These 20-Somethings Beat A Huge Energy Corporation And Took Control Of The Power Grid

Collectively | September 30, 2014 | Column by Merete Mueller

On November 1, 2011, Steve Fenberg stood at the front of a bus full of campaign volunteers and got ready to deliver some bad news. It was election night in the city of Boulder and for the past month his non-profit, New Era Colorado, had been spearheading a campaign to cut ties with the city's electric utility, Xcel Energy. They believed their city would be more sustainable on its own.

Images via New Era Website

Knowing that Xcel was spending close to a million dollars against them, New Era's volunteers had worked tirelessly for weeks, registering new voters and rushing people to the polls up until they closed that very evening. But when Steve pulled up the early results on his phone, he was disappointed to see they were lagging. He said a few vague words to the bus about how they'd done the best they could, and steeled himself for the speech he would have to give later in the night when they officially lost.

By the time their bus pulled up to the election night party, Steve checked his phone again and saw that the margin was closing. He refreshed the page every few minutes and watched as they inched closer to victory, vote by vote. In the end, the decision to leave Xcel passed by just 200 votes, despite being outspent 10 to 1. Steve recalls, "It was thrilling not just because it was so close, but because we could see every bit of work we'd done truly counted. Every single person we'd gotten to vote that day helped determine the final outcome."

They didn't know it then, but their work on the issue had only just begun.


To understand why a busload of 20-somethings gave a damn about their electric utility, you need to know a few things about our energy grid. In "regulated" states like Colorado, the grid is owned by a few monopoly power corporations like Xcel and is overseen by a government committee called the PUC. If someone wants to install solar panels on their roof in Boulder, the power generated by those panels doesn't flow directly to their own refrigerator or power sockets. Instead it goes back into the corporate-owned, government-regulated grid. In "unregulated" states things aren't much different. But people there canchoose from many smaller utility companies.

The second thing you need to know is that right now in the US, the majority of our electricity still comes from coal, which makes it one of the biggest contributors to our carbon emissions. One of the reasons for this is that our utility companies spent billions of dollars building coal-fired power plants. The only way for them to recoup that money and make a profit is to keep using them. That's their business model. A lot of utility companies have been working to add renewable energy like wind and solar to their power mix, and Xcel Energy is a leader in this respect. Xcel is widely seen to be the most environmentally friendly utility in the US. But they also just finished expanding a coal-fired power plant in Pueblo, Colorado in 2010. And to make a profit from it, they're going to have to keep burning coal for decades. In most cases, it's not that our power companies are evil or have a complete disregard for the environment, it's just that they're too big, too old and too slow to make the kind of meaningful change we need.

Our generation doesn't do well with this kind of power. We came of age in the world of the Internet, of distributed authority. In our world, hacker groups investigate their governments and activists organize on Twitter to dismantle dictatorships. So why should our energy grid be any different?

When I asked Xcel how they recommend young people work with utility companies to reduce carbon emissions, they wrote back, "Young people in every state across the country can participate in programs offered by their electric and gas utilities, or practice ways to be more energy efficient." This is the kind of corporate speak that drives Gen Y crazy. Earlier that week when I asked Steve Fenberg, 29, why New Era got involved in the fight against Xcel he explained,"There's an incredible amount of frustration because [changing our energy system] doesn't actually seem that hard, but at the end of the day not much is changing. It's frustrating to me when people are like, 'Climate change, it's a disaster. So make sure you change out your lightbulbs.'" As a generation, we know we have collective power to wield, but we crave something bigger and deeper than just buying "green" products.

In Colorado, seventy percent of electricity comes from coal. Boulder is a town known for its progressive ideals, vibrant tech start-up scene and number of national organizations devoted to energy, climate and weather research. They've been questioning their relationship with Xcel andtrying to work within the system to make change for decades. In 2006, they became the first city to impose a carbon tax on themselves. In 2010, when their 20-year contract with Xcel came up for renewal, the city sent a proposal outlining ways the two might work together to reduce emissions. Xcel said they wouldn't look at the proposal unless the city renewed their contract first. Things were at a standstill, so Boulder decided to take things into their own hands.

In 2011 Boulder decided to municipalize. This means the city wants to run its own electric utility, in the same way they already manage their waste and drinking water utilities. This isn't a new thing—there are 29 other municipal utilities in Colorado and 251 across the US. Most cities decide to municipalize as a way to reduce rates or because they're unhappy with their power company's customer service. Boulder is the first town attempting to municipalize for environmental reasons, and it's a bold move. Those for municipalization believe it will enable them to banish coal completely without raising rates.

Boulder envisions a mix of wind and solar energy backed by natural gas, and a microgrid that will keep power generation local (all those people with solar panels on their roofs still won't be directly powering their own sockets, but at least they'll know they are powering their neighbors). Xcel and other, more traditional people in the industry say that we don't have the proper technology to scale up and store renewable energy, that changing the grid takes time. The engineers and activists in Boulder argue that new technology is constantly being invented, but that widespread change won't happen unless the utilities in charge face pressure from consumers and government. A smaller, more local grid in Boulder would allow the city to collaborate with the 37 energy start-ups that already exist in the city, and hopefully pave the way.

"The idea wasn't...let's lower emissions here in Boulder and therefore we'll save the planet," says Steve Fenberg, "It was like, let's show the world that you can do this and not have to pay more for it. And then other cities will either start doing it or will put pressure on the utility companies to finally change their business model. So for us it wasn't about Boulder. It was about doing stuff that could be replicated all over the country."

New Era helped pass the ballot measure in 2011 by a narrow margin. But in the summer of 2013 Xcel paid sub-contractors posing as Boulder residents 50 cents per signature to get a measure of their own onto the ballot. If passed it would reverse the 2011 decision. Xcel registered their issue committee under a vague name, "Voter Approval of Debt Limits," disassociating themselves from the process and playing on voters' concerns that running a utility would drive their city into debt. New Era retaliated by naming their issue committee, "Citizens Against XCEL Trying to Buy Elections." The fight was on.


New Era Colorado isn't an environmental organization. Their mission is to get young people—their peers—involved in politics in a more general sense. They're bi-partisan and don't subscribe to any one political agenda, but when an issue or a candidate comes onto the ballot that people under 30 might care about, they get behind it full-force to make sure other Gen Yers are aware of the impact they can have.

From early polling, New Era knew that climate change is an issue that our generation cares about. They also knew from experience that we're unlikely to vote in local, off-year elections like the one in 2013. "One of the biggest characteristics of these kinds of elections is that they tend to be old and white," Steve explains, "We knew that if we were going to win, we would have to change that demographic and make it a little bit more diverse and a little younger."

To do this, New Era looked to their friends. Stephanie Sizemore, a 26-year old graphic designer with local firm Walden & Hyde, says she got involved because climate change is"such an important issue to our community and the's pretty monumental." She created a bold poster image emphasizing a choice between corporation vs. environment, good vs. evil. "I knew the graphic needed to be immediate and simple, easily digestible," says Steph, "it's easy to feel overwhelmed by complex issues."

Local documentary director Christopher Smith, age 31, says he didn't like the idea of a "multi-billion dollar corporation coming in and dropping a million dollars on our local election to protect their profits." He helped New Era craft an Indiegogo video with an urgent tone, emphasizing that a victory could have huge implications in the global fight against climate change. Through a mutual friend the video made its way to an editor at Upworthy, who published it in a September 2013 post titled "A Bunch of Young Geniuses Just Made a Corrupt Corporation Freak Out Big Time. Time for Round Two." Within two weeks it had over 1 million views.

"When the Indiegogo campaign got big," Steve remembers, "I had a lot of moments when I thought I was either dreaming or that someone was playing a trick on me." They began receiving a new donation every single minute. When the campaign ended two weeks later they'd brought in a shocking $193,000.00

The Boulder election was suddenly offering people around the country, of all ages, an outlet for their frustration and feelings of powerlessness around climate change. People who saw the video mailed in used laptops that volunteers could use for phone banking. Weird fan art began to surface on the Internet. Volunteers from out of town showed up at the office unannounced and local supporters offered them places to stay. "We hit a sweet spot that I think is really difficult for environmental issues," says campaign organizer Becca Moser, 23, "To both have an issue that relates to everyone's life but also giving people some tangible outlet to work on something."

The Indiegogo money was crucial to the campaign, but it turned the tide in a way they hadn't expected. Steve remembers, "A weird thing happened. At first we would talk to voters and they would be kind of skeptical. But once it got national attention…once people's friends on the east coast started calling them in Boulder and saying, 'Hey I heard about this thing,' everybody in Boulder got it. They were like, 'Oh this is actually a big deal and a lot of people around the world are watching.' And that's when feelings toward the initiative here in Boulder really changed."

By early autumn, New Era was hitting the community in full force. Using the money raised on Indiegogo they produced television PSAs and hired 15 canvassers. A large map of Boulder hung in their office, slashed with more and more hashmarks as each block in the city was hit up door-to-door. When the polls opened, New Era sent out text reminders to everyone they'd registered. At the University of Colorado they rented golf carts and ferried a steady stream of students to the polls and then dropped them off at class.

Nathan Zick-Smith, 20, a junior at CU and a New Era intern during the campaign, fondly remembers the hectic nights of phone banking and the evenings when his group relaxed over pizza and beer after a full day of canvassing. "Part of the reason I got involved was to be part of a community," he says, "to work with other people toward a goal I felt invested in." On election day he was stationed on the CU campus and stopped to chat with one last student before packing it in. "He hadn't voted in three or four years and didn't have any interest, but I told him it would only take two minutes to listen to what I had to say." Two minutes later, the student was boarding a golf cart and driving straight to the polls. He arrived ten minutes before they closed and cast his vote for municipalization.

On November 5, 2013, New Era Colorado defeated Xcel Energy again, this time 2 to 1—roughly the same margin by which Xcel had outspent their viral, unconventional campaign.


One year later and Xcel hasn't given up, making Boulder's transition to city-controlled power rockier than expected. In June, Xcel Energy filed four separate legal suits against the city, disputing Boulder's right to use power lines and infrastructure outside of city limits, and detailing the price they would have to pay in order to do so.

Most people agree that this time, energy and money would be better spent on making actual changes to Boulder's grid, rather than fighting about who will have control. Both the city and Xcel claim they've made attempts to work with each other, but every time the other side "rejects" the offer. When I reached out to Xcel, their very friendly and polite company PR reps insisted we email rather than talk on the phone. Instead of a meaningful, engaged conversation I got a list of stock responses that mostly avoided my questions. I asked Xcel what they've learned from the 2011 and 2013 elections, whether they'd do anything differently in hindsight. "Regardless of the outcomes of the 2011 and 2013 elections in Boulder, our strategy remains the same," they replied, "to do what is right for our customers and the environment."

Under Boulder's short-term plan for building a public utility, they will purchase energy from Xcel and slowly transition to purchasing power directly from local wind farms and natural gas providers. They plan to immediately retrofit all city-owned buildings with solar panels, and over the longterm to make larger scale changes to localize the energy grid and integrate more renewables. But those plans are on hold until a court rules in their favor.

"Basically, Xcel's purpose is now to make this as long and bloody as possible," Steve explained to me on recently, between voter registration drives for Colorado's upcoming mid-term election. "Even if the city eventually succeeds, they want to make it such a grueling process that no other city would ever do it. "I ask him if this means that citizens' hands are tied while things are decided in government hearings and the courts. "No," he says, "the important thing is that people don't lose interest and that people don't just shut off from it. Xcel cares about their image. If they feel like people are watching, maybe they'll stop putting up all of these roadblocks and play a little bit nicer."

Meanwhile, things are not actually as hopeless as Xcel wants them to appear. New Era's success against the energy giant is having national ripples. Organizers and government officials from Minneapolis, Santa Fe, Tucson and Denver have reached out to Boulder for their advice on developing similar plans. Leslie Glustrom, one of the main activists involved with developing Boulder's municipalization plan, now travels around the country speaking to othertowns about what they can learn from Boulder's model. She compares municipalization to a painful divorce and stresses that it may not always be the best solution for every city. She believes, however, that what's important is that people learn about where their electricity comes from and see their local governments as an avenue for pressuring utilities into more sustainable practices. "It's not like writing a letter to the president. At the local level you can really have an impact."

Some experts in the energy industry point to new technologies in "distributed power"—increasingly inexpensive generators than run off of solar, wind, biofuels and captured methane, that could allow everyday people to go "off grid" and power their own homes and businesses directly. This could make utility companies—both corporations like Xcel and publicly-owned like the one Boulder wants to create—obsolete. Similarly, Boulder's election seems to have proved that our generation wields a new kind of power. And we're getting better at knowing how to use it.

The viral Indiegogo video is still out there on the Internet, finding new viewers and sending a trickle of messages and donations in to New Era. Sometimes they're still awestruck by what their crew pulled off last fall, and are carrying the lessons learned from their success into future campaigns. Steve thinks it proves that democracy is not dead and that humor, a sense of collective camaraderie and a good story can cut through our political apathy. "The more you can keep it positive," he says, "the more it inspires action."

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@PAUSEnergy tweeted this page. 2014-10-09 15:55:22 -0400
PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy posted about These 20-Somethings Beat A Huge Energy Corporation And Took Control Of The Power Grid on PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy's Facebook page 2014-10-09 15:55:22 -0400
These 20-Somethings Beat A Huge Energy Corporation And Took Control Of The Power Grid
PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy
PAUSE is a grassroots group of individuals who have come together to promote safe, sustainable energy and fight for environmental justice. We engage the greater public to stop the fossil fuel industry’s assault on the people of Albany and our environment.