Municipal power is cheap in Longmont, but not Boulder


Come November, Boulder voters will be asked whether they want to throw the city’s franchise with Xcel Energy under the bus and set up a municipal electric utility in its place. Voters will also be asked to double the city’s carbon tax (to 0.99 cent from 0.49 cent), mostly to pay the lawyers who will be handling the Boulder-Xcel divorce.

(Yeah, I know the “throwing under the bus” metaphor has been over-used to the point of nausea, but in this case it seems apt. That’s because until RTD took over bus service in the mid-1970s, Xcel’s predecessor company, Public Service Co. of Colorado, operated Boulder’s local buses. But we digress.)

Municipal power, huh? Well I’ve been living in Longmont for the past five years where we have it, and I can’t say enough good things about it.

Longmont has had municipal power for 99 years, and we pay a lot less for our electricity than people in Boulder do. A 2010 survey conducted by the Colorado Association of Municipal Utilities found that Longmont had the lowest rates in Colorado for residential, large commercial and industrial electric service, and the second-lowest rates for small commercial service. Longmont’s residential rate is about 30 percent less than what Boulder residents pay to Xcel. Power to the people, I say.

Of course, municipal power in Boulder won’t be anything like that. Boulder’s rates would be a lot higher than Longmont’s.

The reason Longmont’s rates are so low is not just because Longmont Power & Communications is a nonprofit corporation. It is because Longmont Power & Communications is a nonprofit corporation that gets 73 percent of the electricity it sells from coal-fired power plants. And most of the coal that goes into those plants — the big one is the Rawhide Energy Station, with 280 megawatts of coal-fired capacity — comes from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, the cheapest coal in North America. As of July 11, Powder River Basin coal was selling for $14.60 a ton on the spot market. For comparison, West Virginia coal was selling for more than $78 a ton at the time.

Needless to say, we don’t have a carbon tax either.

(In addition to the 73 percent of Longmont’s power that comes from coal, the city gets 19.1 percent of its power from hydroelectric sources and another 2-plus percent from wind, which renewable-wise isn’t too shabby.)

A Boulder municipal utility won’t produce electricity from coal, of course. The whole point of forming a Boulder municipal electric utility is to expedite the city’s transition to carbonless kilowatts. That rules out coal and all but locks in higher rates.

True, electricity produced with wind and solar energy is rapidly becoming more competitive in the overall electricity market, but it still costs more to produce than electricity produced with Powder River Basin Black. That isn’t about to change anytime soon — particularly when it comes to base-load power plants, those that supply power 24/7.

In the solar power business, the saddest words of tongue and pen are “night” and “batteries not included.” (In the case of wind power, substitute “lulls and gales” for “night.”) If wind and solar are to be used to supply base-load electricity, they have to be able to supply power when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing (or is blowing too hard). The obvious solution is an energy storage device — a battery or a tank of molten salt, in the case of solar thermal, for example — that can store energy produced when the sun shines or the wind blows, for use when they don’t. Such technologies are in development and will likely be both available and affordable within a decade. They will solve the “batteries not included” problem of solar and wind power, but another, Good batteries may allow solar and wind plants to deliver power 24/7, but if a solar plant is to deliver as much power at night as it delivers during the day, it has to generate twice as much power during the day as it would if it were a daylight-only operation. That means a base-load solar plant has to have twice as many mirrors or photovoltaic panels and twice as much land as a plant that quits delivering power after sunset. And that cranks the capital costs big-time.

Although City Council members may be reluctant to admit it, in pushing for municipal power, the council is really asking Boulder to commit to base-load renewable power. If that isn’t the end-game, there isn’t much to starting the exercise in the first place.

I worry that the council hasn’t thought through the capital-cost implications of base-load renewable power and, as a result, is dramatically underestimating the ultimate cost of a green municipal utility. The voters need to get this point pinned down well in advance of Election Day.