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Taking Clean Energy Action With Climate Activist Leslie Glustrom
Leslie Glustrom is a dynamic climate change activist living in Boulder, CO, who has been for years fighting Xcel Energy, the current provider of much of the electricity to Colorado via the burning of coal. Leslie is a mother of two, and founding member of the Clean Energy Action, a nonprofit started in 2005 by concerned citizens to counter Xcel’s move to build Comanche 3 down in Pueblo.
Glustrom offers people firm hand shakes, and calls western states like Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming “the Saudi Arabia of wind and solar.” She is a biochemist by training (B.S. and M.S., University of Wisconsin-Madison), taught chemistry and environmental chemistry at two Arizona colleges, worked as a science writer and policy analyst in Wisconsin, and left her job managing a protein structure research lab at the University of Colorado-Boulder to become a full-time activist and start Clean Energy Action.
Glustrom discovered an old state law that allowed her as a ratepayer to take part at the Public Utilities Commission (PUC)’s meetings as a stakeholder representing herself. She knocked and spent the next 10 years acting as a watchdog intervenor, some say pestering the PUC, Xcel and governors to embrace renewable energy and stop burning coal. Leslie has provided important testimony in many proceedings involving rate increases, solar energy incentives, resources and transmission planning, “Smart Grid” and “Windsource.” Glustrom has given numerous talks on such things as concentrating solar power, asking the hard questions, the next agenda, true cost of coal and coal finance.
She has won an impressive list of awards for her energy work, including Colorado Solar Energy Society’s President’s Award, Audubon Society’s Community Conservation Award, PLAN Boulder County’s Gilbert White Award, Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center’s Peacemaker of the Year Award (Education) and Colorado Renewable Energy Society’s Larson-Notari Award that has been given to Gov. Bill Ritter (D) and Amory Lovins.
There’s been a lot of local interest in the shutting down of Boulder’s Valmont coal burning plant and other coal burning plants in the state/region.Though Glustrom is in the process of succession at Clean Energy Action, the handing over of the baton to the next relay member so to speak, she is the best person to ask about local efforts in Boulder on municipalizing the energy services within the city limits and moving away from reliance on Xcel for energy. Now acting as an independent energy consultant, she continues to rally the activists both near and far to the importance of climate change and wisely moving away from our dependency on fossil fuels.
Clean Energy Action
Michael Sobczak: The first question I have is how did Clean Energy Action get started?
Leslie Glustrom: Clean Energy Action started in 2005 when a lot of large environmental groups in Colorado signed on a settlement agreement that allowed the big new plant down in Pueblo to be built. And it’s built in Pueblo, but it serves the Boulder-Denver area. And we felt, even back then, that climate change was so serious that we shouldn’t be building a new generation of coal plants. And unfortunately one of the groups that signed on that settlement was the Sierra Club.
Since that time the Sierra Club has been magnificent in opposing coal plants all over the country. And they’ve done magnificent work. But in Colorado they signed that settlement and I had been working with the Sierra Club and still am a Sierra Club member and do what I can with them. But we needed a group that said, "No, it’s not OK" to build a new generation of coal plants given what we knew back then about climate change. So that’s how Energy Action got started. And we spend a lot of time opposing coal because it’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. But we also spend a lot of time promoting clean energy because it is one of the key solutions for reducing our carbon emissions.
MS: So the origins go back specifically to Comanche 3?
MS: Could you give me an update about some of the things in the last couple of years, perhaps, to the present that highlights what Clean Energy Action has been able to do?
LG: Sure. We do ongoing education in Boulder. Monthly speaking series. We also have helped form groups all over the State of Colorado where they are also taking responsibility for their energy future. And each community kind of has a different group and kind of way of functioning.
Some of them have Xcel as their utility and so they’re interested in what we’re doing in Boulder because of that. But many of them have a different utility and so there’s a different set of issues for each utility. And we’ve played a strong role helping those groups start analyzing what’s going on with their utility and developing at a high level a strategy for moving forward. But our goal is always to have those groups run themselves. We don’t want to hold things to ourselves because then you end up with too much work and you’re not effective. You want to create leadership capacity, is my belief. You want a lot of leaders. You don’t want a few leaders, you want a lot of leaders. And you want each community to develop its own leadership. So, we’ve played a strong role in all of that.
We’ve continued the work, obviously, in Boulder on the issue of Boulder’s energy future. Had three campaigns, you know, dealing with the opportunity to break away from Xcel. Had a campaign in 2010, 2011 and 2013. And the last two campaigns we faced a million dollars basically being spent by Xcel, give or take. We think it’s probably more than that.
And as you know we won all three of those elections—2010, 2011 and 2013. And in 2013 we were out spent 2-to-1 and we won by more than a 2-to-1 margin. So, it requires ongoing efforts because Xcel is trying to do everything it can to stop our efforts. And our efforts are designed, in Boulder, to show that we can move to a renewable energy-dominated grid as opposed to a fossil fuel energy-dominated grid. We can move to a renewable energy-dominated grid and do it at a cost lower than the cost of Xcel’s system. If we’re able to demonstrate that then it’s a big deal, right, because then every other community will say, oh there is an alternative, and that alternative doesn’t have to cost more. That alternative could cost less.
MS: What would you say are the big triple star highlights?
LG: The elections are a really big deal. We have ongoing work at the Utility Commission related to Xcel, related to net metering. We’ve had ongoing efforts related to, kind of, the next step in Colorado energy policy. And for me, personally, I wrote another set of reports on coal. And those went out nationally. So we wrote this report, Warning: Faulty Reporting on U.S. Coal Reserves. And this was a really big job—if you look at it you’ll see it’s a lot of work and a lot of—you know everything is footnoted endlessly. Lots and lots of tables and graphs that charts losses and everything. And there were two companion reports. One on the increasing cost of coal (Trends in U.S. Delivered Coal Costs 2004-2012). And one on what’s going on—we’re very likely to pass peak coal in this country (Trends in U.S. Coal Production 1990-2012).
And those are all things that are not well understood. So, we continue to spend a lot of time educating at all levels—local, state and national—both about the benefits of clean energy as well as misconceptions we have that somehow coal is cheap even independent of all the external costs. Assuming it’s perfectly clean, it still is not cheap anymore. And we’re rapidly approaching the end of economically recoverable coal in the U.S., which is very different than the old paradigm that we had 200 years of coal.
MS: How would you describe “municipalization”?
LG: Municipalization is the process of us—municipality/city—taking over the electric system, in this case from an investor owned utility like Xcel where it’s a profit-driven venture. Xcel is in the business because it wants to make profit. And going from a profit or private power to a public power system where electrical system is run by the city. And there are many of these municipal utilities around the country. Los Angeles is a municipal utility. Lyons [Colorado] is a municipal utility. Los Angeles is a huge city. Lyons is a relatively small city. Fort Collins is a municipal utility. Loveland is a municipal utility. Colorado Springs is a municipal utility.
There are another 20 or so in Colorado. Many of them little tiny communities out in the eastern plains. And in those communities—Fort Collins, Colorado Springs and all the other ones we talked about—your electricity is more like your water. You turn on our water. The water comes out in good quality. And once a month we get a bill. We get a bill from the city of Boulder. There is no profit in that. They’re providing a service. They provide a good service. And we pay them for that service. In my case I pay about $30 a month for my water. It’s their cost of service. And I know they look forward and try to make sure we have lots of water rights, and clean water and all those different things. But there’s no profit in it. It’s just a public service.
MS: Where is Xcel and Boulder at with municipalization?
LG: We’ve had the three elections.
In 2010 we passed an occupation tax. That was really important because it kept the money that Xcel used to collect on its bills and give to Boulder. Now that decision lies with the city not Xcel. So that was a really important first step and every community that wants to think about going from a franchise fee to an occupation tax and that’s what we did in 2010.
In 2011 we authorized the formation of a municipal utility (2C) and we increased our occupation tax (2B) by a little bit so we would nave enough money to hire the attorneys and the consultants to help us move forward. And then in 2013 Xcel tried to undo the 2011 election with something called Ballot Measure “310.” And we developed an alternative Ballot Measure called “2E.” And we passed “2E” and we defeated “310.”
So that gets us up through November of 2013. And during that process between 2011 and 2013, the city did a lot of modeling to see can we really do this—can we move to a system that’s renewable energy-dominated and not increase our rates a lot? And they ran hundreds and hundreds, at this point I think a little over a thousand modeling runs. You vary the different assumptions . . . what if natural gas costs this, what if coal costs that, what if solar costs this, what if wind costs that and you vary all those and a lot more and you try to see well even if we stress test it if we make all of those variables go against Boulder well what’s going to happen then? And after doing all of that we said you know what we’re pretty sure we can move to a renewable energy-dominated grid and do it at a cost that are lower than Xcel’s. And that was a big effort. The city staff did a really great job. Worked with Homer Energy. They did a fabulous job with the modeling. Had a third party viewer look at it and he said this is the best modeling I’ve ever seen. All of that is in on the city’s website.
All of that took us up to 2013. Now . . . there’s been an effort to see if we could work with Xcel to come up with a system that’s better. It’s called the Xcel Boulder Working Group—sometimes abbreviate it XBWG—and that was an effort . . . because Xcel has said you could just stay with us you can get there faster, better and cheaper with Xcel. And we said OK great if it’s truly faster, truly better, truly cheaper we’re all about it. And that group, the XBWG, met for months and Xcel never bothered to bring forth a true proposal. They just kept saying you can get there faster, better, cheaper with us. We’re like OK, where’s the . . . show us, show us the goods. And they now say that they’re going to bring a proposal through the Public Utilities Commission. And so we will monitor that.
Unfortunately when you do things at the Public Utilities Commission it’s very difficult, very expensive because to participate well with the Utilities Commission you should hire an attorney and the best attorney and the best attorneys are 400 or 500 dollars an hour or more. So that adds up a lot of money fast. But nonetheless we will watch what Xcel proposes to the Utilities Commission and if it’s truly faster, truly better, truly cheaper I think we will be interested. It will be hard for them to do something truly faster, truly better, truly cheaper. So there is also a set of legal proceedings that need to happen. And it’s a lot like . . . many people often compare it to divorce. You have troubles in your relationship and then you decide to divorce. Well there’s actually a whole . . . it takes a long time because there’s papers that you have to file, and hearings that have to be had, judges rule this and judges rule that. And we’re at that stage now in Boulder where we have these legal proceedings ahead of us. And some of these will take place in state court . . . one of our next steps is to condemn Xcel’s system that’s provided for in the constitution and in the statutes because they don’t to have an investor-owned utility. You want to have an escape hatch and so they allowed for that escape route and that’s through condemnation and municipalization. So we’ll move forward with those condemnation proceedings. The Utilities Commission has said you can’t move forward with the condemnation until you come to us first. You have to go to the PUC first. The city has disagreed with that PUC decision ardently because they don’t feel the Commission has the right to stop the city from condemning things. So the city has taken that Utilities Commission to court.
But it’s unclear how these two things will play out. And because it’s legal strategy even those of us that are following this pretty closely don’t also know exactly what’s going on. Because if we knew the city would be risking everyone knowing. So those are the two big legal proceedings ahead of us—condemnation in State and addressing Public Utilities Commission’s basically demand that we have to go through the Utilities Commission before we have to go to condemnation court. We have disagreed strongly with that. We also know it’s hard to argue with the Commission. So there is a tension there.
And then a third big legal proceeding is likely to come down the road is that Xcel could file at the federal level—at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and they could file there for what they refer to as stranded costs. So there’s three big legal steps. And it’s these three big legal steps that kept a lot of us from wanting to municipalize originally because like you know climate change is really serious, the last thing we want to do is go spend a lot of time in the courts system paying a lot of money to attorneys. That’s not what we wanted to be doing. What we wanted to be doing is building a clean energy system so we can reduce our carbon emissions and set an example to the world and kind of point the way forward. But ultimately we all came to the conclusion that Xcel just wasn’t ready to move as fast as was needed.
MS: You were in at the very beginning of you guys deciding to go with the Muni system. Could you tell me about the origins of that?
LG: That’s a good question. And what we realized . . . if we go back a little further in Colorado. We know that we have a monumental amount of wind and solar. And we need about 12 GW to run the entire state. If we just look at the best wind sites we have way over . . . it’s actually way over 100 GW. And if we just look at two areas of the state—the San Luis Valley and the area east of Pueblo—over 200 GW of solar that assumes the sun never shines in the rest of Colorado which of course is a silly assumption. So, we know that we have a monumental amount of wind and solar in Colorado. We only need 12 GW, 12,000 MW, to run the entire state. We have way over 300. So way over 20 times what we need.
So our thought in Boulder was we should not be going around with a system that’s fossil fuel-dominated. We should be increasing the amount of renewable energy dramatically. And I think you know, I spent a decade at the Utilities Commission—docket after docket after docket—trying to work towards that end. But instead of that, well Xcel has added some renewable energy that’s great, they’ve also made long term commitments to coal plants. Comanche 3 until 2069. 2069 is 55 years from now. Even young people will be old. That’s clearly unacceptable given the urgency of climate change.
MS: So the origin was you thought going this way would increase the renewable energy mix to a greater extent than with Xcel?
LG: Right . . . Back in 2011 it was clear to us, we can double our renewable energy, either eliminate coal or reduce it dramatically—get beyond coal right away, quickly.
. . . So this is really the origin. Now this was in our minds in various ways. Then Sam Weaver, who’s now on city council, came to me in early 2011 and said, "Leslie, I want to check your assumptions. I want to run a really rigorous model to see whether your suggestion is really true or not.” And there was a part of me that went “Oh crap” and there was part of me that said “Absolutely.” Because if it’s not true we should know that.
Because why would we want to go into an election with Xcel and these monumental battles that we’re going to have and these monumental legal battles that we’re embarking on now if we can’t . . . if it’s not really worth it.
Chances of success
MS: What are the chances of success? That is, Boulder winning the battle to control its own electric energy services.
LG: We are determined to address climate change through decarbonization. We are determined to get that done because we know in the depths of our being that climate change is a threat that’s never more been seen on the planet during human history.
And we carry that responsibility with all the gravity in the world. So we are going to get this job done. Whether we can win the legal battles around municipalization nobody knows. It’s like we could go into a sporting event. Two teams, you know, they’re playing all those basketball games now. Two teams get on the court, they both have every intention of winning. But when all is said and done only one did, right?
MS: You can’t put a percentage on your chance?
LG: The chances of winning the legal battles, no. But the chances of prevailing . . . municipalization isn’t the goal. Municipalization is a strategy to achieve the goal.
We have tried many strategies to achieve the goal. And none of them have worked. We tried stopping Comanche 3 and that didn’t work. We tried to stop added pollution controls to the old coal plants—Pawnee and Hayden. We said you should retire those—don’t put sulfur and nitrogen controls on them because that doesn’t do anything for carbon. And carbon is what’s the big driver.
MS: So the goal is not the Muni, necessarily, but the renewable mix—to increase the mix?
LG: The goal . . . it is to decarbonize. To have an electricity mix that has a much lower carbon intensity because electricity is our largest source of greenhouse gases.
MS: So as far as winning the legal battles, you don’t know what the chances are—you couldn’t put a percentage on it?
LG: Anything I say is going to be wrong. So, I think the important point is that it’s really difficult but we wouldn’t be doing it—we wouldn’t be trying it—if climate change wasn’t so profoundly serious, right. No one wants to have legal battles with a big monopoly utility that has bottomless legal pockets. This is an insane thing to be doing. That’s why the whole country is watching us because they know it’s insane. It’s the David and Goliath story to a tee. Only David had a better chance against Goliath than we have against Xcel.
MS: And here’s David . . . (pointing at Leslie Glustrom).
LG: Well me and all the other people that are on this. So, it’s important . . . I think that point that David had better chances against Goliath than we have against Xcel is important. You keep asking me what are the chances. It’s a really, really hard legal battle. Whether we prevail or not in municipalization, we will prevail in decarbonization. That I give 100 percent chance to. Because it’s an imperative and we have hundreds of people in this community that know it’s an imperative and we have a monumental amount of wind and solar, and coal costs are going up and coal’s the wrong resource for the century and natural gas has some kind of role but we’re not interested.
You know we want to get as much methane out of the system as possible. So I’m 100 percent confident that we will play a strong role in decarbonizing not just Boulder, but all of Colorado, and the country. And that’s our real goal. And that one I’m 100 percent confident of.
Whether it will work or not
MS: If Boulder wins and Xcel loses control, do you think Boulder can run the electric utility at least as well?
Now everybody is going to make mistakes. Boulder is going to make mistakes. Will we make billion dollar mistakes? I don’t think so. And Xcel has made that mistake and many, many other ones. SmartGrid. SmartGrid that they planned for Boulder. Right. Unbelievably stupid. There’s nothing smart about what they did, and they spent 44.5 million dollars. So can we do better than that? Absolutely. We run an excellent water utility. And no community is perfect. Certainly Boulder isn’t perfect but most people who come to Boulder find it to be damn nice. And there’s a reason they find it that way because we do a good job of things. Even though it’s not perfect.
MS: Why will it work? Why will the city of Boulder be able to do a good job?
LG: First, it is not that hard to run a utility really. Like anything you hire good people and they do it. And there’s lots of people that are really interested if we could win the legal battles. We will have no problem attracting people to run this utility. People who spent their whole lives running utilities. We are going to hire people who run utilities to run it. And it’s not that hard to run utilities. If the little tiny communities out on the eastern plains—who have 600 people—can run a municipal utility I happen to think one of the best educated communities in the country can run a municipal utility. Will we make mistakes? Of course we’ll make mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes. Every organization makes mistakes. Will we learn from our mistakes and move on? Of course.
We run a fabulous water utility. We have municipal utilities that are very well run all along the front range who are happy to help us . . . and have been helping us already. And we will be able to hire excellent people. They want to be part of this experiment. There’s thousands of people in the utility industry who are desperate to be doing just what we’re looking to do. But under the current system they don’t really get a chance to do that. I’m not saying it’ll be perfect—nothing ever is, but I’ve seen up close and personal the huge mistakes made by Xcel.
MS: Sounds like you think Boulder can do a better job?
LG: Oh yeah. Absolutely. I think our reliability will improve. Typically municipal utilities have much better reliability than Xcel has in either Boulder or Denver. All the front range Muni’s have better reliability. Longmont has better reliability. Colorado Springs has better reliability. Fort Collins has world class reliability.
MS: How would the city owned operation be better for the percentage of renewable energy utilized to power Boulder?
LG: All our modeling tells us that we can approximately double our renewable energy and cut our carbon emissions by about half and keep costs below Xcel’s. But that modeling is already out of date because solar costs have fallen even since that modeling was done. And wind costs are getting better. Xcel is at about 20 percent renewables. We have every reason to believe we can go to 40 to 60 percent and maybe it’ll be more than 60 percent. And when you do that and when you move beyond coal either immediately or very quickly. And whatever coal we’ll have is certainly not 58 percent which it was last year in Boulder. If we have coal it’ll be probably less than 20 percent—maybe less than 10 percent. And we’ll move beyond it quite quickly.
There are legal and operational reasons that we may have some to begin with. When you take coal out of the system, you’re taking the most carbon intensive resources out of the system. And when you double your renewable energy, you’re reducing your carbon emissions. . . . It’s hard to get above about 60 to 70 percent renewables unless you have better storage. . . . Our intention is to continue this process so that we’re as close to 100 percent renewables as quickly as we can be and storage technologies are coming along very nicely. . . . We’re pretty confident we can get even higher than 70 percent renewables as storage technologies evolve.
MS: And that’s 70 percent by when do you think?
LG: I’d say our goal is to get to as close to 100 percent as quickly as we can. And we can’t know for sure until we get through the legal battles. We put a request for proposals, and then we just sort of see what can and can’t work. But our goal is to . . . that we feel confident that we can double our renewable energy and cut our carbon intensity in half and do that almost as soon as the legal battles are done. How long will the legal battles last? We don’t know. It takes a lot of patience to go through legal battles with a big utility. . . . We’re confident from the modeling we’ve done that we can double it—at least double. We can go to the 40 to 60 percent pretty quickly.
MS: Anything to say about the “national picture” with regards to closing down coal fired power plants and successes with municipalization (including any advice for Coloradans and others interested in decarbonization)?
LG: Many of the nation's coal plants are now 50-60 years old and many of these are being retired as they have not been upgraded with pollution controls. Other coal plants are being retired since their economics no longer work well and they can't be operated at a profit. It is widely thought that these trends will continue through the next 1-2 decades, but no one knows exactly at what pace. There are many studies available on the internet.
Coloradans and others interested in addressing climate change should recognize the important role that they can play with respect to the carbon intensity of their communities' electric supply. By advocating for a lower carbon electricity supply, citizens can help accelerate the rate at which we address climate change, decarbonize our economy and help get the U.S. repowered for success in the 21st century.
Michael Sobczak is a writer living in Boulder, CO at the base of the Rocky Mountains with a strong interest in environmental issues both locally and those surrounding us.
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