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A Power Shift in Boulder

By 3p Contributor

By Robb Shurr

In Boulder, CO, in the wee hours of the morning on November 2, 2011, some residents cheered as they anticipated a future of local and renewable energy, and some utility companies in the US perked up their ears as they anticipated the ripple effect that this vote could have throughout the country.

Boulder residents approved a ballot measure that allows the city to investigate breaking away from its current energy provider, Xcel Energy, to create a municipal power utility.

This by itself may not sound that significant, but Boulder is pursuing creating its own power utility for an important new reason—to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Throughout a divisive campaign, pro-municipalization proponents were outspent 10 to 1 by opponents (who were 98 percent funded by Xcel Energy). The opponents’ costly campaign was built on generating distrust of local government and creating fear of breaking away from the status quo. The proponents touted increasing renewable options and taking control of their energy future.

Xcel spent so much money to defeat the measure not only because it realizes about $14 million in profits from Boulder residents and business each year, but also because of the precedent this sets.  Although there are over 200 municipal utilities in the country (including other Colorado cities such as Colorado Springs and Fort Collins), the country is watching Boulder as it considers creating a municipal utility explicitly for moving away from fossil fuels.

Going beyond standard renewable portfolio standards of 20 or 30 percent is increasingly difficult for big centralized power providers who need to recoup costs for their investments in power plants and return profits to investors. As a result, as more renewable options enter the market, it makes sense for communities to seek smaller, more decentralized power options.

As Ann Butterfield explained in her article for the Huffington Post, this ballot measure reflects the community’s desire for renewable energy and the sentiment that big companies—or utilities—can no longer externalize risks they are taking to maximize profits.

It was also timely that while this issue was decided by only hundreds of votes, another issue on the ballot passed with an overwhelming majority—the support of a Constitutional amendment in opposition to corporate personhood. While it is just a symbolic statement, it makes for an interesting side note in the community’s consideration of breaking away from a corporate utility

Boulder’s decision today marks the start of a transition in American power. The country is watching.


Image Credit: New Era Colorado

Robb Shurr is Founder and Principal of Kickstand Communications. Kickstand will soon join with Sustineo Creative to become Walden Hyde, a strategy and design firm based in Boulder, Colorado.  Walden Hyde will be presenting its work on the Boulder Energy Future campaign at the Transforming Local Government Conference 2012 in Kansas City in March.

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