Boulder aims derive 100 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030. By the Sierra Club’s measure, that makes Boulder the 17th city nationwide to commit to the ambitious climate goal.
Mayor Suzanne Jones announced the plan last week during a clean energy event in Denver put on by environmental groups. She said the commitment is good news in the fight against climate change, but that Boulder’s motivation stems largely from an unfortunate lack of action at the state and national levels.
“The story here is that cities are having to lead because there isn’t national leadership, and frankly there’s limited state leadership,” she told The Independent.
The need for state and local government action has been a focus of environmentalists since the Paris climate conference. As Jones tells it, Boulder aims in the future “to push for better state policies and programs through the legislature, and (to) work with the administration to try to move the ball forward.”
Boulder’s clean energy goal has been in the works since May, when council members agreed in theory to commit to 100 percent renewable electricity. The goal for 2030 will become official, in the form of a finalized citywide climate commitment, this December. In the meantime, the city’s staff has been directed to develop a roadmap to make the commitment possible.
One such staff member is Jonathan Koehn, Boulder’s regional sustainability coordinator. Koehn said the commitment to 100 percent renewables is a sub-strategy for meeting the city’s larger goal of reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. The same goal was set statewide in 2008 via an executive order by then-Gov. Bill Ritter, but Gov. John Hickenlooper’s 2015 climate plan made no mention of it — or any other measurable, quantifiable goals.
Koehn is quick to point out that Boulder’s latest commitment is only to clean electricity, and thus doesn’t mean the city will suddenly stop using oil and gas. Boulderites will still use natural gas to heat their homes, and the city’s public transportation system will still run on fossil fuels. But powering the electric grid with renewables will better prepare Boulder for the inevitable uptick in electricity use that future changes — like a shift to electric cars and buses — will undoubtedly bring.
“If we want to move people off of fossil fuels, we want to do it when the electricity supply is as clean as it can be,” said Koehn.
The plan also doesn’t mean that Boulder will stop using carbon-powered electricity. It will stay connected to the state’s larger grid, which, like the city does now, uses a mix of renewable and fossil fuels to smooth out the supply during peak demand times. But by 2030, Boulder will produce enough renewable energy for its own use, leading to the same net impact as if it used only its own, separate grid.
This commitment to generating enough electricity to cover total use differs from that of Aspen, which is currently known as one of three U.S. cities to already run only on renewables. Aspen actually still gets about half of its electricity from coal-fired power plants and simply offsets the difference by purchasing renewable energy credits from out-of-state utilities, like a wind farm in Nebraska. Boulder is committed to actually creating renewable energy, not just paying for it.
Boulder’s energy staff will spend the next several months hammering out the details of its climate commitment plan. Then, according to a memo released from the May 10 meeting, a finalized “comprehensive energy transition strategy” will be expected in 2017, when the city has a better sense of whether it will municipalize its utility or renew a contract with Xcel Energy.
Both Jones and Koehn admit that transitioning to a 100 percent renewable electricity supply won’t be easy, but say it’s both necessary and economically sound.
Said Koehn, “People can continue to shake their heads at this, but we know that this is where our society needs to go in terms of stabilizing our climate.”
Jones added, “The wonderful thing about this is that moving to 100 percent renewable energy is not only the right thing to do, but it’s the right business choice.”
Photo credit: Tony Webster, Creative Commons, Flickr