In this episode of Local Energy Rules, John Farrell and Wade Underwood talk with Susan Osborne, the former Mayor of Boulder, CO, about that city’s effort to take control of its energy future. Thanks to Susan’s leadership and the vision of Boulder’s citizens, the city adopted a ballot measure in the fall of 2011 to break free from its incumbent utility, Xcel Energy, to pursue cleaner, local power on its own terms. As Susan tells us, Boulder didn’t set out to “blaze a trail,” but for a growing number of cities across America considering municipalization, there’s a lot to learn from their remarkable story.
The process started in 2003 when Boulder resumed studying the option to create a municipal utility. With a climate-action plan already in place, and a local carbon tax already financing conservation and clean energy, the once nascent issue became a serious option in Boulder. Creating a municipal utility would allow for more control over the grid, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and an increase in clean energy production. Xcel forestalled the city’s investigation when it offered to pilot its Smart Grid City in Boulder – a program that deployed advanced meters and fiber optic cables to improve information flow on the local electricity grid.
Unfortunately, the smart grid pilot came in over budget and underwhelming for the city’s residents. Despite further efforts to negotiate with Xcel to secure a lower carbon energy future, the city’s franchise contract with Xcel wasn’t renewed, and citizens replaced the lost revenue with an electricity tax to give the city time to study alternatives. Municipalization was back on the table.
By 2011, it became clear that Xcel wasn’t willing to give the city what it wanted (a last-ditch offer was stymied when Xcel insisted that the status quo also be placed on the ballot). The city put municipalization on the ballot in 2011 and the campaign began. Xcel spent over $1 million dollars in a failed attempt to kill the ballot initiative, outspending local energy advocates 10-to-1. In the end, Boulder citizens voted in November 2011 to part ways with Xcel, voting to form a municipal electric utility and to tax themselves to fund the investigation of whether this new utility could meet ambitious clean energy targets.
The effort continues, with city officials still talking to Xcel about options. But the release of a recent report on municipalization suggests that the city can significantly increase renewable energy, reduce emissions, lower costs, and improve reliability. In other words, there seems little reason to settle for the status quo.
Like hearing from Susan Osborne? Check out this video of her talking to Minneapolis citizens about Boulder’s efforts for clean, local energy.
This is the 5th edition of Local Energy Rules, a new ILSR podcast that is published twice monthly, on 1st and 3rd Thursday. In this podcast series, ILSR Senior Researcher John Farrell talks with people putting together great community renewable energy projects and examining how energy policies help or hurt the development of clean, local power.