Financial giant Xcel falls to the middleman

By Gloria Dickie

Xcel Energy proved money really isn’t everything last Tuesday night, when Ballot Question 310 failed by 68.88 percent in the city of Boulder.

The multimillion-dollar energy corporation threw hundreds of thousands of dollars behind “Yes on 310” campaigns in the region, hoping to prevent the city from breaking away and creating its own municipal utility fueled by clean energy. But, despite their best financial efforts, local grassroots campaigns prevailed at a fraction of the cost.

“Xcel and [company] ‘officially’ outspent the Empower Our Future campaign by approximately 3:1,” said Alison Burchell, a spokesperson for Empower Our Future and Clean Energy Action. “If you consider what Xcel spent on advertisements prior to the official campaign start date and indirect campaigning, the ratio is even higher.”

With more than half a million dollars wrapped up in “Yes on 310” campaigns, Xcel seemed like the Goliath to many of the clean energy issue campaigns.

“To be honest I think it was an uphill battle from the start,” said Steve Fenberg, executive director of the New Era Colorado Foundation, pointing to the cash flow behind the opposing side, as well as the misinformation he believed had been spread during the campaign season.

According to the latest expense and donor filings from the issue campaign, New Era’s campaign Voters Against Xcel Buying Elections was able to raise nearly $200,000 through crowdfunding via Indiegogo.

While both sides of the issue threw their weight behind local advertising, Fenberg stressed the importance of direct conversation with the community.

Since the beginning of their campaign in July, Fenberg estimated New Era had made contact with 120,000 citizens, by way of knocking on doors, visiting classrooms and cold-calling citizens to inform them of the advantages of municipalization.

“The most successful [method] is really old-fashioned, grassroots work — talking to people face to face. We used Facebook, we did commercials, we did a little bit of mail-outs, but at the end of the day it’s the face to face stuff.”

Burchell, too, emphasized the need to engage in honest community outreach, noting Xcel had dedicated a lot of its time and money toward polling.

Indeed, many groups on the ‘Yes’ side of the question put their resources toward research, with Boulder Citizens for Rational Energy Decisions — sponsored primarily by Colorado Oil & Gas — putting a large chunk of change toward consulting and research.

Still, Xcel spent close to $440,000 on advertising, delivering their message via television and online advertisements and mail-outs, choosing to forego the yard signs that were popular with many residents.

infographic_elections2

Graphic 1.1. Breakdown of campaign expenses and contributions on 310 & 2E. By Gloria Dickie

Leslie Glustrom of Clean Energy Action and Empower Our Future noted they had distributed over 1,500 yard signs to encourage a ‘No’ vote.

“For a normal campaign, you would get 100 to 200 campaign signs — that’s kind of the standard for Boulder campaigns. It is a wonderful testament to the Boulder community that over 1500 people helped get the message out.”

And while Xcel may have conceded a visual presence on every corner, Burchell observed many citizens were unhappy with Xcel’s strategies, which included offering up gift certificates to citizens who answered questions about the company.

“The most common feedback we have received is how disgusted people are with the volume of Xcel advertising,” she said, adding it seemed many people hoped to never see the name ‘Xcel’ again.

While the ballot question failed by more than two thirds, backers of clean energy recognize there’s still a long way to go.

Empower Our Future, Burchell said, will be looking to work with Xcel to make a “truly smart transition” to clean energy and not continue to strand communities with their bad fossil fuel investments. In addition, they will be directing efforts toward the 31 percent that voted ‘Yes.’

In the meantime, she’s proud of the accomplishments clean energy groups have made in the unequal battle to pursue alternative power sources.

And, if there’s one lesson Burchell learned from her experience, it’s this:

“Clearly, more is not a ‘given’ better, and it is no longer true that the side that spends the most money always wins.”

For a complete breakdown of expenses and contributions, enlarge graphic 1.1.

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