Oct 23 2017

Vote FOR a renewable energy future by voting AGAINST the Boulder muni

I’m really frustrated with the way many from the the pro-muni block in Boulder have misappropriated the idea that being for municipalizing our local utility infrastructure (condemning the Xcel’s local grid and forming a city-owned and operated electric utility) is the only way to move Boulder towards the goal of 100% renewable energy. They’re trying to co-opt the idea that a vote against muni is a vote for fossil fuels and a vote for it is a vote for renewables. I couldn’t disagree with this line of thinking more. In fact I think the opposite is true – a vote to continue the Boulder muni effort is the wrong way to go about pursuing the goal of lessening our dependence on non-renewable energy sources.

This weekend I wrote a long note to a local friend who came out in support of municipalization. I thought it was worth sharing to a broader audience – especially the answer to his question of why so many from the Boulder tech and business community are against continuing the muni effort (see for example here and here).

The main reason the tech community is against municipalization is that people in the tech community are futurists. We think about where the world is going and have true faith in the ability of new technologies to solve problems. In that context the idea of investing in 100 year old technology and infrastructure makes absolutely no sense. The future of power isn’t centralized power production and an aging, inefficient and outdated electrical grid. But that’s exactly what we’d be buying (and, because of the economics of the buy-out, be locking ourselves into for the next 50-100 years). It’s the equivalent of investing in steamships just before the railroads came about in the mid-1800’s or investing in a land line telecom company in the late 90’s. Both at the time were embedded utilities that one could easily have misunderstood as the future not the past. That’s exactly what we’re proposing doing with the utility grid in Boulder – at any price it’s a bad investment. On top of that, owning outdated infrastructure isn’t the best way to accomplish climate independence. With the money we’ve already wasted pursuing muni we could have already moved almost 10% of Boulder to renewable sources. For a measure that barely passed (the original muni funding “won” by 212 votes of over 26,000 cast) we’re spending like we have an overwhelming mandate. The highest paid person on city payroll is the head of the muni movement. And the PUC has just said that Boulder will be responsible for Xcel’s costs which may double (or more) the cost of this next phase if we choose to pursue it.
From my perspective the likely outcome of extending the muni tax will be continued wasted spending that won’t move us any closer to an energy independent future (and will actually take us further away as we waste time and resources). The business model for the muni makes absolutely no sense (which is why the city fought to keep secret). The economics simply don’t add up – even at a price for the Xcel assets that’s wildly unrealistic. Without massive increases in utility rates Boulder can’t afford to run it’s own municipal system (the original model assume 40% increases’ in the first 2 years of Boulder owning its utility – and that’s assuming a debt load substantially lower than anything close to the reality of what is possible). Personally, I think the economics will prove prohibitive. But if we do move forward I think it’s pretty clear that we’ll bankrupt Boulder. I mean that seriously. I think if muni moves forward we will be consumed with the debt that we incur and ironically will be in the position of fighting progressive (and environmentally friendly) change in the power markets as we fight to keep a rate base to support the 100 year old energy model we will have saddled ourselves with. We’d be much better off spending this money (and for that matter the money we’ve already wasted on muni) on actual energy efficiency. As an aside here, if we keep going with muni we’re going to have to rob the general fund to pay for it. Much of the costs of the next phase of pursuing the muni will happen in the next year or two but the funding through the tax won’t cover it (it’s evenly distributed; and it’s very unclear given the PUCs recent decision on fees whether the tax will even come close to paying for the next phase of this folly) – so we’ll be again sacrificing current priorities to continue to pursue this.
It’s unfortunate that the muni issue has been misconstrued as either being for renewables or against it. It’s really a question of whether Boulder wants to bankrupt itself by making a massive investment in outdated infrastructure or whether it wants to blaze a new path towards renewable energy. To me the choice is obvious.