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Thursday, June 23,2011

An Xcel-lent plan, or a lot of wind?

By Elizabeth Miller

Xcel Energy’s proposal to build a 200-kilowatt wind farm dedicated to Boulder residents promises a quick transition to renewable energy for almost all of the city’s electricity, but city officials are still evaluating that proposal’s ability to meet all of the energy priorities for Boulder in the long term.

The conversation on changing Boulder’s energy sources began with renewables, but residents have also indicated that they value rate stability, reliability and control of the energy source.

City council members will be comparing the Xcel proposal to the option to municipalize power for the city, which would likely provide renewables at a slower rate, but would allow for greater say over where power for the city comes from — and in the long run could provide a more effective transition to more renewable energy.

The proposed wind farm would provide renewable energy credits to the city of Boulder for 70 percent of its power in its first year of operation, and up to 90 percent by 2020. That doesn’t mean 90 percent of the electrons actually powering Boulder will come from wind. Those wind-powered electrons will be distributed throughout the grid.

“Imagine a bathtub with different spouts going into it,” says Michelle Aguayo, Xcel Energy spokesperson. “Once you’re in the bathtub, you don’t know where that water came from.”

The more wind power in the tub, the less coal used to fill it, but at some point, even in 2020, homes in Boulder would still be powered in part by fossil fuel energy.

“The reality is that no, your house isn’t powered by wind. You’re buying more wind to put on the grid, and your house might get a little more wind powering it, but you’re still drawing from the main grid,” says Sarah Huntley, communications coordinator for the city of Boulder.

“Boulder can’t be 90 percent wind in terms of true electrons,” says Larry Slowers, deputy director for distributed and community wind at the American Energy Association. “They can say they want to buy the equivalent of 90 percent wind, but they’re not buying instantaneously 90 percent wind.”

Members of Citizens for Boulder’s Clean Energy Future, however, are proposing an alternative: a municipally owned energy provider that relies on a combination of natural gas and renewable energy. This model, they say, would help meet more of Boulder’s goals, and would also provide a model for other communities looking to reduce their carbon impact.

Though a municipalized utility would likely move more slowly toward figures like 70 percent or 90 percent renewable energy, Huntley says, a local power authority, which would be held accountable by voters, could explore more localized options for hydropower and solar energy. Xcel’s wind farm would likely be built in eastern Colorado or Wyoming.

Xcel has not yet put a price tag on their proposed project, Aguayo says. Based on the current per-kilowatt-hour price of building wind turbines, the project could cost between $350 million and $400 million. Xcel is expected unveil its price estimation and more details at a June 28 meeting with city council.

Sam Weaver and Frank Selto of CBCEF will present that group’s findings on the projected costs and benefits of municipalization at 6:30 p.m. on June 29 at the Boulder Public Library.

Under the Xcel plan, even 20 years after finalizing the deal, the wind farm Boulder paid to construct would still belong to Xcel, meaning the city could be right back at the standard rate of 30 percent renewable energy that Xcel will be providing for the rest of the state — though those new 200 kilowatts of power will always be on the grid.

“We’ve been hearing a lot from our community that they want local control and local decision-making, and they want to be able to influence the people who are making these decisions,” Huntley says. “So from that perspective, the wind proposal probably won’t get us very far.”

Both ideas — municipalization and the Xcel wind farm — have attractions and risks, Huntley says.

“Both of them have some community goals they probably won’t accomplish right away,” she says. “It’s going to be a weighing, a balance sheet, of what our community wants and how quickly they want it.”

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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One very important point about the Xcel deal is that it is not scalable.  Consider that if all Xcel's Colorado customers took Xcel up on this "deal".  Even if this was technically possible, this means Xcel would have 70% to 90% wind in its system and with that level of wind, not only would Xcel have to retire all its coal plants completely and bring on massive storage.  You think the costs of municipalization are questionable?  Nothing compared to this cost.  In Xcel's deal, Boulder and all the rate payers would have to pay for those retirements and all the new equipment to make a system that is expensive and does not perform optimally.  A wind only system makes no more sense than one using highly polluting baseload coal, but that is what Xcel has proposed.  

Xcel has made very poor decisions over Boulder's objections and will continue to spend money on coal plants that would be better closed in a prudent manner, replacing them with a variety of renewable sources and possibly gas as needed to optimize cost at an acceptable emission given current technology.  The system needs to be flexible enough to grow with the demand or reduce with efficiency.  An all wind system won't do that.  Coal is twice as polluting and is the major source of many pollutants such as mercury in our air and water, not to mention toxic coal ash and open pit mining.  Neither Xcel option makes sense and if Xcel would take public input, they would know that or at least educate the public to make their case.  They do neither.