In Colorado, a Power Struggle With the Power Company
By KIRK JOHNSON
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
"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
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
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
"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
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.