by John Farrell
In 2011, citizens of Boulder, CO, opted to explore alternatives to their monopoly, corporate electric utility that pumps coal-fired energy into town and sucks millions in energy profits out. They won at the ballot box despite being outspent more than 10-to-1.
But tomorrow they have to win again against deep corporate pockets, or lose everything they’ve fought for.
Since November 2011, the diligent citizens of Boulder have shown that switching to a locally owned utility could nearly triple renewable energy, lower greenhouse gas emissions by half, and compete on price with their current two-faced corporate overlords. They’ve studied other city-run utilities (29 others in Colorado alone) to learn how they could take control of their energy future for the better.
Xcel Energy, the incumbent corporate utility, isn’t amused.
After spending $1 million in a failed attempt to stifle energy freedom in 2011, Xcel Energy has already poured over $500,000 into Boulder to defeat this local and renewable threat to their monopoly business model. They’ve sponsored a new ballot initiative (issue 310) that would make running a local, municipal utility nearly impossible. Under a rational-sounding name, the ballot measure would prevent the city from issuing enough debt to buy out the corporate monopoly and run its own electric utility. Nearly all the money supporting the ballot measure comes straight from Xcel’s ratepayers, spread across eight states.
It’s a textbook example of a corporation looking to buy the election result they want, and all that’s standing in their way is a committed group of local citizens. But unlike 2011, Boulder isn’t standing alone in the fight to be energy deciders for a cleaner energy future.
This video – headlining their crowdfunding campaign – shows what’s at stake. It inspired over 5,700 individuals across the world to, as their t-shirt aptly suggests, “pick a side.” (Disclosure: my donation to this campaign gave me the opportunity to offset the money Xcel took from my electric bill to undermine local power).
The campaign isn’t just about one city’s right to make its own energy choices, but about the right of every community to choose its energy future. And it is ground zero in that fight, as illustrated by the president of the American Public Power Association in a surprisingly impassioned defense of communities to tap “the American tradition of neighbor helping neighbor to meet local needs”:
[Utilities] such as Xcel Energy generally oppose the formation of new public power utilities because, for them, it means the loss of customers and profits. New public power utilities also provide high-profile examples of what communities can do for themselves, and this may encourage other cities to form public power utilities.
“Other cities” includes Xcel’s hometown of Minneapolis, MN, where a grassroots campaign (several years younger than the one in Boulder) is pushing for the same thing: a candid assessment of whether the incumbent utility is providing the best possible energy future.
That makes tomorrow’s vote a crucial one. Will it be another example of how a corporate monopoly buries its political and economic opponents? Or will it be Boulder’s shot heard ’round the world of locals taking charge of their energy future?
About the Author
John Farrell directs the Energy Self-Reliant States and Communities program at ILSR and he focuses on energy policy developments that best expand the benefits of local ownership and dispersed generation of renewable energy. His latest paper, Democratizing the Electricity System, describes how to blast the roadblocks to distributed renewable energy generation, and how such small-scale renewable energy projects are the key to the biggest strides in renewable energy development. Farrell also authored the landmark report Energy Self-Reliant States, which serves as the definitive energy atlas for the United States, detailing the state-by-state renewable electricity generation potential. Farrell regularly provides discussion and analysis of distributed renewable energy policy on his blog, Energy Self-Reliant States (energyselfreliantstates.org), and articles are regularly syndicated on Grist and Renewable Energy World. John Farrell can also be found on Twitter @johnffarrell, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.