Boulder mayor mulls PRPA partnership

BOULDER – Mayor Matt Appelbaum is considering joining Platte River Power Authority, the utility owned by cities such as Fort Collins, if Boulder is successful in replacing Xcel Energy Inc. with a city-owned utility.

Appelbaum, in fact, has discussed the matter with Fort Collins, Loveland and Longmont officials in the past, he told the Business Report. Most recently, a discussion of the concept came up between Appelbaum and Fort Collins officials at the two-day renewable energy conference NetZero Cities in October.

“Here you’ve got a bunch of communities that have run a power system for a long time. They know what they’re doing. They’ve got good people,” Appelbaum said. “It would be great to be able to work with them.”

Appelbaum made the remarks to the Business Report as the city of Boulder attempts to break away from Xcel Energy (NYSE: XEL). Xcel, a for-profit investor-owned utility, has fought the city’s efforts to separate.

On Nov. 5, Boulder voters indicated their willingness to fire Xcel by defeating a measure backed by the company that would have required voter approval for any debt issued for a municipal utility. Voters, however, set a limit of $214 million on the amount the city could pay for Xcel assets, as well as other costs.

Regardless, the divorce could take “several years,” Appelbaum told the Business Report. That’s why the idea of some kind of union between Boulder and PRPA hasn’t been researched formally.

“It’s just way too early for that,” he said. “We don’t even know if we’re going to get there yet. By the time we did, the world will have probably changed a little.”

Fort Collins, Longmont, Loveland and Estes Park formed PRPA in 1973. Those communities have remained the owners of PRPA, a nonprofit wholesale electricity generation and transmission provider, for four decades.

These kinds of joint-action agencies are common in the public power industry, said Nick Braden, spokesman for the American Public Power Association, in an email.

“Since public power systems are not for profit and often very small, joining a (joint-action agency) allows them to pool their limited resources in order to procure generation resources and infrastructure to serve their local communities,” he said.

PRPA has not discussed supplying Boulder with electricity, said Barbara Ateshzar, PRPA’s government and external affairs officer. Any decision about whether to include another city in the organization would require approval from PRPA’s board of directors, which includes the mayors from each city.

“It would be difficult for somebody to buy in as an equal partner at this point,” she said. “But further down the road, as mayor Appelbaum indicated, there could be other opportunities for partnerships or power-purchase agreements in regard to future resources.”

Loveland Mayor Cecil Gutierrez, a PRPA board member, said the organization would have to carefully deliberate whether to include Boulder in its energy-generation projects or partnerships. However, he agreed that opportunities for Boulder to participate in PRPA’s renewable-generation projects may arise as the nonprofit seeks to diversify its energy portfolio.

“We’re always open to discussions,” he said. “We’re always about trying to figure out the most beneficial way and cost-effective way to do power for all four of our cities.”

One thing is clear: Boulder likely would not want to take part in PRPA’s electric generation from coal, Appelbaum said. PRPA operates the coal-fired Rawhide Energy Station north of Wellington and jointly owns the coal-fired Yampa Project near Craig.

Boulder would want to participate in renewable-energy initiatives such as PRPA’s plan to buy 32.5 megawatts from the Spring Canyon II Energy Center in Logan County he said.

“Together, we would be a bigger entity, which would give us more leverage,” he said.

Joining PRPA as a full-fledged member might not work for Boulder, however.

“We’re not going to abandon coal overnight,” Gutierrez said. “We just can’t do that: We have to be pragmatic.”

So, the idea may remain simply a topic of conversation at renewable-energy summits such as NetZero Cities – at least for a while.

Fort Collins Utilities has had many of those conversations with Boulder about how the utility operates the city’s electric system as well as how other utilities operate, said Steve Catanach, Light & Power manager for the city of Fort Collins.

“As Boulder moves forward planning their system,” he said, “Fort Collins will be glad to share our experiences.”

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