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Environmental Studies

A Boulder Future

Case Study: Boulder, CO
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In today's world, governments often reach agreements with third parties (especially large corporations, contractors, and developers) before consulting the public. At these points, citizens can easily become alienated and disempowered by the political process. In Boulder's case, Xcel is providing a benefit to the people of Boulder at Xcel’s (and the investors’) cost. While there is no reason to believe that citizens should have control over the third party’s decisions, people were discouraged because Xcel has a monopoly on the market and citizens seem to have no influence with their dollars, let alone their voices. Especially after the prospects of municipalization were forgotten, some people were disappointed with their options. The people of Boulder should have been consulted prior to Xcel’s (essentially unilateral) decision to update its system – especially if the utility expects public approval and participation. Major technological plans should have at least public comment periods, if not deeper consultation. Nonetheless, this process brings up a basic argument about functionality within a participatory democracy – how much involvement is our public willing to take? If the decision had less effect on the people, will they still show up? Where is this line drawn?

Interestingly enough, if Xcel had done preliminary town meetings or educational forums, it might have excited many of its citizens rather than alienating them. What I understand from these happenings is that the process is as important as outcome; the means influence the ends. A smart grid (or any solution) cannot be as powerful if it is implemented improperly. Most of the government officials support the smart grid because it is a solution and will help them out with their goals. Personally, I was very surprised and excited when I heard that someone would finally be building a smart grid. But for the average citizen, a smart grid can easily sound like fluff, a comment made by many of the internet users. These concerns need to be met and answered immediately, not allowed to stew into deeper resentment of the technology.

Boulder has a very active, involved and environmentally engaged community, one of the reasons it was chosen by Xcel. Another irony is that if Xcel had chosen a less "technologically aware" community, it might have run into less opposition. Many were skeptical because the promises of a smart grid were unclear and appear to have marginal environmental impacts relative to costs. While it’s doubtful that any sort of organized opposition to the smart grid will form, Xcel’s strategy has prompted a groan from many of Boulder’s citizens, and on a certain level, I can relate to this feeling as well. When working on developing an energy program and money is a barrier, each dollar is a godsend and each grant is heavenly. $100 million seems unfathomable, and to see it go somewhere else is disheartening. When the citizen’s motivation is to mitigate an enormous problem like global climate change, each proposed “solution” and its motivations must be questioned. A smart grid has the potential to be an empowering tool for citizens, especially when distributed generation is emphasized. The amount of choice and power it gives to homeowners could result in meaningful reductions in carbon emissions. As Xcel develops the smart grid and Boulder implements its Climate Action Plan, each stakeholder will find that further democratizing the system is largely to everyone's benefit.

            Despite these problems, Boulder's smart grid could easily become the model for the future. Xcel’s implementation process in Boulder could be setting a precedent for  development, begging the question "what next?" for Boulder’s citizens. At this point, much of the opportunity to get involved in the actual development has yet to take form. Boulder’s interested citizens should fight for every avenue of engagement – in order to ensure that Xcel is held up to its lofty visions and to affirm the promises of its elected officials. Through the aggregation of their various voices, a truly smarter grid can be built. 

            On May 15, there will be a great opportunity to learn more about Smart Grid during the 2008 Boulder Economic Summit. Xcel Energy Chairman and CEO Dick Kelly will unveil the Smart Grid design plan together with speeches from Colorado Governor Bill Ritter and Boulder Mayor Shaun McGrath. The event will take place at the University Memorial Center on the CU campus beginning at 10:00 a.m., and the public is invited - for more information, click here to read the Mayor's take on the smart grid.  

boulder by night

   Image 12: Boulder by night

Last updated:  5/6/2008


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