Friendly Takeover

In August 2011, the City Council of Boulder, Colorado, referred two ballot measures to voters. One authorized the city to take over (or “municipalize”) the privately owned utility that provides Boulder’s electricity. The second measure imposed a modest tax on ratepayers to finance the takeover and convert the utility from coal to natural gas. With three months to sell the package to voters, and Xcel Energy’s determination to stop them, proponents of the takeover faced daunting odds.

Xcel put $1.1 million into a campaign to defeat the ballot measures. Its paid canvassers visited every resident of the city at least three times. Xcel also created the Boulder Smart Energy Coalition — an “Astroturf” grassroots group — to work against the takeover.

A Bus Federation affiliate in Colorado changed the odds. New Era Colorado registered more than 5,000 new voters and followed up with a volunteer campaign that made individual contacts with 100,000 residents of the city. New Era also helped put together the Boulder Smarter Energy Coalition, which forced reporters covering the fight to explain the distinction between Boulder Smart and Boulder Smarter: One was an industry-funded group, while the other was part of a citizens’ campaign.

New Era Colorado and other environmental advocacy groups spent less than $100,000 to narrowly pass both measures.

“This was the first time in the nation’s history that a utility was taken over by a municipality in order to lower its greenhouse gas emissions,” said Bus Federation director Matt Singer.

Xcel continues to oppose the takeover, using legal threats.
Read these related stories: In Portland and Beyond, the Bus Project May Be the Future of Organizing and 2012 Scorecard.