Muni 101: A deeper dive into trust

Other Muni 101 stories:
Basics and background
Who’s arguing what?
Boulder, Xcel settlement: What’s in it?

Pro-muni folks don’t trust Xcel for a number of reasons. The company has a history of raising rates (see Cost section) and has continued investment in fossil fuels. The Comanche coal-fired power plant was finished in 2010 — when municipalization efforts began in earnest — and is supposed to operate until 2070.

An early retirement is being explored, but critics contend that customers will foot the bill for shutting down the $1 billion facility, just as costs were passed along in another ill-fated project: Smart Grid City.

The plan was to provide hyper-connectivity of homes and appliances to the grid, providing real-time usage data and therefore opportunities for more efficiency. In reality, Smart Grid went over budget — 3X more than estimates — and under-delivered. Boulder later fought Xcel’s attempts to recoup its spending via higher rates, successfully.

(Xcel responded that it learned lessons from Smart Grid that are still being applied today. Officials did not respond to concerns over the Comanche plant or other investments.)

To critics, Comanche and SmartGrid together paint a picture of a company insufficiently committed to carbon reduction making questionable decisions, secure in the knowledge that customers will pay for missteps. Although Xcel has a goal of 80% carbon reduction by 2030 and 100% carbon-free power by 2050, muni proponents worry it won’t stick to that if profitability is adversely affected.

Xcel will be legally bound to the plans it files with the PUC, due next year, though there is a process for exemptions. Colorado has its own targets for emissions reductions and renewable energy, codified into law last year.

Boulder will also have the opportunity to end a franchise if climate goals aren’t met. (See: Xcel, Boulder settlement: What’s in it?)

Opponents of the muni argue that Boulder has continually underestimated the time and cost required to municipalize. They point to the ever-extending timeline for an operational city-owned utility: 2016 was the original inception date, then 2017, and 2022, now 2025 — a start that is subject to a court ruling on condemnation of Xcel’s assets.

Citizens’ final say over municipalization has been likewise postponed,from 2020 to 2021 and now, assuming the settlement isn’t approved and Boulder loans $2.1 million from its general fund, 2022, though staff in August said that timeline is only likely if “all the stars align.”

Boulder officials respond that municipalization is uncharted territory — most municipal utilities were formed decades ago — and that delays were the result of Xcel’s intentional actions to slow the process.

The city has presented too rosy a picture, critics have long contended, painting setbacks as victories or otherwise downplaying judgements against Boulder. A notable example of this was an initial contention that the 2017 PUC ruling wouldn’t result in extra spending, “clarified” days later that it would, in fact, add $23 million to costs. City Manager Jane Brautigam and then-muni leader Heather Bailey penned a 2014 Daily Camera op-ed extolling the virtues of municipalization; four years later, they were in the Camera‘s pages once again, pledging to present a more complete and neutral picture of municipalization’s viability.

Because of this perceived bias, muni opponents worry that the city is presenting an incomplete picture of costs. A lawsuit forced release of financial models on which Boulder’s analysis is based; for years, indirect staffing costs were left out of total expenditure reports, as were possible stranded costs. (Boulder contends these are incredibly complicated pieces of information to parse out, something other city projects have not been required to do.)

Lastly, opponents of a municipal utility point to city handling of other large projects as evidence of its inability to manage large, complex systems. Progress as slow and spending rarely matches initial budget estimates. (See Control section)

Author’s note: There’s one more consideration: Xcel’s lack of responsiveness to the press. Multiple interviews were requested over many months, without success. Xcel was provided the full text of this story but failed to answer several questions and did not address all the points raised. Boulder, given the same opportunity, arranged multiple interviews, answered nearly every question and provided supporting documentation.

The press is often the only channel for the public to access large organizations. The failure to be available, the selectiveness in answering questions and addressing concerns, adds weight to critical voices arguing that the company is not accountable to its customers.

— Shay Castle,, @shayshinecastle

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