Paul Culnan: Get local control for Boulder’s electricity

I am in favor of local control of our electricity supply and am writing in defense of the municipalization process. Some of you might want to stop reading at this point. I hope not many.

The City of Boulder’s ongoing (not done, still in progress) pursuit of finding out the cost of municipalizing is making progress as you read this.

In my analysis, the benefits of municipalizing far outweigh the costs incurred to get there. These are the likely benefits: lower rates, less carbon emission, better reliability, local economic stimulus, more resilient grid, local control, and innovation.

We are seeing now how the municipal electric utilities to the north of us (Fort Collins, Loveland, Longmont and Estes Park) are able to pivot from being mostly fossil fuel-oriented to having 95 percent renewable generation faster than Xcel can get to 80 percent renewables (see Platte River Power Authority). The City of Boulder’s 2018 request for indicative pricing indicated that we could potentially lower fuel costs by $40 million per year, compared to Xcel, giving us the ability to lower rates, improve reliability and innovate, while having 90 percent renewable generated power.

I expect that by the time we take over the local grid, we will be able to do even better.

Now if the talks with Xcel do result in a true partnership with Boulder that will realize our energy goals, that would be fantastic! But based on Xcel’s past attempts at reaching agreement with Boulder, and its nice sounding but unenforceable 2018 memorandum of understanding with Denver, I’m not expecting much more than some nice words of encouragement with maybe a pilot project and some undergrounding money thrown in (all of which we ratepayers pay for anyway). But I could be pleasantly surprised.

The reference to a quagmire in a recent Daily Camera editorial is exactly what we have with Xcel if we do not municipalize, whether or not we have a franchise agreement. To get anything done with Xcel requires intervening at the Public Utilities Commission and that is a game that Xcel has totally mastered.

Xcel is currently involved in at least four proceedings at the PUC that affect Boulder ratepayers and none of them are the biggies, either a rate case or an electric resource plan, both of which will probably be filed next year. If Boulder agrees to a franchise with Xcel, not only do the citizens have to vote for it, the PUC has to approve it, too. I have my opinion about the PUC/Xcel relationship, which I will summarize as “you don’t want to go there.” Fortunately Boulder’s municipalization process is now done at the PUC.

Xcel is now fighting Boulder in court over the city’s constitutional right to condemn the distribution assets (see the Colorado Constitution, Article XX Section 1). Lawyers are having a field day.

Municipalization has taken so much time and expense directly because of Xcel’s valiant defense of its monopoly. It makes sense that the company would fight us. Figuring that Boulder represents about 4 percent of Xcel’s sales in Colorado, Xcel make an after-tax profit of about $400,000 each and every week of the year just from those Boulder sales ($10 million per week profit from their Colorado territory).

Based on Xcel’s countermoves, some may say the city staff has made mistake after mistake, but actually it doesn’t much matter to Xcel what route the city takes, Xcel will oppose it at the PUC, slow walk PUC orders to cooperate, file for dismissal in the district court, appeal any decision that doesn’t go its way and generally put up obstacles as fast as we can overcome them.

The city staff has done a really amazing job considering the money, people, and time that Xcel has focused on Boulder. And if we keep chugging along, things will change for the better.

If the talks fall short of realizing the city’s energy goals, the city is better off staying flexible, keeping our options open, and staying out of franchise with Xcel.

I see gaining local control of our power to be a benefit for the city and the state and also for future generations of Boulderites, who will thank us, as we thank the citizens of the past generations who worked so hard to a make Boulder a great place to live.

Paul Culnan is a Colorado native with a 1973 BA from the University of Colorado Boulder in physics. He’s a retired computer programmer, small boat sailor, volunteer income tax preparer, volunteer raptor monitor, and  global warming activist. He has lived in Boulder for 42 of the last 56 years.

Published June 26, 2020 in the Daily Camera

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *