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The cost of photovoltaic solar systems, like this one at Denver International Airport, are dropping, which gives communities , including Denver, driving toward 100 percent renewable electricity hope that they can reach their goal. (Photo provided by Denver International Airport)

Municipal utilities could lead the 100-percent renewable charge.

Of the six communities — from Burlington, Vermont, to Kodiak, Alaska — to reach the 100-percent renewable electricity target, five of them, including Aspen, are municipal utilities. The sixth is a rural electric cooperative.

It isn’t surprising that municipal utilities have taken the lead, said Elizabeth Doris, manager of NREL’s state and local policy and technical assistance project. “Municipal utilities own the resources. They are used to making tactical decisions.”

This gives Longmont and Fort Collins, two of the 10 Colorado communities that have taken the 100-percent pledge, the best chances of meeting the goal, Doris said. Boulder and Pueblo, which are considering municipal utilities, also hope to be powered by all renewable energy.

The Platte River Power Authority is owned by the four municipal utilities its serves – Fort Collins, Longmont, Estes Park and Loveland. That helps explain the willingness of the authority’s board to adopt the 2030 goal along with Fort Collins and Longmont.

“We see it as a partnership with them,” said Lindsay Ex, Fort Collins’ climate program manager. “We are setting a goal and working toward it.” Getting to 100 percent, however, is dependent upon the energy mix being affordable and reliable as well as clean, Ex said.

The authority board is tying its goal to a set of criteria including: access to a wholesale market, improved performance and declining costs for batteries, improvements in the transmission system, more advanced grid management systems.

“There are a lot of things that have to happen before we can get there,” Jason Frisbie, the power authority’s CEO, told The Sun.

Attaining 100 percent renewable is also part of the reason the cities of Boulder and Pueblo are also looking to create municipal utilities.

Boulder has been working for eight years on a plan to break from Xcel Energy. The move was initially sparked by an analysis that showed the city could not meet the goals of its Climate Action Plan to reduce Boulder’s carbon emissions as long as it got its electricity from Xcel.

“For us, 100 percent means that 100 percent of the electricity used in the community comes from renewable resources,” said Kendra Tupper, Boulder’s chief sustainability officer. “One of the benefits of municipalization is you gain access to the wholesale market where there are lots of renewable-energy wholesale providers.”

Still, she concedes that it might not be financially viable to go 100 percent renewable now, but looking at the Xcel bids for wind and solar, Tupper said, “if those prices are true and hold steady, we’d in the black sooner than we thought.”

While a climate plan precipitated Boulder’s move to create a municipal utility, it was dollars and cents that sparked Pueblo’s decision to consider the same change. Since 2010, the city’s electricity provider, investor-owned Black Hills Energy, has had four rate hikes, raising bills as much as 50 percent.

Rate relief was the first aim, but last year, the city council also adopted a 100 percent renewable target by 2035, which advocates say will also help cut rates.

“There are several threads to the energy issue in Pueblo that are coming together,” said David Cockrell, a member of the Pueblo’s Energy Future, a group that includes community leaders and local officials advocating lower rates and local control. Cockrell is also the chairman of the Colorado Sierra Club’s conservation committee.

“A lot of us are struggling with question of 100 percent renewable energy and how we do that,” Cockrell said. Like Boulder, Pueblo is considering the option of a wholesale energy provider. “The best prospect for moving to 100 percent by 2035 is municipalization,” he said.

The remaining five communities with 100 percent targets — Breckenridge, Denver, Lafayette, Nederland and Summit County — all are served by Xcel, which under its Colorado Energy Plan will be at 55 percent renewable energy by 2025.

Xcel and Denver have signed a “memorandum of understanding” to work together toward 100-percent renewable energy.

“This is an aspirational goal,” said Elizabeth Babcock, Denver’s manager of air, water and climate. “We are determined to work closely with Xcel Energy to get as much renewable energy on the grid as possible and then figure out how fill the gap.”

Breckenridge’s sustainability coordinator Jessie Burley said Xcel representatives have also said they will work with the town. “With pressures from large cities like Boulder and Denver on Xcel, there is reason to be optimistic that Xcel will respond,” she said. “The big target area moving forward? We were really trying to bring renewable energy online locally.”

Alice Jackson, CEO of Xcel’s Colorado subsidiary, said that the first questions Xcel asks is how a community is defining as 100 percent renewable and what problem it is trying to solve. “If it is trying to get to zero carbon, it isn’t just about energy,” she said.

The transportation sectors have surpassed the power sector as the country’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide. Long said rather than spending dollars on that last, expensive increment of renewable electricity, perhaps they should go to electric cars and buses. “Where is the biggest bang for your buck?” she said.

Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins and Lafayette all have climate or sustainability programs that encompass elements of energy efficiency, building codes and transportation, but 100-percent renewable energy is part of all the plans.

“Cities are setting the 100 percent goal because that’s where they want to be,” Tupper said.

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @bymarkjaffe