Boulder Sets Sights on Climate Change and Xcel Energy with Formation of Municipal Utility

Residents see public ownership as best way to address climate change
Posted by: 
Violeta Duncan and Thomas Hanna


Since our last posting on Boulder’s municipalization efforts, the city has taken another big step forward and succeeded in creating its own power and light utility. Through the continued efforts of an informed, engaged, and environmentally conscious citizenry, Boulder is moving closer to its goal of significant emissions reductions through local control of its energy system.


The news comes at a sobering moment. In addition to findings from the Center for Naval Analyses Military Advisory Board that climate change is a severe challenge to national security, The National Science and Technology Council and the U.S. Global Change Research Program released the Third National Climate Assessment: Climate Change Impact in the United States, which predicted the persistence of extreme weather events.


This research found that the hotter and longer summers, frequent droughts, and heavy flooding that communities around the country are experiencing, are likely here to stay if we do not alter our energy consumption. Natural calamities like California’s drought and the Dixie Alley tornadoes will continue to threaten infrastructure, property, agriculture, and human life. Without substantial emissions reductions, temperatures will increase three to five degrees by the end of this century. Moreover, just this month it was revealed, to considerable public attention and consternation, that a major collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is now unavoidable—an event that alone will raise sea levels between one and four feet.  


Boulder’s story is one of a city trying to stabilize global emissions through the innovative use and creation of a locally owned and operated public energy utility. With a public utility, communities often gain greater discretion on the sources of their energy and are offered the chance to align their values with their energy investments.


Though public utilities do not inevitably promote sustainable practices, because of their structure, they can establish new lines of public accountability, where such values as energy efficiency and sustainability can overrule revenue generation and private profit motives. Whereas investor-owned utilities are answerable primarily to shareholders, public utilities, by their nature, are accountable to the communities that they service. They can be, as the City of Boulder, Colorado has recognized, powerful assets in reducing carbon emissions.


In 2002, Boulder became one of the first cities in the United States to support the Kyoto Protocol. It aimed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 93 percent of 1990 emission levels over ten years. However, as time went on, the City found that it was far from its goal. The Minneapolis-based, investor-owned utility that serviced Boulder, Xcel Energy, sourced 85 percent of its energy from non-renewables like coal and continued to make investments in its coal-fired power plants. Determined to continue its foothold in Boulder, Xcel launched a multimillion dollar campaign to stifle the municipalization process.  


Despite such resistance, residents continued in their resolve to increase accessibility of renewable energy and substantially reduce emissions.  After ten years of work, the City Council and a coalition of community based organizations, including Citizens for Boulder’s Clean Energy Future, New Era Colorado, and Empower Our Future, won the first battle for municipalization. The City is currently engaging residents in envisioning its “utility of the future”, examining how the new utility can link to community goals of:


1. Ensuring safe, reliable, and secure energy

2. Prioritizing a rapid transition from fossil fuels

3. Investing in our local economy

4. Designing a marketplace for innovation


Since our initial reporting on the creation of Boulder’s public utility, the city has made great strides in bringing greater community control of local energy infrastructure. As urban areas account for 75 percent of all energy used and greenhouse gas emissions in the world, Boulder’s experience serves as a model for cities across the nation. Public utilities combined with an engaged and informed citizenry will be important tools in the fight to significantly reduce emissions and mitigate the effects of climatic warming.