The Future of Public Power

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There is nothing more alarming to an entrenched monopoly, it seems, than consumers demanding the right to choose.


Since 2011, the city of Boulder, CO has sought to form its own municipal utility. The logic behind the motivation is solid – modeling has shown that the city could switch to 40% renewables with a 60% reduction in greenhouse gas if it ran its own energy utility. With the costs of installing renewable energy systems on the decline, it is likely that the city could eventually expand its portfolio to include further sustainable energy sources in the future.


The initiative was met with intense opposition from Xcel Energy. Xcel poured $950,000 into a campaign against the issue, part of the company’s larger effort to stymie competition. The municipalization ballot measures were a success – though only by a narrow margin of 141 votes – but the battle is far from over. In its latest slow-clap-worthy tactical feint, Xcel filed a lawsuit last week to try to block the City from implementing the voter-approved measure.


The Xcel-Boulder saga has been long and arduous, so let me take you up to speed. Boulder takes first step in winning independence from energy monopoly, despite Xcel’s many attempts to muddy the field. Xcel claims city utility creation is “premature,” says city will fail to meet voter-mandated requirements of service quality and fair pricing. Boulder offers to work toward an agreement with Xcel, and a promise of good-faith negotiations. Xcel shakes its head with infinite sadness, as would a parent with a wayward child, and files a law suit – a desperate attempt to protect its monopoly.


However, despite this desperate attempt to quell customer choice, voters continue to stand up for their own agency. No matter how much utilities try paint themselves as friends of solar and defenders of the free market, the municipalization movement has started to gain speed.


For example, the advocacy group Coloradans for Electricity Choices has picked up on Boulder’s momentum. The successful implementation of the Boulder municipalization project is shaping up to be a watershed moment, in which other communities see a real opportunity to make their own electricity decisions. Already, Minneapolis and Santa Fe are starting their own investigations into splitting from their private utilities, and Massachusetts is considering legislation to make it easier for towns and counties to follow Boulder’s example.


A group called the Community Power Network has been tracking municipalization efforts, and offers resources to start up and connect with nascent community projects. In fact, they point out there are already 2,000 community-owned electric utilities, which serve more than 46 million Americans. This information comes from the American Public Power Association, which has published a guide to show voters how to spot disinformation and other curmudgeonly behavior from utilities.


The majority of energy consumers want choices. They want a dynamic energy marketplace. They want economically and ecologically sustainable energy investment. And if utilities continue to rely on their comfortable monopolies, more and more consumers are going to demand a change.


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