GCSC Presents: Seminar Speaker Dr. Leah Sprain

By Liz Ivkovich, Sustainability Office

The next speaker in the GCSC Seminar Series is Dr. Leah Sprain, Assistant Professor of Communication at UC Boulder. Sprain will present “Democratic dilemmas of energy system transformation” on Sept. 27, 4:00 p.m. in ASB 210.

Moon over CU by Yuya Sekiguchi. CC BY-SA 2.0

When a city moves towards energy democracy, it faces unexpected challenges. Energy democracy implies an energy production system where decisions are made by the users (citizens), rather than the stakeholders of a privately-owned corporation. For Dr. Leah Sprain, Boulder, Colorado’s journey towards citizen-managed power is a potent case study on democracy’s dilemmas. On Tuesday, Sprain will present her seven-year research about how Boulder’s citizens are negotiating these dilemmas.

In 2002, the community of Boulder, Colorado committed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to match the Kyoto Protocol’s targets; international goals based on this 1997 international treaty. After a few years of work, the city realized that they wouldn’t reach these goals. They took a hard look at their source of energy – Xcel Energy, a privately-owned corporation, deciding that this relationship needed to change in order to meet their reduction goals. The city began to municipalize and take over control of their power grid from Xcel Energy, a process they hope to complete by early 2018.

Flyer from Boulder. Co saying "Boulder's energy future: you have the power to decide.

Advertisement piece from Boulder.

Sprain has been observing and documenting how Boulder citizens and city council members talk to each during this transition; prime fodder for her research on democratic engagement.

Sprain explains, “Part of what’s interesting about the term ‘energy democracy’ is that it opens up ways in which we could think about what energy democracy would really even look like. And I’m not convinced that the best version of energy democracy is city governments just doing what they’ve always done before. I think part of energy democracy is that it opens up a range of different positions for members of the public to act and communicate in a variety of ways.”

Sprain is interested in how citizens talk to the city council, and how the city council then interacts with their comments.

For example, when certain Boulder County residents outside the city limits weren’t able to vote, but were still impacted by the municipalization process, they expressed their frustration both during city council meetings and in the press. Sprain describes how the city council took seriously these citizens’ request for formal ways to be consulted and to be involved. Yet, she notes that comments were also made by council members like “at least the city of Boulder is giving them a more democratic option than Xcel, because Xcel never even has public meetings and so maybe people should just be thankful.”

People walking through Boulder's main street.

Boulder, Colorado by Pedro Szekely. CC BY-SA 2.0

Exploring these kind of vignettes enables Sprain to study the conceptions that people have about democracy, as well as the communication strategies they use to turn their ideals into reality.

She explains, “Democracy is inherently an ideal concept that is never fully realized in practice. I don’t think that means it’s less worthy of scholarly and practical attention. The very possibility of thinking differently about that gap should be the focus of scholars like me and also governments like the City of Boulder.”

To learn more about Sprains research and Boulder’s energy transformation, join us at 4 p.m. on Sept. 27, in ASB 210.

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