This was originally published in May 2020. We include it here in light of its relevance to the city of Boulder’s 2020 election.
As the mayor of Boulder, energy efficiency professional, and former volunteer fire chief, I would like to share my assessment of Boulder’s continuing progress toward municipalization.
Boulder’s Mayor Pro Tem Bob Yates and I are close colleagues, but we strongly disagree on the issue of Boulder’s municipalization. The message I bring for Pueblo’s process is a lot different than his.
Pueblo and Boulder have very different goals, strategies and contexts for their initiatives. But Boulder has learned lessons and established pathways that apply to Pueblo. Both communities also have dug deep to muster the fortitude to stay the course through these difficult transitions.
While I respect Bob’s opinion, I focus on the foresight that animates Boulder to pursue local power and to take setbacks in stride. That foresight involves our commitment to establishing our own power supply choices and grid management methods to mitigate the negative impacts of toxic emissions and electrical system failures caused by increasingly frequent natural disasters.
Boulder tried for years to get Xcel to incorporate these goals of local input, choice, and resilience. When our franchise expired, Boulder saw the opportunity to take these concerns into our own hands. Boulder then established the principles and characteristics our community wants in the future: clean energy, stable rates, a robust and flexible grid, and local voter input into system management.
We run an excellent water/sewer/stormwater utility, and we expect to join other cities with outstanding municipal electrical utilities.
Any comparison between Boulder and Pueblo must consider how Boulder would finance its utility compared to the Pueblo Board of Water Works’ (BOWW) customized plan for local power. Unlike Bob’s prediction that Pueblo will experience the same regulatory and procedural setbacks as Boulder, I predict a much smoother path.
The initial lawsuits by Xcel Energy against Boulder involved cost limitations initially included in Boulder’s charter, but now withdrawn. This language turned out to be unwarranted because development, acquisition, and startup costs are determined through sequential steps in the courts and regulatory agencies that take time.
Final go or no-go decisions depend on how they all ultimately stack up.
Pueblo has been prudent not to codify hypothetical cost limitations in its charter amendment that could form the basis for litigation. Avoiding making guarantees, however, is not the same thing as giving the BOWW a “blank check.”
As a public agency, BOWW will not move forward unless the switch is in the public interest, saving money for Pueblo ratepayers and providing local control.
More lawsuits and appeals arose in Boulder from the complex condemnation process of Xcel Energy’s assets in Colorado district court, at the Colorado Public Utility Commission, and at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Xcel Energy contested every step along the way in order to slow or prevent the outcome. That said, Boulder believes that it has now hammered out the procedural steps required to move forward from start to finish and that its efforts have created a road map for other cities to follow, including Pueblo.
Another concern is that separating the poles and lines to be condemned from those remaining with Black Hills will be as complex as it was in Boulder, and may leave some customers without power. Because Pueblo’s Phase II Feasibility Study recommends the inclusion of Pueblo County in the new utility’s service territory, this expanded geographic area should reduce or avoid the asset separation issues Boulder has faced.
Another major difference between the cities’ plans is financing. While Boulder may finance some or all of its acquisition through taxpayer-backed bonds, BOWW takes another approach.
Boulder’s voters have reaffirmed three times their willingness to obligate themselves to create a safe, clean and secure energy future, whereas Pueblo is already overburdened by high energy rates.
By having the BOWW secure all development and acquisition costs through future revenues, not taxes, Pueblo’s municipalization plan insulates the community from any possible tax increases. And rates are projected to remain stable and then decrease, and this is what Boulder expects as well.
I am inspired seeing Fort Collins’ municipal utility moving into an exciting phase by providing low-cost, high-quality fiber optic service, as Longmont has done. These are the actions possible when a local electric utility is wholly focused on serving its customers.
I believe that Boulder and Pueblo, too, can each move beyond the status quo and into a new energy era of service to our communities. While our visions and approaches to municipalization may differ, we have in common the vision and the will to realize that possibility.
Sam Weaver is the mayor of Boulder, an energy efficiency and clean energy entrepreneur and a business owner.