By John Farrell, ILSR and Clean Technica, Sept 28, 2020
After a commitment to 100% renewable energy by 2035, the city of Pueblo realized its goal required more change than its current energy provider would enact. Jamie Valdez, community team coordinator of Mothers Out Front and volunteer with the Sierra Club, explains the challenges, triumphs, and lessons learned from facing down Black Hills Energy in the spring of 2020.
Citing unfair treatment by Black Hills Energy, Valdez says that Pueblo’s electricity bills top off at 35-40% more than the national average. On top of high costs, the utility hasn’t been receptive to the community’s initiatives.
Black Hills Energy is based in Rapid City, SD, a distance from Pueblo that makes local accountability nearly impossible. Valdez says the process for rate negotiations is a direct line between Black Hills Energy in Rapid City and the Power Utility Commission in Denver, cutting constituents and their concerns out of the decision making process.
In addition to the unfair rate setting, Valdez explains that Black Hills Energy was very resistant to the city’s 100% clean energy goal. From unfair net metering policies to extra charges for solar owners, the utility monopoly took every effort to stymie the cause and profit off of their own electricity sales.
At the 10-year mark of Pueblo’s contract with Black Hills Energy, the city was allowed to renegotiate and even completely decouple from Black Hills Energy, instead opting for a municipal electric utility. The city put the choice to vote in the spring of 2020.
To hear more about early efforts in Pueblo, listen to Episode 60 of Local Energy Rules, where we talk to Pueblo City Council Member Larry Atencio.
Fighting the Flow of Money
A few months before the vote, surveys suggested public sentiment was strongly in favor of municipal power. After being outspent 50 to one by Black Hills, public votes swayed. A focused ad and commercial campaign from utility political outreach arm, Pueblo CAREs, played to community fears of government takeovers.
“Every time people saw those full page ads in the Pueblo Chieftain, that was their repair money being used to influence their decision on whether or not to keep Black Hills Energy.”
What was once a two-thirds margin in favor became a two-thirds margin opposed to municipalization, Valdez explains. That isn’t something he sees as a failure.
“Our campaign is still going,” Valdez says. “We are going to start earlier this time.” Pueblo has another opportunity to negotiate with Black Hills Energy in 2025, the 15-year mark of the city’s contract with the utility.
“We want to begin our efforts at fundraising and educating the community right away.”
Listen to ILSR’s Jess Del Fiacco and John Farrell discuss how Pueblo’s municipalization effort could give the city valuable leverage, despite not resulting in a utility takeover, in the newest episode of the Building Local Power podcast.
Pueblo’s 100% Goal: What Now?
During the campaign to determine who would provide electricity to the city, Black Hills Energy played heavily to Pueblo’s renewable energy desires. Those promises and offers have yet to be fully addressed now that the ballot initiative is decided, Valdez says.
Remaining with Black Hills, Valdez emphasizes, doesn’t even take into consideration that much of the money going into energy sales is then sent to South Dakota. The ratepayers in Pueblo never see a direct investment in their community, except maybe in the form of those ads in the local paper.
Valdez hopes that the next time they reconsider the contracts, they will find a little more public support come voting day. For other groups looking to municipalize and fight monopoly power, he offers this advice: Start early. Fundraise a lot. Know how your community ticks.
See these resources for more behind the story:
- Read our 2020 post about municipalization efforts across the nation.
- Learn more about the study done by Pueblo’s Energy Utility Commission.
- The survey indicated strong support before final vote — read about it in The Pueblo Chieftain.
- To read more about the final vote striking down Pueblo’s push for municipal power, check out this article from Public Power.
For concrete examples of how cities can take action toward gaining more control over their clean energy future, explore ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.
Explore local and state policies and programs that help advance clean energy goals across the country, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.