Empower Our Future, a local environmental organization dedicated to bringing clean energy to Boulder, hosted a candidate forum on Oct. 3 for three of Boulder’s mayoral candidates. Nicole Speer, Aaron Brockett and Bob Yates weighed in on questions dealing with the environment, the changing climate and the transition to clean energy.
The candidates agreed on many points around the transition to electrification, transportation and incentivizing solar. Often, answers began with a phrase like “I agree with everything so and so said,” or “I’m just going to build off what so and so said, because I would have said everything they did.”
On its website, Empower Our Future states that one of its goals is to create an “electrical system that is more democratic, decentralized, competitive and equitable than is currently provided by Xcel’s monopoly in Colorado.” So it’s not surprising that several questions revolved around Boulder’s franchise agreement with Xcel Energy, begun in 2020 when Boulder residents voted to end efforts to create a city-owned electric utility.
In subsequent answers, all candidates agreed that the partnership has not played out as one might hope.
Speer started off by stating that Boulder’s agreement with Xcel is “a little set up to not get us to our climate goals.”
“If we are just sticking to what is in the partnership agreement, we will not get to where we need to be in time,” she said.
Brockett was more direct in his frustration with how things have moved, or not moved, since the agreement was signed.
“I cannot point to a single pound or ton of carbon that has been avoided or emissions that have been reduced because of the Xcel partnership,” Brockett said. “It has gotten off to an extremely slow start, and that has been really disappointing.”
Yates cited the Xcel panel — formed to ensure Xcel was listening to Boulderites on their electrification concerns — and said it didn’t seem like the panel was given much credence, something BRL reported on last year.
“The promise of that collaboration has not yet been realized,” Yates said. “As we come closer to some of those measurable goals Xcel must comply with, I would hope Xcel would pay a little more attention to the partnership arrangement.”
When Boulder negotiated the franchise agreement with Xcel, it built in several off-ramps that would allow Boulder to leave before the established end of 2041. Under the agreement, Boulder can only null the agreement in certain years if Xcel fails to meet the laid-out emission requirements, like this year and 2025. But it also has specific years, with the first being 2026, it can leave for any reason.
One question asked in the forum was whether the candidates would push the city to leave the franchise agreement at the first opportunity, or put the option to voters.
Though none of the candidates said they would commit to ending the franchise agreement at this point, all suggested that having this possibility could help force Xcel to stand by the city’s decarbonization commitments — like achieving 100% renewables by 2030 and eliminating electricity-sector emissions.
“The city’s ultimate leverage is the ability to terminate the franchise agreement,” Yates said. “We can pick up [municipalization efforts] where we left off in 2026 if Xcel has not made us happy.”
Yates added, “I’m sure folks from Xcel are watching tonight. I hope they are.”
Legal battles, gas ban, equity and candidates’ 10-year visions
Brockett said that one thing to be cautious of is the legal battle with Xcel should the city try to pull out of the agreement, as the last years of the municipalization effort cost the city “millions of dollars.”
“And unfortunately Xcel has lots of money, lots of lawyers, and lots of time,” he said.
Speer similarly said that at this point she wouldn’t put the issue to a vote, but was confused as to why rates are continuing to increase for Boulderites, many of whom are already facing the pressure of the city’s high cost of living.
“In theory the energy should be cheaper to generate as we move more towards renewable and sustainable energy,” she said. “Why are the people in our community not seeing those decreases?”
The candidates also overlapped on many tactics to reduce emissions from housing and transportation. They emphasized the importance of implementing a gas ban in new construction — something all the candidates voiced support of at a July city council meeting — while also acknowledging that such a ban wouldn’t be enough to meet the city’s goals “because we already have 47,000 dwelling units in town,” Yates said.
Brockett raised the idea of “tactical intervention” for retrofitting existing buildings with electrical appliances. He gave the example of an aging gas main in downtown Boulder and suggested that instead of replacing the gas line, the city could help all homes connected to that line electrify.
Speer emphasized the need for equity and inclusion. Responding to how she would help reduce transportation emissions, she said the city council needs to focus on reducing the number of commuters who are driving into Boulder each day in part by encouraging them to make Boulder their home. One way to do this, she suggested, was making “our community feel more inclusive to people” because “it doesn’t always feel safe and inclusive to live in our community as a person of color, or a younger queer and trans person, or some other historically marginalized identity.” And those people, she said, are choosing to live outside Boulder because of that.
Yates, in terms of transportation, voiced his appreciation for the city’s e-bike rebate, as “ebikes are the wave of the future,” said the city should continue to provide EV charging stations to residents. He also said people should consider walking more.
“This is a small town and things are not that far apart,” he said. “We want to continue to remind people that walking is the most healthy form of transportation and there’s no carbon except for what you exhale.”
On transportation, Brockett showed his alignment with Gov. Jared Polis when he spoke of increasing housing density along transportation corridors to reduce transportation emissions.
Near the forum’s end, the candidates were asked what they hoped Boulder would look like in 10 years. In response, Yates painted the picture of a Boulder broken into 15-minute neighborhoods where everyone is within walking distance of groceries and a cup of coffee. Brockett said while he hoped for the best, the reality is things are going to get worse before they get better from climate change, so he wanted to see a Boulder that is “more resilient to the shocks and changes that are to come.”
And Speer said that in 10 years she is “deeply hoping” that the city has “begun to heal some of the broken relationships that our ancestors and predecessors here in Boulder created by coming in, stealing the land, and extracting and exploiting everything we could.”