Renewable Energy Supporters Take To The Ballots To Make Solar Power A Hometown Issue


People want renewable energy, and they are willing to pay an excise tax to fund it. At least, that's what advocates for the Lafayette Clean Energy Initiative say about an upcoming ballot issue in a town bordering Boulder, Colo.

On Nov. 4, voters in Lafayette, Colo., will decide whether to create a tax that will fund energy efficiency, sustainability and renewable energy efforts. Ballot issue 2D would impose a 1% tax on residents' monthly residential gas and electric bill in 2015 and a 2% tax in 2016.

Robb Menzies, chair of the Lafayette Clean Energy Stakeholders Committee, is confident the tax will pass. ‘Lafayette is a very progressive city,’ he says. ‘It is located on the edge of Boulder, but we consider ourselves different from Boulder.’
Boulder is in the midst of its own renewable energy issues. Voters there passed ballot measures in 2011 and 2013 to create a municipal utility to replace the incumbent Xcel Energy. Boulder and Xcel are currently disputing the implementation of the ballot measure. The Lafayette effort is different, Menzies says.

In 2012, he and others asked the Lafayette City Council to consider alternatives to signing another 20-year franchise agreement with Xcel. The campaign sought to convince voters that they could get a better deal.

The group also hoped to find an alternative that would use less coal and more renewables. Last year, residents formed a committee, Lafayette's Energy Future (LEF). The committee gathered more than 1,200 signatures for a ballot issue, a Utility Option Tax (UOT). The UOT would be a 3% tax that would replace the Xcel franchise fee and be used to pay for renewable energy efforts.

The results of that election, in November 2013, were mixed. In a very close vote, 50.4% of citizens voted for the tax, and 49.6% voted against it. Also, 55% of voters elected to renew the 20-year franchise agreement with Xcel, while 45% voted against renewing.

The mixed result meant Xcel would stay, and residents would continue to pay the franchise fee. As there could not be double taxation, a 3% UOT would not be implemented.

LEF interpreted the results as a positive, that Lafayette citizens wanted clean energy. Menzies says the group needed to figure out what to do next, so it organized a team to participate in this year's Rocky Mountain Institute's (RMI) Electricity Innovation Lab Accelerator, which RMI describes as a boot camp for electricity innovation.
The team consisted of a member of LEF, a Lafayette City Council member and others. At the workshop, teams presented their projects and had opportunities to meet other experts for ideas and to form new alliances.

‘It's a think-and-do tank,’ Menzies says.

The group discussed topics such as funding and planning and later brought the findings to the Lafayette City Council. The council responded by passing Resolution 2014-41, which put Issue 2D on the November ballot. The initiative expects to raise $240,000 the first year and $480,000 the second year of the new tax. The money will be used to leverage existing clean energy programs, help citizens to take advantage of programs such as energy efficiency rebates, implement new programs such as free energy advisement services, and hire a municipal staff member who would oversee these programs for the city.

‘It is a bold thing to do a new tax, but it's not radical,’ Menzies says. ‘We are using proven models.’

Rebecca Cantwell, executive director for the Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association, says her organization does not take an official stance on 2D, but she notes the results could help solar development. ‘They could very well choose to do community-based solar or other local solar programs,’ she says. ‘I think solar is certainly in the mix of what they choose.’

Cantwell adds that Lafayette is a gold-level Solar Friendly Community, which means the city follows 12 best practices toward lowering soft costs and making it easier to install more solar generation. Solar Friendly Communities include Denver and Boulder, among others.

‘There is community-based support for solar,’ Cantwell says. ‘In a way, it helped set the groundwork for this initiative. I am really encouraged to see Lafayette doing this innovative local program. I hope it will be a model to others.’

Nora Caley is a freelance writer based in Denver. To read more about U.S. solar legislative policies, click here.

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