Timothy Schoechle: Misleading myths of municipalization


Opinion:

In his Nov. 23 column on the Boulder electricity muni discussion, Bob Greenlee criticized the city “getting into the utility business” by “buying a bunch of old poles and wires” rather than “spending the money on more innovative initiatives …such as solar panels….” This discourse reveals three persistent, misleading myths of municipalization.

Myth No. 1 — The muni is about buying old wires and poles rather than innovating.
The first myth — the “old wires and poles” argument — is a recurring trope that reflects a lack of understanding of the 130-year technical and regulatory history of electricity. Greenlee has been in the discussion long enough to appreciate that buying the wires is not so much about owning the wires themselves but rather about paying the “ransom” to get out from under a dysfunctional and inaccessible PUC-based regulatory regime (i.e., buying the right to govern one’s own local electricity grid). Greenlee understands and agrees with Brautigam and Bailey that the “real source” of the local muni effort “…is about buying our freedom from an antique regulatory structure that prevents much-needed innovation in this industry that limits community-based decision making.

Buying the “old wires and poles” is not an alternative to innovation but rather it is the price of the right to innovate. And whether the price is “expensive” or not is a calculation based on what we would be paying out to a monopoly grid operator over time. It may actually be cheap at many times the $214 million figure.

Myth No. 2 — The muni is the city government’s project.
Greenlee casts the muni effort as a “coercive” and “expensive” example of government overreach. This reflects the second-most misunderstood aspect of the muni effort — its roots and motivation. The muni is mistakenly assumed by many, including Greenlee, to be a city council initiative and their opposition reflects their ideological commitment to a cynical view of government.

But Greenlee is railing at an apparition. In actuality the muni project did not originate with the city government. The city only embraced the idea after years of committed grassroots efforts by many local citizens in passionate pursuit of cleaner energy — talking and attending endless meetings and hearings — doing the legwork that it took to inform the council, and then bring the city management and staff around. In fact, previous city officials including a mayor, a city attorney, and a city manager were opposed or uninterested.

A consensus began to coalesce in the 2007 timeframe with spontaneous gatherings in homes and cafes of citizens concerned about “de-carbonization.” Between 2008 and 2010, members of the city council, frustrated by years of intractable and fruitless franchise renewal negotiations with Xcel and by the embarrassing $30 million debacle of Xcel’s “SmartGridCity” project, began to reconsider and look for alternatives.

The city staff began to support the de-carbonization effort by hosting community meetings and working groups. Studies and modeling were carried out by both volunteer working groups and paid consultants. Mobilized by major successful battles around ballot measures over two subsequent elections (2011 and 2013), the growing community support matured and the city added more staff support. During 2013 and 2014, additional volunteer working groups were formed to study grid modeling, natural gas, solar, utility governance, collaboration with Xcel, and other technical and regulatory aspects of energy and electricity.

Myth No. 3 — State-level policy reform would offer a better way.
Greenlee correctly argues that “it isn’t just local consumers living under Boulder’s dome that might enjoy and benefit from a modern and futuristic utility model. In fact, every consumer in the state might benefit if only progressive legislative action would seek to dismantle the onerous regulatory environment that grew up in the last century for controlling monopolistic enterprises.” 

But Greenlee also argues that we should be working on the state level with an “all out lobbying campaign” driven by “an army of committed volunteers.” Why not launch such a state-wide policy overhaul instead of a muni? The answer is increasingly that in recent years effective action is only possible on the local community level. State and federal institutions have become so politicized, captured, and co-opted by corporate power and money that they are decreasingly accessible to citizens. The fracking confrontation and state pre-emption of local regulation is one example.

Greenlee then asks “why then has the city chosen to fight this battle without an army of committed volunteers who would march in lock-step seeking the freedoms they claim they seek?” But, that “army” is exactly how the muni movement got this far and won two elections against heavily financed opposition. He could consider joining some of the many ongoing meetings to see for himself. 

Those who were not part of this community volunteer civic base appear to be unaware of its rich and formative history, but they are welcome to join. City officials now appear to understand and appreciate the importance of this civic engagement and know that muni success depends on it. Power comes from the people.

By Timothy Schoechle

Timothy Schoechle is an engineer and entrepreneur and lives in Boulder

This opinion was originally published by Boulder Daily Camera