How can a community take control of its energy future from a 100-year monopoly electric utility? Citizens of Boulder, CO, are testing answers to that question, trying to discover how a single city can do more for its economy and the environment with more power over its energy system. At the core of their efforts is a grassroots campaign to form a city-owned utility, an effort that faced an enormous test at the ballot box in November 2013.
We spoke with New Era Colorado executive director Stephen Fenberg about the grassroots campaign to fight Xcel Energy and build a better energy future via Skype on Dec. 6, 2013.
Is the War Won?
I asked Stephen if the victory at the ballot box in November 2013 meant the war was won for local control of the energy system.
“There’s no saying there won’t be another electoral fight…in a lot of ways, we won that same election (albeit by a much narrower margin) in 2011.”
While it’s less likely that Xcel will go back to the ballot for another fight after this defeat, says Stephen, the implementation and policy battle is just beginning.
“The city is starting condemnation proceedings in January of 2014…it could take a couple of years before we’re officially able to pull the trigger and create the utility of our own.”
Was Crowdfunding the Difference?
Unlike their 2011 ballot fight (see this video from former Boulder mayor Susan Osborne), the grassroots team had stronger financial support – nearly $200,000 – from a remarkable crowdfunding campaign. We asked Stephen if that was the only difference, and he said that the money helped, but it was the passion of the people that mattered the most.
“We had more organizers on the ground, we knocked on more doors, we made more phone calls to voters…You can run a campaign with money or run a campaign with people…the core of our campaign was people…we had hundreds and hundreds of volunteers who were there for the right reasons…because they were passionate about clean energy, passionate about local control, passionate about making sure a corporation wasn’t buying our elections.”
What’s the Most Important Lesson for Other Cities?
“Municipalization might not be the answer for everybody,” says Stephen, but its most important to “have a process where the community has bought in.”
He notes that state laws are different around municipalization and that communities should pursue what works for them.
His goal in being a model for other cities is “not everybody municipalizes, but the there’s the threat…communities should have the leverage to get what they’re asking for. At the end of the day, they’re the customer. And if they’re being provided a product that’s not in line with their values they should be able to have the leverage to demand something better.”
Building Interest Across the Country
Thousands of people reached out to the Boulder campaign, especially at the peak of the crowdfunding campaign. They wanted to know what they could do in their own town and they were from all across the country: West Coast, East Coast, conservative, liberal. They all had the same message:
“We’re not getting [a] solution from the federal government. People are excited and it gave them hope that there are things you can do on the local level that can have a big impact.”
For more information on the Boulder electric utility municipalization campaign, see:
- How the campaign came about and how it won its first major victory in 2011
- A video presentation of former Boulder mayor Susan Osborne sharing Boulder’s story with a crowd in Minneapolis in September 2012, and a podcast interview with her on the same subject in 2013.
- A podcast interview with Ken Regelson on the energy model that showed how Boulder could double renewable energy and halve climate emissions without raising electricity prices.
- A podcast interview with Mariel Nanasi about a similar fight for local energy choice in Santa Fe, NM.
- New Era Colorado, the energy behind the recent ballot campaign victory
- Clean Energy Action, the nonprofit coalition behind much of the Boulder muni campaign
This is the 17th edition of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Senior Researcher John Farrell that shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion. Other than his immediate family, the audience is primarily researchers, grassroots organizers, and grasstops policy wonks who want vivid examples of how local renewable energy can power local economies.