Twenty years ago, the Union of Concerned Scientists had a t-shirt that showed a melting earth with a smiley face drawn on it to illustrate the Bush (41) approach to addressing climate change.  At the time, advocates were stymied by an administration and congress avoiding a proactive approach to one of the greatest challenges of our generation.

Today, while there have been some movements in the right direction on energy policy by federal and state governments, we continue to be held back on a more comprehensive policy by those intent on avoiding the issue.  A common argument from opponents in 1991 was “there’s no need to rush into this, let’s take our time” – here we are, over 20 years later facing largely the same argument. 

The community of Boulder, Colorado decided in this year’s election that the time for talk was over and it was time for action.  After adopting Kyoto Goals in 2002 and passing the nation’s first carbon tax in 2006 to fund implementation of their climate action plan, the city recognized that the reliance on coal from their contracted utility – Xcel Energy – was holding them back from achieving their climate objectives. 

In this year’s November 1 election, Boulder voted to authorize separation from the monopoly electric utility that serves the city and pursue the option of a municipal utility. This is the first vote of its kind – a vote to authorize the creation of a new utility as a response to the dominance of coal energy in the incumbent utility’s portfolio.

Ironically, on the same day Boulder voted to pursue a clean energy agenda, the IPCC issued yet another report on impending effects of climate change – this time warning of an increase in extreme weather events. 

The Boulder vote should send a message to utilities around the country as well as other communities that are tired of inaction on climate goals.  In Colorado, while Xcel is on track to have 25% renewable energy in their portfolio by 2020 (a commitment which has positioned them as the nation’s leading utility for wind power)  they also just completed a new 750 MW coal plant that will be producing energy well into 2060.  Boulder voters saw no reason to saddle their grandchildrens’ generation with technology that was developed by their great grandparents. 

Now the real work begins in Boulder.: evaluating all available options to change the relationship of a utility with its citizens.  A relationship focused on a mutual desire to provide reliable, affordable energy with a low carbon footprint.  A utility that engages citizens in a productive dialogue about energy use, maximizes the efficiency of the city as a system and emphasizes a distributed generation model over a traditional centralized model of power delivery.  A utility that will unite transportation needs and electric utility assets to advance a domestic, secure and clean energy profile for the transportation sector.

Xcel has an opportunity to be a part of this solution.  The city is considering a wide range of options – including a partnership with the incumbent utility to achieve the community’s goals. 

Many industries have evolved, innovated and grown by responding to the desires of their consumers.  The utility industry should be no exception.  While it may seem unlikely that the utility would shift it’s business model in response to a public vote, history in Colorado points to Xcel energy as an example.

In 2004, Xcel opposed Colorado’s initiative to create a renewable portfolio standard.  In the years after it passed, Xcel admitted they were wrong to oppose the effort and acknowledged that investments in renewable energy had made them a stronger company. 

Xcel faces a similar opportunity today: to adapt, innovate, evolve and become a utility better poised for the challenges in the 21st Century.  It is not the first instinct of a monopoly utility to have to earn their customers’ business – but faced with the real possibility of losing an entire community from their customer base, perhaps Xcel will now see an opportunity to grow and thrive as a new kind of utility for a new generation.

Our nation’s communities and our utilities stand at a crossroads.  One path leads to continued reliance on coal and denial of our responsibilities to address climate change for future generations.  The other offers a path to a clean energy future, renewed American leadership in a clean energy economy and empowerment of its citizens. 

Boulder has chosen the path to a clean energy future.  What community will be next?

Photo by bouldercolorado.gov.