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Local Power for Boulder and Beyond

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Election day was momentous, and for the Boulder clean energy crowd, a crowning achievement. Proposition 2B, the tax to "replace the Xcel franchise fee" passed by such a strong margin (69%) that it looks like a mandate for bold action. So let's get educated - there are energy options for municipalities like Boulder to get more direct authority over the energy supply. With or without the help of Xcel Energy.

Just six days after 2B's passage, Paul Fenn of Local Power Inc., came to Boulder to talk about Community Choice Aggregation, having written the law for it in California. He is also a consultant to multiple cities in and counties in California.

CCA is widely called "muni-lite" for representing a mid point between being fully captive to an incumbent utility and full municipalization, in which a city buys back its distribution system and hires a company to manage its evolving power generation. CCA empowers communities to lease rather than buy the distribution system and evolve their energy supply according to local wishes.

Community choice is a movement that's gained a legal foothold in states both red and blue -- Massachusetts, Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas, Illinois and California -- and merits serious scrutiny in Colorado. It's not legal here, but it could be if the legislature passed it. The foundation for such a law would be strong since Colorado is a home rule state (and Boulder is a home rule city). CCA would also empower counties to form buying entities as well.

Fenn's sharpest point in favor of CCA (which is true also for municipalization) is that renewable energy simply is not more expensive than fuel-based central power when it's bought by a municipality that can get tax-free government financing through revenue bond authority, sometimes known as municipal H bonds.

"Municipalities can get a cheaper banker than Xcel can," Fenn put it. Seen another way, renewables don't have enough return on investment for a big utility's large revenue requirements.

The adage, "If you want to travel fast, then travel light," could not be more fitting for decarbonizing energy supply. The shareholder profit burden of investor-owned utilities does not jive well with greening up the system. In fact, one could make a strong principle of the idea that the natural monopoly of electricity distribution can only be justified in a civically owned, minimum profit operation in which citizens participate as much as they please.

"The average American has an infantile relationship with electricity - you want it, and if you don't get it you get really, really angry," according to Fenn. The distant monopoly has everything to do with that mother-child dynamic that Boulder Mayor Susan Osborne has also mentioned. Community power, however, allows communities to "penetrate the veil of opacity" to rethink the central, supply-based, fuel-based model, reinvent it with geographic, data-based realities, and rebuild the energy equation with efficiency and storage as much in mind as clean energy supply.

In Fenn's vision, the goal is a fully integrated, interoperable, shared, geographic infrastructure that shifts with the moving tide of humans and weather around the area. Key areas for reducing waste lie in combined heat and power at big facilities and controlling the pumping of water. Figuring out the patterns of usage is critical to relocalizing power.

The City of Boulder has been requesting energy usage data from Xcel Energy; receiving it has been a point of contention as noted by City Councilors through the past year. In October, Boulder formally requested complete data on energy usage and technical specifications on installed facilities. The franchise agreement expiring this year accords Boulder this for the sake of acquisition. City leaders will need steel in their spines to bring home this knowledge.

There are many unknowns in the process of moving toward CCA, particularly getting the law passed through the legislature and supported properly at the Public Utilities Commission. Such processes provide "plenty of room for it to be corrupted and co-opted," according to energy lawyer Susan Perkins. There is strong reason for Boulder to reach for the gold-standard of full municipalization, increasing its amount of renewable power steadily for years then selecting nascent load balancing technologies as they reach maturity.

In the meantime, CCA seems inevitable for the red and blue mix of Colorado. Why should law and regulations require our communities to export money unnecessarily through large companies that send money out for coal and shareholders, when more and more technologies are coming out to empower households and neighborhoods to provide their own power?

Anne B. Butterfield volunteers on the board of Clean Energy Action, where Susan Perkins is also a prospective board member. A version of this column first appeared in the Boulder Daily Camera.