By Jane S. Brautigam and Matthew Applebaum
The public power movement of the early 20th century was driven by dreamers who envisioned a world of inexpensive and reliable power. The people of Boulder have a similar vision — not only of affordable, reliable electricity, but also of electricity that comes from renewable resources that do less harm to our planet.

For years, our community has tried to work with our provider, Xcel Energy, to meet our energy and environmental needs. The investor-owned utility’s response has always been the same: Xcel cannot do for Boulder what Xcel cannot do for everyone.

Yet, now as Boulder takes a hard look at the possible creation of a city-owned electric utility, Xcel wants the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to allow discrimination against its customers in Boulder. In support of that effort, Xcel suggests we want to accomplish our goals on the backs of our neighbors. Nothing could be further from the truth.

What we are doing is exploring the possibility of creating our own electric utility, a move that could involve acquiring Xcel’s system within our city limits. This would give us authority we don’t have currently to tap the competitive market and address our goals. If we take this action, Boulder alone will be responsible for the costs. We do not expect Xcel customers in other parts of Colorado to fund this enterprise for us.

As you might imagine, Xcel isn’t enthusiastic about our possible municipalization. The utility collects more than $110 million a year from Boulder customers. The company has pledged to fight the city and, in recent months, has followed through by asking the PUC to allow Xcel to limit the access its Boulder customers have to incentive and rebate programs such as SolarRewards, Windsource and others. We believe this is premature and retaliatory. Perhaps more importantly, it is a violation of Xcel’s obligations under state law.

Xcel is a regulated utility. A core rule for regulated utilities — ever since the railroads, more than 100 years ago, gave special rates to their best customers, leaving everyone else to pick up the slack — is that all “similarly situated” customers must be treated alike. If customers in Denver get electricity at a certain rate or access to programs, the utility must provide the same to its customers in Aurora, in Louisville — and in Boulder.

So what about the argument that other customers might be left footing the bill for certain programs if Boulder customers leave? If the city decides to purchase Xcel’s system, we will participate in at least two processes that are designed to ensure that Xcel and its remaining customers are treated fairly. The first is in state court, where the question will be the value of Xcel’s electric system in Boulder. The second is before federal regulators, who are responsible for determining whether — and how much — the city must pay to cover investments Xcel has made to serve Boulder.

Even Xcel, in a recent PUC filing, acknowledged that expenditures to date will be covered in a state condemnation proceeding. There is very little risk associated with allowing Xcel’s Boulder customers to continue their participation in incentive programs until a final decision has been made.

It is important to realize that Xcel’s rebates only cover some of the costs to customers who decide, for example, to install solar panels. Residents and businesses pay the remaining costs at their own expense. Because of these customer investments, Xcel has had to purchase less coal-fueled electricity. This has reduced the need for more, costly generation facilities and prevented additional rate increases for customers throughout Xcel’s territory. This should be encouraged.

Boulder has a long history of working with regional economic, government and nonprofit partners to make a positive environmental difference. Nothing about our current exploration suggests this commitment is going to change.

In fact, we are excited to share what we learn.

Boulder City Manager Jane S. Brautigam is the Boulder city manager. Matthew Appelbaum is the mayor of Boulder. To read more about the issue, visit www.Boulder

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