02/22/2011 04:47 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Rocky Road for Clean Energy, Views Still Great

Boulder city staff have formally defined the parameters of Boulder's quest for a clean energy future, with or without Xcel Energy. Bravo. (For those of you just tuning in to our story, Boulder has allowed its franchise with Xcel to lapse -- and yes the lights stay on by law -- allowing the city to explore clean energy options in a process that has teeth).

While the city staff are bravely grasping the complex process of discerning and presenting the options, there are key steps to work out. One is whether to let the city rely on just one company's feasibility study on the business case of becoming a municipal utility. An alternative approach, remarked as costly by David Driskell in the last City Council meeting, is to secure a second company to provide an additional feasibility study. It's best that our fair city not rely on one company's consultation in relation to making its largest business venture ever.

And one thing many agree on from the staff's presentation: the logo for Boulder's new energy effort, depicting a household outlet with a smiley-faced plug, is stupid. It illustrates the consumption end of the energy story rather than the supply side, "the path that gets us to that future," as dubbed by Driskell himself. It is also what Boulder voters were addressing when they passed 2B with 69 percent of the vote in November. Oops.

Please. The logo needs to depict big ideas on the supply side. And three-prong plugs can't go there.

Boulder needs to get this exploration right, as Xcel Energy is courting Boulder for renewed franchise business with a lift of the ruffled petticoat and a swift kick to the shins.

Wednesday of this week Xcel announced plans to direct 5,000 Boulder residents to choose one of several mandatory Smart Grid City pricing packages as approved by the Public Utilities Commission. Many of the rates on the plans appear quite low; however, the plans also include quite high rates at certain peak times. A key way to save is to blunt energy use in the summer peaks, which is quite effectively done by installing load-matching rooftop solar. But Xcel threw a rock in the road for that too, by announcing the same day that it "would use ratepayer funds wisely" and immediately reduce solar rebates by 15 percent, with papers filed at the PUC for further reductions down to 25 cents per watt.

To this news RJ Harrington, policy director for the Colorado Solar Energy Industry Association, said, "We're looking at a suspended solar program," adding there might be layoffs commencing immediately.

That's a nice way for Xcel to lure our city into a large, long-term partnership -- hurt one of our city's proudest commercial accomplishments and steepen one path for residents to save on air conditioning bills.

Rock, meet hard place.

"This is a classic example of why you need surety in the marketplace," said Mike Bowman, globetrotting leader of the rural clean energy group 25x25 and former Colorado State Senate candidate. "There's no surety left in the marketplace, and a well designed feed-in tariff for distributed generation would fix all that."

It just so happens that this week at the Capitol, lawmakers will hold hearings in the Agriculture Committee on a bill, "Economic Development from Distributed Generation," proposed by State Representative Judy Solano. It asks the legislature to authorize an independently funded study to be done on the economic upsides for all Coloradans of an incentive scheme for distributed generation of energy with renewable sources.

Champion for renewable energy Becky English illustrates this incentive scheme: "With the $0-down leasing arrangements now available, passive income from on-site renewable generation can help almost anyone. Besides farmers and ranchers, feed-in tariff payments could help seniors on fixed incomes and others stay in their homes. Commercial rooftops and parking lots become investment real estate. Throw in local economic multipliers, long-term jobs and supply chain effects and we have a winner."

Energy geeks recognize this in a nanosecond as the much-loved scheme from rural Germany where rugged individuals made income feeding certain kinds of energy onto the grid, in turn making Germany into a world leader of solar manufacturing. Variously known as feed-in tariffs, feed law, and CLEAN contracts, it involves a miniscule increase on utility rates to provide guaranteed long-term payments to small producers of renewable energy so that their projects get paid off with a small profit (hence the "tariff" for certain energies fed in).

But will Colorado's rural and conservative flank love this? With provisions for biomass (such as manure piled in pyramids in some rural regions) which can become biogas for producing electricity (not to mention wind power, solar, geothermal and other sources), Solano's study could fly.

Red state, meet blue state. And that's a pretty great view along today's rocky road for clean energy.

Note: There's a hearing for Solano's bill on Wednesday February 23rd; if you are interested in supporting or asking any questions please contact Becky English; also there will be rally for clean energy jobs in Denver on Friday Feb. 25th. A version of this column appeared in the Boulder Daily Camera.