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Tina Casey headshot

Boulder Residents Collaborate on Wind Power Expansion

By Tina Casey

In 2011, the residents of Boulder, Colorado approved a ballot measure that would enable their city to get more clean, locally generated renewable energy and break away from their utility company, Xcel Energy.  As it turns out, the drastic measure might not be needed after all. Xcel Energy has emerged as a wind power leader, and at last count it was working with Boulder officials on a plan to add more renewables into the city's energy mix.

Regardless of how things work out in Boulder (and we hope it's a win-win for everyone), the episode shows that the development of local, renewable energy sources can give communities some pretty heavy leverage with their energy provider. That's an especially good development for businesses that are eager use the appeal of wind power to attract and keep customers.

Xcel Energy and Colorado wind power

Xcel is one of the nation's largest utility companies and it has a long history in Colorado wind power development. According to the company, its 32 megawatt Ponnequin Wind Farm was the first such installation in Colorado when it began operation in the 1990's, which coincidentally was right around the time Congress established a production tax credit for wind power.

While Xcel's progress up to 2011 might not have been up to snuff by Boulder standards, in recent years it has claimed title to the "number one utility wind provider in the U.S.," and things really took off last year.

In 2012, the U.S. added a record 13,124 megawatts (MW) of wind capacity. On a state-by-state basis Colorado ranked a respectable 10th with 496 MW, and Xcel accounted for 400 MW of that through its purchase of power from a Colorado wind farm owned by NextEra Energy Resources.

The contribution of the Colorado wind farms to Xcel's total energy mix only averaged 17 percent last year, but it did set a record-setting peak of 57 percent at one point in August. Xcel anticipates that continued progress on wind power grid integration and intermittent energy management will enable it to keep building on that platform.

It's not just about the wind

It's beyond the scope of this article to predict how things will turn out between Boulder and Xcel, but the fact that the two parties are talking indicates how much the emergence of alternative energy has changed the relationship between utility customers and their energy provider.

As another example of that trend, Xcel has been promoting small scale, distributed solar power in Colorado through a Colorado solar power program called Solar Rewards. Part of the program is designed to make solar power available to residents in multi-family buildings, who generally can't have their own solar panels on site, by making it easier for them to "subscribe" to a solar installation in their community.

Wind power and the bottom line

The cost of wind power has been dropping like a stone, and as Xcel Energy points out, that power comes along with a significant cut in pollution, particularly greenhouse gases. System wide, Xcel estimates that its use of wind power reduced carbon emissions by more than 4 million tons, while also reducing nitrogen oxide emissions by 4,310 tons.

That adds up to an impressive collective benefit, but if you own or manage a business in a city like Boulder you're also interested in the secondary benefits that could accrue to your individual establishment.

Namely, studies are beginning to show that consumers prefer to patronize businesses that use wind power or other forms of renewable energy.  Last September, for example, the global wind turbine company Vestas commissioned a particularly interesting study of consumer preferences, based partly on a survey that asked respondents whether they thought climate change was the "single greatest challenge in the world today."

Only 17 percent of respondents agreed with that statement, but 62 percent said they would be more willing to buy products made with wind energy.

Another good example is provided by SC Johnson's website, where the 127-year-old company is eagerly promoting its use of wind power to manufacture iconic products like Windex, Pledge and Glade.

That indicates there is plenty of common ground for energy companies like Xcel to answer their customers' calls for more wind power, regardless of where the prevailing political winds blow on global warming.

[Image: Wind turbines courtesy of Xcel Energy]

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Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey