Boulder’s long fight for local power

15 November 2016
Article

One of the first case studies on the website of energydemocracy.net is the city of Boulder, USA. Driven by a commitment to meet its climate goals, Boulder first sought to push its private investor-owned utility, Xcel Energy, to embrace a radical transition to low-carbon energy. The reluctance and obfuscation of Xcel led the city to develop plans for a municipal energy utility, which the city has continued to push forward in the face of legal challenges and misinformation campaigns. 

Boulder is a small university town in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in the state of Colorado and appreciated for its quality of life. However its energy supply is one of the most carbon-intensive in the United States, provided by a highly coal-dependent investor-owned utility, Xcel Energy. So in the early 2000s as Boulder citizens pushed the city to prioritise tackling climate change, the spotlight soon turned on the community’s energy supply, which makes up 53% of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions (the rest of the city’s coming emissions coming from natural gas and transport fuels).

The city has followed a dual-track strategy to change its energy supply. On the one hand, municipal authorities have pushed Xcel Energy to change its energy mix and find a way for the city to meet its climate goals in partnership with the company; on the other hand, they have explored the option of setting up a city municipal energy utility. Working with Xcel had the potential to realize a much bigger climate impact (Boulder is only 4% of Xcel’s energy load so a company-wide shift would have significant impacts on greenhouse gas emissions). At the same time, the reality of working with a private utility whose main goal is profit and which has consistently sought to block Boulder’s efforts has led citizens to increasingly see municipal ownership as the only solution.

Social mobalisation

Without the action of its citizens, Boulder’s city council would never have advanced as far as it has. Boulder benefitted greatly from local energy and climate experts, working at the university in-town or in the nearby Golden national renewable energy laboratory. Their expertise helped bring the council up to speed on the issues, provided the research input for the city’s various working groups, and has provided a counter-balance to misinformation put out by Xcel Energy.

The city also benefitted from the creative talents of some activists. A local citizens’ campaigning group, for example, New Era Colorado put together a video in August 2013 to try and raise awareness and alert people to the campaign, hoping to raise US$40,000. A month later, it had received US$200,000, with donations from 50 states. An incredible 1.2 million people watched the video

The full case study of Boulder can be read on the website energydemocracy.net.  From energy access to climate justice and from anti-privatisation to workers’ rights, people across the world are taking back power over the energy sector, kicking-back against the rule of the market and reimagining how energy might be produced, distributed and used.