began serving Pueblo, it built a new natural gas-fired power plant nearby.

“The Public Utility Commission gave them [Black Hills Energy] permission to recoup the costs [of this natural gas plant] and that led to high electricity bills for everyone,” explains Atencio.

In part because of the inflated electricity bills that have followed, Pueblo is looking to what other cities in Colorado and elsewhere are doing to shift the balance of power with incumbent electric utilities. As a volunteer with Pueblo’s Energy Future, Atencio contributed to a feasibility study committee to explore municipalization efforts to increase both affordability and renewables by giving Pueblo more control over its local energy decisions. At least in part, these efforts were inspired, explains Atencio, by Boulder, a city just a couple hours’ drive north engaged in its own municipalization fight with Xcel Energy.

Municipalization is just one of many options on the table, however. Atencio explains how Pueblo is also looking into community choice aggregation, inviting experts on the topic to present to the city and help them explore how to fight for that policy in Colorado.

Community choice programs, such as those in Marin County, Calif., or Westchester, New York, allow local governments to make energy purchasing decisions on behalf of customers in their community. In practice, these programs give cities more flexibility in who supplies their energy and allow them to make such decisions based on cost, pollution concerns, and local economic benefits, without having to own and maintain the electric grid.


Learn more about how community choice aggregation programs work, by exploring this resource.


Aside from community choice aggregation, Atencio also sees the importance of distributed generation technologies and individual decisions by those in Pueblo to transition independently to renewable power.

“Rooftop solar has to be considered, and storage is also coming down the pike. It’s going to be possible for an individual homeowner … to get off the grid completely,” he explains.

“The whole electric industry, its paradigm is going to change completely over time,” Atencio points out.

When asked what Pueblo has done to support these efforts, such as coordinating a citywide Solarize campaign (to bulk purchase panels and organize residents), for example, Atencio said the city has yet to act.

If elected mayor this fall, Atencio hopes to develop a comprehensive, citywide energy plan that includes a broad range of strategies that include transportation, energy efficiency, solar, and more.

Rising Tide of Renewables

Pueblo’s progress toward 100 percent is aided by renewable energy becoming much more cost competitive in states across the country. More utilities are transitioning away from fossil fuels and toward renewables; although in Colorado, some utilities are shifting faster than others.

Historic building in downtown Pueblo, Colo.

Xcel Energy, which serves Colorado’s largest metropolitan areas including Denver and Boulder, is in the process of retiring some of its largest, older fossil fuel plants ahead of schedule, notes Atencio. This includes two units of the Comanche Generating Station, a multi-unit coal-fired power plant located in Pueblo, which also happens to be the largest in the state. Xcel’s transition away from fossil fuels in Pueblo will have benefits for the community’s health, even if it isn’t the community’s electric company.

In comparison, Pueblo’s own electric utility Black Hills Energy has not been as proactive. The utility built a new, expensive natural gas-fired plant eight years ago and has been slower to embrace renewables. While Atencio finds it “understandable” that they stay with the “old paradigm of coal and gas-fired power plants,” he suggests this will not bode for the utility in the long-run.

“The flood is coming,” explains Atencio. “Renewable energy is here, and it’s going to get bigger and better all the time. I don’t think any power company that’s out there is going to be able to fight the tide.”

Want to hear other stories of how communities are making and implementing 100 percent renewable energy commitments? Stay-tuned for the next episode in our Voices of 100% series featuring San Diego, Calif., next month!


For earlier analysis of the switch to renewables in Pueblo, Colo., check out this piece: Pueblo Targets All-Renewables Future To Bolster Local Economy.

You can find the Grist article mentioned during the interview that features our guest Larry Atencio, here: With Energy and Justice for All.

For more on city tools to meet ambitious local energy goals, see ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.

Locate other cities and towns like Pueblo that have existing 100 percent renewable energy commitments and explore state policies that help advance these clean energy goals, using ILSR’s 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 and Research Associate Marie Donahue.

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.

Photo Credits: dbking (featured image), Ken Lund and Granger Meador (inset images) via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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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.

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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.