350.org works from the ground up, with a “think globally, act locally”, “all politics is local” mentality.  So it’s befitting that this week, for the first time, we’ve taken the unusual step of formally endorsing two local ballot measures in the current election in Boulder, Colorado – Ballot Measures 2B and 2C – and have launched a local campaign backing the measures.

Check out this great video of 350 messenger Van Jones talking about the Boulder ballot measures:

Why get involved in the local politics of Boulder, Colorado?

Boulder has made history in the past as one of the first cities in the nation to adopt a carbon tax to fund programs to reduce carbon emissions and fight for a cleaner energy economy. Despite excellent demand-side reduction efforts, the city has struggled to meet its carbon reduction goals, primarily due to the large (~60%) reliance on carbon-intensive coal burning in the electric mix provided by the city’s energy provider, Xcel Energy. (Toxic pollution from coal plants is responsible for 3 deaths every year in Boulder, and 49 deaths across the state, according to the Clean Air Task Force.)

After efforts to guarantee a higher percentage of renewable energy in a new 20-year franchise agreement between the city and Xcel failed, citizens began questioning whether it was shrewd to sign onto another 20-year franchise agreement with the company.  In August 2010, the Boulder City Council, with strong support from citizens, decided not to renew a standard franchise agreement with Xcel Energy in order to investigate options for bringing more clean, affordable, and reliable energy to Boulder citizens. 

Since that time, City Council, staff, citizens and experts have investigated options for a future that respects the 3 R’s – protecting Rates, Reliability, and maximizing Renewable energy and conservation. After careful third-party analyses concluded that the City could provide reliable, increasingly clean energy at rates comparable to the utility’s (and negotiations with the utility company for more renewable energy under satisfactory conditions once again failed), City staff recommended that the Boulder City Council put language on this November’s ballot to make possible the creation a municipal (city-owned) light and power utility to work with experienced energy companies and service providers.  

Ballot Measure 2B would extend and increase Boulder’s Utility Occupation Tax to fund legal, financial and technical planning for municipalization, so as to determine the final costs.  2C establishes Charter language for operation and governance of a municipal electric utility – “Boulder Light and Power”.

Multiple analyses have shown that a Boulder-owned utility is likely to have excellent reliability and good rates.  The 29 cities with municipally controlled utilities in Colorado already enjoy lower average rates than communities like Boulder with investor-owned utilities.  And most importantly for many of us, our city will finally be able to greatly increase the percentage of renewable energy in our energy portfolio and drastically decrease carbon emissions. 


Boulder as a model

350.org sees Boulder’s move toward clean community-based power as a model that our volunteers in cities around the nation working to reduce carbon emissions and stimulate local renewable energy development may be able to follow.


The current monopoly investor-owned utility model leaves consumers very little choice about the source of their city’s electricity and very little control over the resulting carbon emissions.  Consider that Xcel Energy – the #1 investor-owned utility in the nation for wind power and #5 for solar – plans to remain 50% dependent on coal in 2020 and 40% coal dependent in 2030.  They have indicated no intention of increasing renewable energy above 30% beyond 2020.


Investor-owned utilities like Xcel Energy have a mandate to maximize shareholder returns, not protect the health and wallets of the communities they sell electricity to. So despite coal costs increasing at 10% per year and the cost of renewable energy steadily dropping (with solar power development plans nationwide now outpacing all other sources of energy), Xcel Energy’s prior investments in coal-burning power plants obligate them to coal for years to come. 


Municipal utilities, on the other hand, are only responsible to their customers and local community, allowing for more flexibility and innovation. Analyses from local experts and third-party research have shown that Boulder could move to 40% renewable energy while keeping rate parity with Xcel Energy in a very short time period (3-4 years) and to significantly higher renewable energy levels within a decade.  Increasing renewable energy supplies in Boulder’s portfolio would help stabilize Boulder’s rates over the long-term.


Yet another case of corporations corrupting our political process

Xcel Energy has so far poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into protecting their profits (approximately $15 million annually from Boulder) by stopping ballot measures 2B and 2C. “Boulder Smart Energy Coalition”, a 2B and 2C opposition group, receives 98% of its backing from Xcel.)  Xcel Energy is attempting to corrupt the political process by pouring money into this campaign and through their ongoing massive political campaign contributions.

350.org volunteers are lending their numbers to phone banks and door knocking in response in hopes that Boulder can be a model for the nation of how to take local control of electricity that puts communities’ interests over the interests of corporate profits. Rising costs, a climate crisis, asthma attacks, and even deaths in the Boulder community might not matter to Xcel Energy’s shareholders, but they matter to the Boulder community.

This fight comes in the middle of an escalating battle over corporate profits vs. the interests of American families, with increasing numbers of people around the nation demanding that their leaders put people and the planet over profit. Local efforts to gain control over energy choices and keep energy dollars in the local economy can be expected to catch on.


350.org founder Bill McKibben had this to say, “It’s exciting to hear that Boulder is taking firm control of its own energy destiny. It’s something we’re going to have to do all over the country to have any hope of dealing with our carbon mess. Local food–and local electrons!”



On November 1st, Boulder voters will decide.  In the meantime, 350.org volunteers and allies are working together with “Citizens for Boulder’s Clean Energy Future” to educate and inspire our neighbors and counter the utility’s fear campaign.  To learn more, visit www.RenewablesYes.org.  We’ll keep you posted!



A few key facts


Investor-owned utilities: 

  • Have business models with large administrative and management expenses, share-holder profit pressure, and no incentive to curb energy production or consumption
  • Are regulated at the state level where the complex decision-making processes greatly limit and impede citizen and community access and input. 
  • Have made substantial investments in large baseload power plants (coal and sometimes nuclear), effectively tying communities to dirty energy and limiting carbon emission reductions for the foreseeable future
  • Produce “baseload” power which sets limits on the amount of renewable energy that can be usefully be brought into the utility’s energy mix.
  • Chain communities to increasing coal costs, approximately 10% per year, while making it difficult for communities to take advantage of decreasing renewable energy costs and potential local economic benefits from local energy generation


Municipally-owned utilities, on the other hand:

·      Are governed locally, with far greater opportunity for feedback and incentive to respect the input of local residents. 

·      Don’t have to concern themselves with making a profit for shareholders or paying CEO’s huge salaries. 

·      Can focus on the needs and best interest of the city’s residents and any “profits” can benefit them, supporting innovative programs to encourage energy efficiency and renewable energy. 

·      Can implement policies to promote efficiency and installations of renewable energy systems by local companies. 

·      Can keep energy dollars in the community, supporting the local economy. 

·      Without “baseload” coal or nuclear plants that must be kept running 24/7, can take advantage of opportunities for bringing online much higher amounts of clean renewable energy, integrated with demand-side management and innovative energy storage technologies and strategies become much more feasible and financially attractive.

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