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Boulder and Cañon City have been going in opposite directions since the 1870s. They did so again in their utility franchise votes

by Allen Best/Photo VistaWorks

Beyond both being in Colorado and along the state’s Front Range, Boulder and Cañon City could not be more different. The differences go back to the state’s founding.

Cañon City had the choice of getting the state penitentiary or the state university. It chose the former, so Boulder got the latter.

In both cities, a franchise vote with the existing utility provider was on the ballot on Nov. 2. This time, they went in different directions once again. The fulcrum in both cases was cost, if the formula was more complex in the case of Boulder.

Boulder voters, after exploring municipalization for a decade, agreed to a new 20-year franchise agreement with Xcel Energy. Xcel had continued to supply the city’s residents with electricity after the last franchise agreement lapsed in 2010.

The new agreement garnered 56% voter approval. Even some strong supporters of the effort to municipalize had agreed that the effort by the city to create its own utility had taken too long and cost too much money, more than $20 million, with many millions more expected. They attributed this to the power of Xcel to block the effort.

Boulder’s effort had been driven primarily by the belief that a city utility could more rapidly embrace renewables and effect the changes needed to create a new utility model. In short, climate change was the driver, although proponents also argued that creation of a city utility would save consumers in the long run. Consumers just weren’t willing to wait long enough.

Going forward, Boulder will have several off-ramps if Xcel stumbles on the path toward decarbonization of its electrical supply. The city will also retain its place in the legal standings, if you will, should that be the case. Also, Xcel agreed to a process intended to advance microgrids and other elements, although critics describe that as toothless. Undergrounding of electrical lines in Boulder will not commence anew as a result of the new franchise agreement.

Cañon City is Colorado’s yin to Boulder’s yang. Located along the Arkansas River in south-central Colorado, it has become more conservative politically even as Boulder has shifted progressive. In the November election, 69% of votes in Fremont County—where Cañon City is located—went for Donald Trump, who got 21% of votes in Boulder County

Economically, they walk on opposite sides of the street, too. The statewide median income in Colorado in 2018 was $68,811. Boulder County stood a shoulder above (and Boulder itself likely even more) at $78,642. Fremont County was at waist level at $46,296.

And along the Arkansas River…

Cañon City also went in the opposite direction of Boulder in the matter of its franchise. There were differences, of course. Boulder turned its back on municipalization in accepting a new franchise.

In Cañon, about 65% of voters rejected a franchise agreement with Black Hills Energy, Colorado’s second investor-owned electrical utility. The city council had approved it, but the city charter also required voter approval.

Unlike in Boulder, decarbonization and reinvention was not overtly among the topic points. Some people in Cañon City do care about decarbonizing electricity, says Emily Tracy, the leader of a group called Cañon City’s Energy Future, which she put together in January 2018. But the cost of electricity was the fulcrum and, she believes, a reflection of how the community feels about Black Hills.

The old franchise agreement with Black Hills expired in 2017. Tracy and other members of Cañon City’s Energy Future persuaded council members to put off a new agreement but failed in their bid to have a community dialogue.

“The power industry, the electric industry, are so different than they used to be, and we simply want the city to explore its options,” she says.

In stories in the Pueblo Chieftain and Cañon City Daily Record, city officials said they had evaluated options before seeking to get voter approval of the franchise.

Partially in play was the effort underway in nearby Pueblo to break away from Black Hills and form a municipal utility. The thought was that if Pueblo voters approved that effort, Canon City could piggyback to the new utility. The proposal lost by a lopsided May vote after a campaign that featured $1.5 million in advertising and other outreach by a pro-Black Hills group.

Black Hills rates are among the highest in Colorado. Tracy illustrates by citing those she pays to Xcel Energy in Breckenridge, where she has a second home.

“I pay 77% more for a kilowatt-hour of electricity for my house in Cañon City than I do to Xcel in Breckenridge,” she says.

This is from the Nov. 20, 2020, issue of Big Pivots, which chronicles the great energy transition in Colorado and beyond. Sign up for copies at BigPivots.com.

Opponents of the franchise renewal were heavily outspent in the campaign. Records that Tracy’s group got from the city clerk showed $41,584 in spending by Power Cañon City, the pro-Black Hills group, through mid-October. Tracy’s group spent less than $5,000, counting in-kind contributions. Tracy suspects that Black Hills didn’t entirely take the vote seriously.

Now it’s back to the drawing board for the Cañon City Council. Tracy hopes for more transparent discussion about the options.

But it’s all about the money.

“You take a poor community like Cañon City or Pueblo, then add in the fact that we’re paying the highest electricity rates in the state, and there’s no doubt it has an impact on families, businesses and attempts to do economic development,” says Tracy.

Frances Koncilja, a former member of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission has offered her legal assistance to Cañon City’s Energy Future.

As for why Cañon City wanted the state prison instead of the state university in the early years of Colorado’s statehood, keep in mind the times. Crime did pay for Cañon City in the 19th century, when few people had or needed college degrees. It was well into the 20th century before this shift toward greater education began.

About the photo: Cañon City and its hogback-hugging Skyline Drive. Photo/VistaWorks

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