This week’s episode of Building Local Power is a conversation between John Farrell, the Director of ILSR’s Energy Democracy Initiative, and Steve Fenberg, a Democratic state senator from Boulder, Colorado. Farrell also spoke with Fenberg way back in 2014 when he was Executive Director of New Era Colorado about the work his grassroots group was doing to fight the power of monopoly electric utility Xcel Energy in his city.
This conversation focuses on the ins and outs of local activism for renewable energy. Fenberg explains to our audience how local organizing power can translate into solid political wins and it’s not just about fighting against something, but fighting for something. In his case, committing Colorado to a bolder and more renewable future.
You can find links to everything John and Steve talk about on the show page for this podcast at ilsr.org. That’s I-L-S-R dot-org. Support this podcast by going to ILSR’s donate page at ilsr.org/donate. Help keep us going.
Finally, please rate, review, and share this podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you find your podcasts. Your engagement helps us get great guests like Senator Fenberg and helps other to find this feed. Now, here’s the interview.
I was curious. Could you just share briefly what it was that Boulder was trying to do back then three years ago and why that incumbent utility company wasn’t doing enough to satisfy Boulder’s residences and businesses?
Other communities have been watching Boulder, I think, very closely, and the city of Pueblo here in Colorado is in conversation in their community about what the future might hold for them. Then there’s other cities, especially large cities, that clearly use a lot of energy are having conversations with their utilities about making sure that maybe they’re not going to [municipalize 00:04:35], but making sure that they have an energy source and portfolio that meets their community’s values.
The city of Denver has said that they want to be on a path to 100% renewables. Their utility is Xcel Energy, so Xcel Energy has to take that seriously, not just because of Boulder, but because the city of Denver is such a huge customer base for them that it’s only the smart business thing to do to try to please them and give them what they’re asking for.
You mentioned Denver. Do you think that when they have these requests that Xcel really does have to respond to them? Is that threat of [municipalization 00:05:50] significant enough that it will motivate them to change? Or do they have that advantage of incumbency and they control over the system that allows them to ignore that local interest?
They did that with Boulder really for decades because this isn’t a new conversation for Boulder. It was going on for a long time. These contracts, these franchise agreements with the utility, are often 20 years. Communities don’t have the opportunity or the option to hold that threat over the utility very often if they’re in 20-year contracts.
I do think you’re right. These utilities do have an immense amount of power and authority and financial resources behind them. That’s a challenge. That’s why I think what’s happening in some of these communities is really exciting because there’s not a technical problem. There’s not a technical inability or a technical barrier that is keeping the communities from being locally-controlled and having democratic choice of deciding where their energy comes from. It’s really a political and sort of a legal barrier that is the real issue.
That’s why I think having these successes, no matter what these cities and communities actually end up doing, but the fact that we are having this conversation, they pushed the envelope to where we even are today. I think that means that legislatures, politicians, elected officials, need to have the conversation of how do we provide communities more choice? Whether that’s Community Choice aggregation, allowing a smoother path to [municipalization 00:07:56], competition, there are many policy options. But I think we’ve proven that we’ve gotten to a point where the options on the table right now are not nearly enough.
One thing, obviously, that you can do at a local level is to elect representatives to higher levels of government. I hear that since 2014, when we spoke last, the folks in Boulder have a new state senator.
I am interested in the issue. I think it’s part of the Colorado way of life, and philosophy, and way of governing. The bills that I’ve been working on so far in my short legislative career are in many ways in line with that concept. One of which is to not necessarily on a community or city level, but to actually on an individual level, to give individuals more choice, and options, and more authority over their own personal energy future, such as allow them to install energy storage systems in a way that makes sense and in a way that engineers think is safe and reliable and reasonable, even when utility might prefer them to do it in a different way so they can retain control.
But for me, this isn’t being anti-utility. This isn’t being anti-certain types of utilities. It’s about saying people want a cleaner energy future. We know that’s the case these days. Technology has caught up to the point where technologies are out there that can get us there much faster than the path we’re currently on. There shouldn’t be these regulatory barriers to keeping individuals, as well as communities, from being able to use these technologies and new opportunities to have more control over their energy future.
In some ways, it’s little-d democracy. In some ways, it’s about clean energy. In some ways, it’s simply about individuals being able to have control over their own destiny. I think, frankly, it’s important in a whole different variety of issue areas. There’s the utility energy issues, but it’s also I think important when it comes to communities having decisions of where oil and gas extraction activities are allowed to occur. Right now, they’re happening pretty much next to homes, and schools, and areas where many would say it’s not somewhere an industrial activity like that should occur. But right now in Colorado, communities don’t have an opportunity to decide where those activities are.
I think it crosses more than just energy use. It’s also energy extraction. Then even down to things like decisions of relating to school funding and taxes. I think it’s important for communities to have direction over their own destiny.
Whereas, here in Boulder, or in the city of Denver, or some other communities that have a monopoly on energy utility, they have no ability to force the utility to allow them to use their infrastructure to run the wires. We’re seeing communities like Longmont and Fort Collins move forward on public broadband. We’re seeing that it’s significantly faster than what the companies are offering and also significantly cheaper. It’s a better product. It’s better for consumers. It’s better for community development to have accessible internet for everybody. Again, it’s one of those issues where it’s a regulatory problem that has created a landscape where local communities don’t have a decision or don’t have a feasible option for making them the best decision for themselves, but instead have to do essentially whatever the monopoly utility or the private broadband company wants them to do.
One was just in the past few weeks, a huge exposé about the political power of the big monopoly shareholder utility companies making very risky bets with customer dollars thanks to state legislation that gave them the power to essentially collect money for power plants that were incomplete that have now failed. There was a very big nuclear power plant project, both in South Carolina and in Georgia, and just a remarkable exposé of the enormous cost that’s going to be borne by folks for many, many years because state regulators were either handcuffed by the legislature or didn’t really do their job in terms of due diligence.
Then you have another example that actually involves Xcel Energy, your utility company there in Colorado, your electric utility. In Minnesota last year, the state regulators were saying about a new gas plant the utility wanted to build, “Well, we’d just like to think about it a little more and make sure that we’re making a cost-effective choice.” Well, the utility unleashed its 50 lobbyists on the 200 legislators in Saint Paul, Minnesota, at the state capitol, and got a bill passed to allow them to go ahead and build that power plant. It’s going to be $1 billion infrastructure investment that will significantly reward the company’s shareholders and as much as a $5 billion expense over the life of that power plant.
My question is is the oversight that we have of these companies when they get so big sufficient to manage and make sure that the public interest is protected? What do you see as the future here? You mentioned before the technology is moving really quickly. There are these opportunities that we can jump on and these folks don’t necessarily move very quickly. How do we address that and what can we do, if anything, at the local level?
But when that company or that private interest is a regulated monopoly, a state-sanctioned monopoly, I think there’s something even more obscene about it in that they are making their profit entirely off of ratepayers that have no other choice but to buy the product from this company. When they influence the process, it creates I think a pretty vicious cycle where regular individuals don’t have much of a voice or a seat at the table. In many industries, in many situations, their voice is by saying, “Well, I’m not going to buy your product.” In this case, they don’t have that option. I do think it’s very problematic.
I think the other thing is in many states and Colorado, the utility is mostly regulated by a public utilities commission. I think that’s appropriate because a lot of it is very complicated in the legislature, probably isn’t going to have the expertise to manage the regulations of a utility industry on a day-to-day basis. But if we think Congress or state legislators are complicated for regular people, the public utilities commissions are very complicated. You basically can’t participate unless you have a very high-powered attorney. Not only that, but you probably are going to need a team of high-powered attorneys, because that’s what the utilities always have. This is what they do. They live and breathe the regulatory arena and so they know everything about it. They control the system. Maybe not in an overtly-corrupt way, but indirectly they’re pretty much running the show in the regulatory scheme of things.
I do think it’s a problem. I think we need to allow more public input and more voice to the regular ratepayers, consumers, and the like. I also think we need to think about when it’s appropriate to not have monopoly utilities in charge of every aspect of some of these industries. It may make sense in many states to have a monopoly run the transmission, for instance, but when it comes to the distribution and maybe the generation, I don’t know that we’re at a place where we still need to have that as a government-regulated monopoly. I think those are conversations we’re starting to have more and more here in Colorado. I hope they’re happening elsewhere around the country, too.
On the positive side, I think people are reacting to what’s happening federally and hopefully being in a lot of ways demanding more of a voice, and more control, and more attention than maybe they otherwise would. On the negative side, a lot of what’s going on at a federal level is going to have ramifications for decades to come. I mean, on the FTC, as we were just talking about net neutrality, that’s had a profound impact in the near future and for years to come after that.
But there’s also decisions have to be at the federal energy courts as well, where a lot of the regulatory rules and guidelines really do come down from the federal government and that the states implement. The current conversations happening at the federal level, generally speaking, are not positive for local control and for local decision-making for people’s energy future.
I think it’s having good and negative impacts, as a lot of things do in politics. The best part, though, is I do think people are working up and getting more involved and engaged and paying a lot more attention. In the long run, that’s what we’re going to need to make this shift.
But at the same time I think it’s good for the long-term health of the movement, and for the individuals that do a lot of this work, to make sure they’re thinking past just the immediate political circus that’s going on and thinking about what we need to do now in this moment and this opportunity that’s going to lay the groundwork for a much more profound and longer-term impact in the long-term. I guess in some ways I would say whatever you can get your hands on that provides tools, resources, information, and guidance on how to capitalize in the current moment to create long-term impact rather than just short-term electoral impact in the near future.
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This show is produced by Lisa Gonzalez and me, Nick Stumo-Langer. Special thanks to cohost Stacy Mitchell, John Farrell, and Christopher Mitchell, all excellent ILSR experts. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL.
For the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I am Nick Stumo-Langer. I hope you’ll join us again soon for another episode of the Building Local Power podcast.