June 15, 2020
Dear City Council,
Good morning and thank you so much for the wonderful work you do for the City. I write today to express some concerns about the Boulder talks with Xcel that I think the city (and Mayor Sam, if you’re listening!) should consider. For background, I work in the energy consulting field, where I track how utilities like Xcel plan for resource acquisition, new technology, new customer programs, in addition to following how cities and Public Utility Commissions regulate those utilities. While Xcel joined the utility “bandwagon” of “100% clean energy” commitments, many of these commitments do not satisfy the needs and demands of Boulder. I strongly support negotiation conversations, but I am skeptical that Xcel can deliver what Boulder needs. Here are a few points:
1) “Clean energy” has a vague meaning due to statute. Utilities frequently call “combined cycle natural gas” facilities clean energy because natural gas does renew itself, over many thousands of years. Clean energy also permits carbon capture technology, which is often placed on coal plants as a kind of band aid. Nuclear power may also be part of the “clean energy solution,” however many of my colleagues are skeptical of nuclear power’s safety, efficacy, and impact. Large, for-profit utilities will inevitably promote resources that are the cheapest OR that benefit the company; Xcel’s “Clean energy commitment” cannot be trusted.
2) You shouldn’t trust Xcel. Xcel has repeatedly posed new programs without adequate follow-through (i.e. Boulder’s Smart City), and through this municipalization process has demonstrated a lack of respect for Boulder’s requests. I believe that Xcel is trying to litigate the city to death, not dissimilar to the “Tiger King” Carol Baskin approach. Xcel’s CEO makes $11.3 million, and the investor-owned business model incentivizes the company to make investments that it gets a “return on equity” from. This implies that Xcel will forever make decisions that benefit its older, white male board and shareholders as opposed to making decisions for local municipalities. A large company simply cannot prioritize the needs of one City without creating a whole new management team. I fear that choosing Xcel as our leader may result in a decade of advocacy for Boulder’s energy independence to go down the drain.
3) Location of our resources is also a major concern. Xcel, like most utilities, currently uses power purchase agreements all across the midwest to supply power to Colorado. While this is not inherently a bad system, long-distanced dispersed resources make Boulder and other Colorado cities vulnerable to major storms and critical infrastructure hacking (remember the threat of Iran earlier this year…?). We also must consider: do we want to be renewable from our own abundant Colorado resources, or do we want to rely on long-distance electricity supply, which requires millions of dollars in transmission/distribution investments and maintenance? What about the risk of fires, which can be mitigated by isolated smart grid solutions and more frequent maintenance?
I will stop here for now until I get more in-tune with the meetings that are happening. I support the spirit of open dialogue and negotiation, and while I sincerely hope that Xcel can prove me wrong, my experience with other investor-owned utilities tells me that Xcel will always do what is best for its bank account, within the confines of the law.
Thank you for reading,