Inside Boulder’s Campaign For A Community-Owned Power System

When the people decided they wanted to own their power system, the power companies decided they didn’t like it one bit.

When a group of climate and renewable energy activists in Boulder, Colorado, started an Indiegogo campaign in August, they hoped to raise $40,000. A month later, the total was nearer $200,000. The Campaign for Local Power–which wants a municipal utility in the city–had hit a nerve. More than 5,700 people from 50 states have chipped in to help.


“I think it just showed that people are hungry for solutions on climate,” says Steve Fenberg, the group’s executive director. “Congress obviously isn’t going anywhere when it comes to the problem. It’s refreshing to see a local community actually doing something productive that can also be replicated elsewhere.”

At issue in Boulder is control of the city’s energy system. Campaigners say the incumbent utility, Xcel Energy, relies too heavily on fossil fuels, and that a city-run utility could arrange more solar and wind power and cut greenhouse gas emissions. Xcel, though, is fighting any such move and has sponsored a road-blocking ballot initiative this November. The activists need the money for a rival campaign this fall.

Watch their pitch here:

Back in 2011, Boulder voted through a ballot measure allowing the city to study the idea. The measure said the city could go ahead if an independent analysis found it could produce more renewable power than currently, and do it reliably and at less cost. That analysis came up positive. It said a new utility could double renewable production and cut emissions by half, without adding to people’s bills.

The ballot this November would very likely put a wrench in those plans, Fenberg says. It would force the city to get voter approval before the utility could issue debt to buy Xcel’s infrastructure, place tight limits on fees the city could pay to brokers to arrange financing, and add other burdens.

“Essentially, it was written by Xcel’s political consultants to kill what was already approved by the city. It’s a deceptive measure,” Fenberg says. “At first glance, you don’t realize what it does. But it basically handcuffs the city from moving forward because the restrictions are impossible to implement.”


Voter Approval of Debt Limits, the group that brought the proposals, argues that residents should have greater safeguards before the city gets into the utility business. Several other cities are also exploring mutualization, as the term is called, as they seek to generate more power from renewable sources. Boulder, though, is seen as a poster child.

“What we do has ramifications not only for our community but also, we hope, something that can be exported and replicated elsewhere, and impact generally how communities power their cities,” Fenberg says. “In the short term, we’re not that interested in having our own employees fix the poles and wires and manage the system. We just want to be able to say where our energy comes from.”

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.