Boulder Residents Defeat Xcel Again

Largest German cities also pursue public ownership of grid and renewable energy goals
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Thomas M. Hanna

On November 5th, residents of Boulder, Colorado went to the polls to decide whether or not the city should continue on its path towards a locally controlled public utility devoted to expanding renewable energy and reducing carbon emissions. At issue was ballot question 310, an initiative backed by the existing corporate provider Xcel Energy that would have crippled the city’s municipalization efforts by placing severe debt and other restrictions on the process. Just as they did in 2011 when city residents voted to form their own public utility, Xcel energy spent large amounts of money trying to influence local voters. This time around the company spent $800,000 dollars, bringing its total for both elections to approximately $1.8 million.

These efforts were in vain as activists and residents once again joined forces to defeat Xcel. New Era Colorado, a local youth-led group, spearheaded the opposition, backed by an incredibly successful crowd-funding campaign which brought in nearly $200,000 from around 6,000 people from all 50 states and 24 countries. However unlike in 2011, the results this time weren’t even close. City residents emphatically voted in favor of continuing the municipalization process, voting down 310 by more than a two to one margin—68.6 percent to 31.3 percent.  The result is a big boost for backers of the public utility as they enter into the difficult legal phases of the process. “Xcel has had some doubt about the city's conviction to form a municipal utility because the vote was so close in 2011," Councilman Macon Cowles said. “That doubt should be erased by this vote and leaves the city free to do what it needs to do.”

Thousands of miles away in Germany, community and environmental activists have been pursuing similar campaigns to return energy systems in Hamburg and Berlin (the country’s two biggest cities) to public ownership. With the twin goals of increasing the use of renewable resources and lowering costs for consumers, Germany has seen a wave of energy re-municipalizations in recent years, reversing many of the privatizations of the 1990s. According to one report, as a result of price increases and service failures, since 2007 around 170 German municipalities have bought back their power grids from private corporations (others, including the large cities of Munich and Frankfurt, never sold their systems and both have targets of 100 percent energy from renewable sources). Another report states that in this time period, 70 new municipal utilities have been formed, and public operators have taken back over 200 “concessions” previously given to private companies to run energy grids.

In September, the Hamburg referendum—supported by “Our Hamburg – Our Grid,” a coalition of more than 50 community, consumer, religious, and environmental groups—passed with 51 percent of the vote. Despite his opposition, Hamburg Mayor Olaf Scholz vowed that: “The Senate will now take the will of the citizens into account and not let the referendum go into space.” In early November, Berlin citizens—upset over the fact that just 1.4 percent of the city’s power, provided by the giant corporation Vattenfall, comes from renewable sources—also went to the polls to vote on that city’s referendum which would have re-municipalized the energy grid. However, despite the fact that around 83 percent of voters backed the effort, low turnout ensured that the “yes” vote fell just short of the threshold of 25 percent of eligible voters it needed for the referendum to pass.

Despite this setback, the trend in Germany towards greater community control of local energy infrastructure with a focus on providing affordable power from renewable sources shows no signs of abating. It also demonstrates how successful and seemingly isolated, local efforts against heavy opposition, like that in Boulder, can inspire people in other communities to take similar actions which may, in turn, help spark the democratically-controlled, community-owned, clean-energy revolution the world desperately needs.