Boulder's bold plan tackles climate change and energy head-on

Climate science has identified the need for a rapid transition to a fossil-fuel-free future, yet Boulder, Colo., has one of the most carbon-intensive electric portfolios in the nation. Our electric supply accounts for abouot 60 percent of city greenhouse gas emissions. Through the passage of the nation's first carbon tax in 2006 and ballot measures in 2011 and 2013 asking the city of Boulder to explore options for clean, reliable, low-cost, local energy, Boulder voters have expressed a strong commitment to addressing climate change.

Reports released this year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicate that climate change is happening faster than anticipated. As a result, the panel has made the unprecedented call for a rapid and systematic disinvestment from all fossil-fuel-based energy infrastructures. The rise in extreme weather events around the world underscores both the immediacy and urgency of this mandate.

We've felt the immediacy and urgency of this mandate acutely in and around our community. The four most destructive fires in Colorado history all occurred within the last five years. Meanwhile, the devastating September floods resulting from what meteorologists called a 1,000-year storm caused damages potentially surpassing $2 billion.

That's why city of Boulder staff are proposing an approach that addresses both the causes of climate change (climate mitigation) and prepares Boulder for the likely continuation of impacts (climate resilience).

Questions and challenges

The process of creating the "utility of the future," while worthwhile, is neither simple nor easy. The city of Boulder was thus delighted when RMI invited it to send a team to this year's eLab Accelerator. The theme was "A Boot Camp for Electricity Innovation," a perfect match for the city's ongoing research and projects.

The event provided an opportunity to explore questions such as:

    What are emerging best practices for rate design and utility services?
    What are customers' expectations for energy supply and energy needs?
    What opportunities exist and what challenges must be overcome?
    How can the city, the community and other stakeholders effectively partner on next steps?

By bringing together a diverse team, the city was able to broach these questions and design four guiding principles:

1. Ensure safe, reliable and secure energy — The first priority of Boulder's approach will be to ensure the community has access to safe, clean, reliable and secure energy. This includes investments and system enhancements so that energy services can withstand local and regional disruptions and provide increased opportunities for individuals, businesses and institutions to develop additional reliability and resilience through technologies such as microgrids and onsite energy generation and storage.

2. Prioritize a rapid transition from fossil fuels — The only way to achieve the scale of emission reductions necessary to stabilize the climate must involve a rapid transition from fossil fuels. This transition also protects and restores the environmental health on which our outdoor-oriented community depends.

3. Invest in our local economy — A fundamental objective is to direct substantial revenues back to the local economy, supporting existing businesses, creating new jobs and expanding business opportunities.

4. Design a marketplace for innovation — Central to achieving these principles is the creation of a new energy services marketplace to foster innovation and the development of new energy products and services that serve local needs and can then be applied in regional, national and international settings.

Breakthrough concept: an energy innovation marketplace

A major breakthrough the team realized at Accelerator was the potential for the utility to provide a platform for innovation, allowing the private sector to engage in entrepreneurial actions resulting in an "energy services market." The graphic below, developed at Accelerator, illustrates a new relationship between the utility and the private sector, similar to smartphone companies providing a platform for innovation by application developers:

Sharing outcomes with Boulder and residents

The Accelerator experience and resulting outcomes were tremendously valuable to the Boulder team. The ideas generated at Accelerator were first shared with colleagues in the city's Energy Strategy and Electric Utility Development department and subsequently with Boulder City Council and the community through a council briefing. The work at Accelerator helped inform the structure and content of a council memo integrating work across several city departments and many projects.

We already have seen significant excitement around the concept of an energy innovation marketplace in local media and through conversations, emails and phone calls with engaged residents. A new grant program, the Boulder Energy Challenge, has additional significance within the conceptual framework of an energy marketplace; each project submission potentially could be scaled up and more broadly deployed if successful in generating significant improvements in greenhouse gas reductions.

Transitioning to a low-carbon economy will not be easy. However, Boulder already has begun building a foundation for a new energy economy that will position the community for economic, environmental and social benefits. The growing cleantech and clean energy sectors employ a significant local workforce and generate an increasing share of the local economy. This could grow with more community-based energy infrastructure. Increasingly, clean local energy also will reduce local pollution and improve air and water quality for human and wildland communities. By creating an energy system that supports local generation and intelligent application of energy efficiency, Boulder also can create an energy marketplace that opens the door to new entrepreneurial ideas for energy goods and services. The extensive analyses conducted to date have demonstrated that Boulder can create the utility of the future, which will provide stable, safe and reliable energy while leading a transition to a dynamic, prosperous and healthy way of life.

A sea change is underway in the electric utility market and, in collaboration with RMI, Boulder intends to ride the wave to a clean energy future.

This article originally appeared at the RMI Outlet. Colorado sign image by Filipe Frazao via Shutterstock.