In Colorado, a Power Struggle With the Power Company

NYT Boulder
Students tour the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. (Kevin Moloney for The New York Times)

October 29, 2011
BOULDER, Colo. — Many Americans these days, from the huddled masses of Occupy Wall Street to the coifed confines of the presidential campaign, are talking about the future of capitalism.

Here, that debate is focused on electricity, specifically whether this city should, in Tuesday’s election, sever its relationship with a corporate utility and move toward a home-ruled, municipally owned one that would be environmentally greener and locally accountable.

Kristin Johnson, a 57-year-old lawyer, summed up her planned vote to oust the company, Xcel Energy, in seven succinct words.

“They don’t have our interest at heart,” she said.

Xcel, a Minneapolis-based company that supplies electricity across eight states, including most of Colorado, is fighting back hard,
arguing that a divorce would be devastatingly expensive for Boulder residents through higher electricity rates and start-up costs. And if talk of home-rule is really about having more renewable, carbon-reduced energy generation, well then, the company has said in advertisements and letters to residents, a big corporation with deep pockets can help get there cheaper and faster than any city, however well intentioned.

“I can’t find the numbers for how Boulder is going to do it better,” said Bob Bellemare, an Xcel consultant.

Proponents of
ballot issues 2C and 2B, which includes a $1.9 million tax increase in the first year to pay for planning and analysis, say that the utility industry desperately fears a public awakening, and that a John Brown-like raid on a monopoly in one place could galvanize electricity consumers all across the nation to push for change.

Leaders of the effort concede that huge challenges await if the city goes forward, and that Xcel is not the worst provider to have. Partly prodded by a Colorado law requiring 30 percent renewable energy by 2020 — one of the most
aggressive standards in the nation — the company has become a big producer of wind electricity. It has also spent more than $40 million here in Boulder building a pilot project called Smart Grid, with sophisticated metering that can help customers reduce electricity use.

Not enough, some say.

“Boulder can do better,” said Shaun McGrath, a former mayor and a leader of the
ballot drive.

“We were making some headway with our carbon reductions,” Mr. McGrath said, referring to the relationship with Xcel, which is still, like most utilities, dependent on coal for much of its output. “But really what we kept bumping into was this ceiling of where our electricity was coming from.”

The backdrop, both sides say, is the city itself, a mountain-fringed college town about 45 minutes from Denver that is consistently one of the most liberal and idealistic corners of Colorado politics. President Obama carried Boulder County with 72 percent of the vote in 2008.

In the electricity fight, left-leaning politics have been aligned with hard science, supporters say, creating a unique platform for thinking creatively about electricity and democracy.

Climate and weather research, in particular, has a huge presence in the city, at federal institutions like the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration along with the tech-heavy University of Colorado that sprawls through the center of town. More than two-thirds of the population over age 25 has a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to census figures — compared with just over 36 percent for Colorado as a whole.

A passionate outdoor youth and fitness culture — a weekend run or ride on a Boulder bike path can feel like a border crossing to Spandex nation — completes the demographic circle from which the anti-Xcel forces have drawn support. A youth-centered group called
New Era Colorado has been phone-banking for the electricity measures for weeks.

“It’s probably going to get passed because it is such a Boulder thing,” said Jane Imber, 55.

Ms. Imber, a freelance copy writer, said that she planned to vote no, even though she believes strongly in clean energy. “I think we have a better chance of changing Xcel from the inside than the outside,” she said.

Some supporters of the separation, though, say that local history — notably a long-simmering conflict over a coal-fired power plant in the city, called Valmont, which Xcel plans to retire by 2017 — has poisoned the well. Valmont has been the site of
numerous protests over the years.

“There’s a special distrust of Xcel,” said Kate Clark, 27, a graduate student in environmental studies at the University of Colorado and a ferocious opponent of coal. Ms. Clark, who said she had also visited the Occupy Denver protest site several times in recent weeks, has volunteered at New Era Colorado.

The two ballot measures would not immediately initiate a break with Xcel or the creation of a new provider. The soonest that could happen, both sides say, given the many technical and legal issues — and the question of compensation to Xcel for the assets and customers it would lose — is probably 2017.

And Xcel officials have said there would be other bumps.

Because of the intense environmental ethos here, for example, Xcel customers in Boulder have been disproportionate enrollees in the company’s existing solar energy and conservation programs. The city’s 48,000 Xcel customers account for only 3.4 percent of the statewide ratepayer base, but 15 percent of the solar participants.

What that means is that solar installation rebates, Xcel officials said, totaling more than $38 million to Boulder customers since 2006, have been disproportionally borne by other customers around the state — a subsidy pipeline that could dry up with separation, though that decision would require regulators to weigh in.

And how green is green, anyway? Under Colorado law, shareholder-owned companies like Xcel are covered by the 30 percent renewable energy mandate by 2020. Municipally owned utilities of the size that Boulder would require would have to get to only 10 percent by then.

Jack Begg contributed research.