Jesse VarnerBoulder: They don’t call it the Berkeley of the Rockies for nothing.

One of the more fascinating and underreported stories in U.S. energy right now is the budding movement toward localism. In the case of energy, this doesn’t necessarily (or exclusively) mean producing energy locally; few towns or cities could generate sufficient power for themselves within city limits. It just means asserting more local control over energy provision and use. Often that means buying cleaner power than large, bloated, risk-averse utilities are able to provide, and using it more intelligently.

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There are two ways a town or city can opt out of being served by big utilities. The first is, it can buy and sell power directly while using the utility’s lines. That’s what Chicago is doing. As I wrote last year, Illinois recently passed a “community aggregation” law that allows cities and towns to opt out of the power purchases made by the state’s big utilities and instead procure their own power directly from providers. Dozens of towns and municipalities have jumped at this approach, including Chicago, which late last year put out a “Request for Qualifications” [PDF] seeking power that is clean and coal-free, with a strong focus on reducing consumer energy use via efficiency, demand response, and other consumer-side measures. That’s close to a million new customers for innovative low-carbon energy, with an aggressive schedule for moving forward.

The second way is for a city to form its own, publicly owned municipal utility. That’s what Boulder, Colo., is investigating. The impetus is the climate action plan the city passed in 2002, committing it to reducing its emissions in line with Kyoto targets. In 2006, the city imposed a carbon tax and just last year extended the tax by five years. Nonetheless, the city is falling short of its targets, in large part because it gets its electricity from the big private utility Xcel, which gets 60 percent of its power from coal (as of 2011). The idea behind forming a municipal utility would be to buy more renewable energy and have more direct control over pricing, distribution, and demand-side programs.

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Of course Xcel says that forming its own utility will be far too expensive for Boulder. It’s basically come down to a battle of consultants:

A preliminary Boulder analysis put the cost of buying Xcel’s assets and creating a new municipal utility at about $223 million. An Xcel consultant, Utilipoint, placed the cost at more than $1.2 billion.

I can’t say what would happen, or how much it would cost, if Boulder went municipal like Sacramento. But I’d sure like to see. In fact, I’d like to see tons more ambition and experimentation at the local level in the U.S. We need more “laboratories of energy democracy” (to coin a phrase).

One effect of the big ideological sorting of America is that progressive Americans who take climate change seriously and want to do something about it are clustering together. Concentrated pockets of opposition to clean energy hurt legislation at a national level, but concentrated pockets of support can enable ambitious local action like Chicago’s and Boulder’s. If there is ever to be any serious movement on climate at the federal level, it will likely come as a result of upward pressure from local efforts like this.