July 23--It's the $10 million question: For all the money Boulder has spent in the past five years trying to break free from Xcel Energy and form a municipal electric utility, how can the city abandon that bid and still declare victory?
It's possible that Boulder stays on its original course and, with the blessing of the state Public Utilities Commission, creates a local utility through which it can attempt to hack away at emissions more aggressively than Xcel has and offer residents a wider range of clean energy options, eventually free from coal and fossil fuels in general.
But the commission has denied Boulder's application before -- most recently in November -- and the city is now negotiating a possible settlement that would end the municipalization saga and allow Xcel to retain Boulder's electric customers.
The content of the ongoing talks is confidential, but the city's regional sustainability director, Jonathan Koehn, said that a losing scenario for Boulder would see Xcel agreeing to increase customer choice and clean energy commitments for Boulder and Boulder only.
A win, Koehn continued, will have to include big-picture concessions from Xcel that push the company to adopt, on some level, some of the thinking that Boulder would like to put into policy itself, if it had the permission.
"If we can find a way to work with a company that ultimately has a bigger benefit for more customers and more citizens of Colorado in terms of addressing the social and environmental and health impacts of fossil units, that benefits everybody," Koehn said.
"This isn't just about Boulder; this is about moving more aggressively. That's precisely why we're at the negotiating table now."
High on the list of Boulder's long-term desires is a future in which Xcel's Colorado customers derive none of their power from coal, the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel source and, research has shown, a central threat to the world's chances at thwarting climate change in excess of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels -- the principal goal of the Paris climate agreements to which 196 nations agreed last year.
Xcel's current plans call for coal as part of the company's Colorado portfolio until 2070, the year at which the useful life of the Comanche 3 coal plant is projected to expire.
A National Center for Atmospheric Research study released in June concludes that emissions need to be cut worldwide beyond the levels proposed in the Paris accord to avoid 2-degree global warming. Furthermore, the study's lead author Ben Sanderson said, the developed world must act with particular urgency to account for countries with lesser ability to quickly eliminate fossil fuel emissions.
"Any scenario in which we get close to 2 degrees has coal almost completely phased out by 2040," Sanderson said in an interview.
The notion that Xcel could still rely upon coal in 2070, Sanderson added, is "laughably out of touch."
Alice Jackson, Xcel's vice president for rates and regulatory affairs at Xcel Energy, visited Boulder in June for a public talk, and urged critics to consider that the utility's 77-percent reliance upon fossil fuels in 2015 is largely the product of facility investments made two and three decades ago "with the best information available" at the time.
"Why isn't it reasonable at this point to say, 'You know what? Our viewpoints have changed'?" Jackson said to the Boulder crowd.
The professed attitude shift is evidenced, to a degree, by the fact that Xcel has committed to retiring or converting 850 megawatts of coal resources in Colorado, including about 530 within the next year. There were also no coal bids in Xcel's latest electric resource plan -- the filing that projects what facilities the company expects to need in coming years in order to serve its customers.
And as for future Comanche 3 plans, Jackson said by phone Friday, "Is that locked in stone, that it's going to be 2070? No. ... Depreciation in asset life can change."
Pulling its coal plants off-line today, though, isn't an option. Jackson said Xcel could not maintain reliable service at current prices under a rapid transition. She did predict, however, "lots of (coal) retirements coming in the next 15 to 20 years."
For climate scientists and Boulder's municipalization team, that's encouraging news, with huge room for improvement.
"The question of Xcel having an epiphany and saying they agree climate is an issue and that they made the best possible decisions 30 years ago -- that's fine," Sanderson said. "But the fact is that the timeline of just letting the coal-fire power plants run out their natural life is not fast enough. The world needs to move faster than that."
Alex Burness: 303-473-1389, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/alex_burness
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