A growing number of U.S. cities have set goals to generate 100 percent of their electricity from renewable resources in the coming decades, each with its own unique circumstances and motivations. Pueblo, a small city of just over 100,000 residents located in southeastern Colorado, is one of these forward-thinking communities.
Situated along the Rocky Mountains’ Front Range, Pueblo was once well-known for its steel production, but its local economy has since undergone a transformation. It is now home to a large wind turbine manufacturing facility and a growing number of both wind and solar developments. It also became the first city after President Trump took office in early 2017 and the third in Colorado to commit to shifting 100 percent of its electricity to renewable power.
A vocal supporter of renewable energy, Pueblo city council member Larry Atencio represents the city’s second district and is also a candidate in the city’s upcoming mayoral election. Atencio sponsored and was instrumental in the adoption of the the city’s 100 percent commitment ordinance.
In the second episode in our multi-part Voices of 100% podcast series, Atencio spoke with John Farrell, ILSR’s Energy Democracy director, about the city’s renewable energy commitment, what tools Pueblo can use to reach its goal by 2035, and how to be part of the energy sector’s paradigm change.
Relief for Low-Income Customers
Relief from rising electricity bills provided a major motivation for Atencio to champion Pueblo’s recent commitment to 100 percent renewable power. His district is made up of a large number of low- to moderate-income residents, many of whom have struggled to keep up, as energy costs have soared over the last decade.
“My thinking was — they [our residents] are having a hard time with their electricity bills. Their energy costs are sky high. We have the highest electricity costs in the state of Colorado here in Pueblo … How do we relieve some of the pressure financially on low- to moderate-income people?” Atencio explained.
Active community partners, including advocates from Pueblo’s Energy Future, the local chapter of the Sierra Club, and other environmental groups, have been working in support of these efforts, fighting for affordable utility rates, sustainable energy supplies, and actions that will help address climate change.
With this grassroots support and a clear case for shifting toward renewable power, Atencio proposed a resolution that passed city council in a six-to-one vote in early 2017, committing the city to get 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by the year 2035. Atencio acknowledges the ambitious nature and timeline of this commitment, but he is confident the city can get there.
“It is an aspirational goal, but it’s a goal, nonetheless, that I think we can achieve,” he insists.
Later in the interview, Atencio explains how he sees this renewable goal as an opportunity to support low income customers. When municipal facilities shift to less expensive renewable power, the City of Pueblo can use the money it saves on energy bills to improve other essential city services.
“The energy costs we’re spending now … we’ll be able to use that money in low-income neighborhoods, to provide programs to raise the income level, improve education, job training, or whatever it might be,” Atencio explains. “Money left over from energy costs … can be put into neighborhoods.”
He believes the city is on track to transition its own buildings to renewable power within the next five years, at a faster clip than the city as a whole.
How Might Pueblo Reach Its Goal?
While the city can start taking steps to power its own buildings renewably, additional strategies are needed to provide relief to customers facing high energy bills and reach Pueblo’s ambitious 100 percent goal of renewable power citywide. So far, the city hasn’t settled on any strategy with the capacity to get it to the goal.
Atencio explains that, in collaboration with Pueblo’s “somewhat receptive” incumbent utility Black Hills Energy, the city has been developing several community solar gardens to benefit low-income residents, who can’t afford their own rooftop arrays. There are also efforts to pressure the utility to lower deposit and reconnect fees that have fallen disproportionately on the city’s most economically vulnerable.
Even with these wins, Pueblo continues to evaluate its relationship with Black Hills Energy, a subsidiary of Black Hills Corporation based in South Dakota. This relationship started just a decade ago after the city’s previous incumbent utility went out of business and was bought out by Black Hills Energy. As the new utility began serving Pueblo, it built a new natural gas-fired power plant nearby.
“The Public Utility Commission gave them [Black Hills Energy] permission to recoup the costs [of this natural gas plant] and that led to high electricity bills for everyone,” explains Atencio.
In part because of the inflated electricity bills that have followed, Pueblo is looking to what other cities in Colorado and elsewhere are doing to shift the balance of power with incumbent electric utilities. As a volunteer with Pueblo’s Energy Future, Atencio contributed to a feasibility study committee to explore municipalization efforts to increase both affordability and renewables by giving Pueblo more control over its local energy decisions. At least in part, these efforts were inspired, explains Atencio, by Boulder, a city just a couple hours’ drive north engaged in its own municipalization fight with Xcel Energy.
Municipalization is just one of many options on the table, however. Atencio explains how Pueblo is also looking into community choice aggregation, inviting experts on the topic to present to the city and help them explore how to fight for that policy in Colorado.
Community choice programs, such as those in Marin County, Calif., or Westchester, New York, allow local governments to make energy purchasing decisions on behalf of customers in their community. In practice, these programs give cities more flexibility in who supplies their energy and allow them to make such decisions based on cost, pollution concerns, and local economic benefits, without having to own and maintain the electric grid.
Learn more about how community choice aggregation programs work, by exploring this resource.
Aside from community choice aggregation, Atencio also sees the importance of distributed generation technologies and individual decisions by those in Pueblo to transition independently to renewable power.
“Rooftop solar has to be considered, and storage is also coming down the pike. It’s going to be possible for an individual homeowner … to get off the grid completely,” he explains.
“The whole electric industry, its paradigm is going to change completely over time,” Atencio points out.
When asked what Pueblo has done to support these efforts, such as coordinating a citywide Solarize campaign (to bulk purchase panels and organize residents), for example, Atencio said the city has yet to act.
If elected mayor this fall, Atencio hopes to develop a comprehensive, citywide energy plan that includes a broad range of strategies that include transportation, energy efficiency, solar, and more.
Rising Tide of Renewables
Pueblo’s progress toward 100 percent is aided by renewable energy becoming much more cost competitive in states across the country. More utilities are transitioning away from fossil fuels and toward renewables; although in Colorado, some utilities are shifting faster than others.
Xcel Energy, which serves Colorado’s largest metropolitan areas including Denver and Boulder, is in the process of retiring some of its largest, older fossil fuel plants ahead of schedule, notes Atencio. This includes two units of the Comanche Generating Station, a multi-unit coal-fired power plant located in Pueblo, which also happens to be the largest in the state. Xcel’s transition away from fossil fuels in Pueblo will have benefits for the community’s health, even if it isn’t the community’s electric company.
In comparison, Pueblo’s own electric utility Black Hills Energy has not been as proactive. The utility built a new, expensive natural gas-fired plant eight years ago and has been slower to embrace renewables. While Atencio finds it “understandable” that they stay with the “old paradigm of coal and gas-fired power plants,” he suggests this will not bode for the utility in the long-run.
“The flood is coming,” explains Atencio. “Renewable energy is here, and it’s going to get bigger and better all the time. I don’t think any power company that’s out there is going to be able to fight the tide.”
Want to hear other stories of how communities are making and implementing 100 percent renewable energy commitments? Stay-tuned for the next episode in our Voices of 100% series featuring San Diego, Calif., next month!
For earlier analysis of the switch to renewables in Pueblo, Colo., check out this piece: Pueblo Targets All-Renewables Future To Bolster Local Economy.
You can find the Grist article mentioned during the interview that features our guest Larry Atencio, here: With Energy and Justice for All.
For more on city tools to meet ambitious local energy goals, see ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.
Locate other cities and towns like Pueblo that have existing 100 percent renewable energy commitments and explore state policies that help advance these clean energy goals, using ILSR’s Community Power Map.
This episode is part of Voices of , a series of Local Energy Rules and project of the Energy Democracy initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, produced by Energy Democracy Director John Farrell and Research Associate Marie Donahue.