The University of Colorado &
City of Boulder, Colorado

Case Study Analysis


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Enabling Structure

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Collaborative Process

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CU Boulder-City of Boulder Collaborative Projects & Programs

This list of projects and programs are a product of successful collaboration between the city of Boulder and the University of Colorado. Each lends several pieces of detailed information that uniquely come together as advocacy for future collaborations.

MetroLab: Colorado MetroLab is a facilitating body for collaborative projects, coupling research needs with capacity. MetroLab has brought CU Boulder and the city of Boulder together on past projects such as the Alpine-Balsam Site project. Current projects involving CU Boulder and the city of Boulder include: the Boulder Sustainable Design Workshop and Inclusive Boulder. This somewhat new network is a part of the University of Colorado-Boulder's Community Engagement, Design, & Research Center (CEDaR), which funds projects that meet their on-going objectives.

East Campus Microgrid: The University of Colorado Boulder’s main campus operates on their own microgrid because main campus receives all of its energy (from Xcel Energy) through one campus location. East Campus’ energy system, however, is separate from main campus’ microgrid, making it its own, smaller microgrid. These conditions allow it to be easily manipulated: with the right resources and expertise, East Campus’ energy system can be altered for research purposes.

The University of Colorado Boulder's East Campus, which holds research buildings SEEC and SEEL will, therefore, act as a test bed for microgrid research. These buildings will be powered by a number of different renewable energy sources, which can be turned on and off from the surrounding university's power. This will make the buildings more resilient to blackouts, to natural disasters, or to a number of other threats.

This research is being funded by the city through the Reddy Grant from the Department of Energy (DOE). The city was interested in working with the university so that CU Boulder researchers could share information to help the city develop their own microgrid. The city will be applying this research to a neighborhood scale.

The National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) will also be researching neighborhood microgrids to help the city develop this at a neighborhood scale. Therefore, the city will also share information they acquire from NREL’s expertise to help the university develop their microgrid.

Overall, the development of these microgrids will help the city work toward its zero carbon emissions commitment and to transition the community-wide energy system to 100% renewable energy.

City Sustainability Initiatives of Boulder’s Climate Commitment: Three city sustainability initiatives were mentioned by both the university and city for being examples of projects where the university and city can collaborate. These initiatives’ focus areas are: maximizing resiliency for preparation in times of emergency, an increase of renewable energy community-wide, and a transition away from from natural gas.

As mentioned, the University of Colorado Boulder’s main campus operates on their own microgrid, receiving energy from Xcel Energy through one campus location. With their relatively new addition of a 31 megawatt combined-generation plant, they have become more resilient to natural disasters, like flooding, which can cause energy blackouts. The city of Boulder, therefore, came to the university with an interest in exploring how this energy resiliency could be further maximized for community-wide use in times of emergency. Similar to the East Campus Microgrid project, a framework for changing an energy system was scaled up to the community’s transportation systems, and to the connectivity of microgrids within the city. The city and university have worked in tandem to craft these system-wide changes.

Another initiative of the city’s climate action planning, in which the city and university have worked together, is in increasing renewable energy community-wide. Motivated not only by cheaper utility-scale pricing for renewables, the two have worked together to aggregate solar in order to receive this benefit. In order to transition away from natural gas as an energy source, the city quickly realized that it cannot work alone. Rather, by working with national research labs, such as NREL, and with CU researchers, the city is better able to learn what successful implementation looks like, and how this can be scaled to meet the needs of the entire city.

So far, collaborating on these initiatives has allowed communication between the two to become much more instantaneous - whether connecting with researchers, getting access to energy management data, or collectively calculating steps toward achieving their goals. Because of this and many other collaborative efforts, the city has been able to utilize the university’s expertise to deploy and achieve each of their initiatives.

Sustainable Solutions Collaboratory: Still in its developmental phases, the Collaboratory would be run by Kelly Simmons of the Environmental Center with an objective to bring applied learning to undergraduate students. She would be a liaison between faculty and the community, eliminating common challenges for faculty interested in community engagement work around sustainability. Kelly’s position would also be focused on seeking and managing projects for undergraduate students. The objective of the Collaboratory body would be to broker or curate relationships between stakeholders who may have needs for projects, and faculty members teaching undergraduate courses. Some of the stakeholders may be staff members of campus Facilities Management, small business owners of the community, and non governmental organizations housed within the community. Rather than holding a supporting role to community research, as the Office of Outreach and Engagement has been tasked with, the Collaboratory would support professional work experiences for undergraduate students. This would involve integration of applied projects into academic courses, improving the campus, the community, and student learning.

INVST (Community Leadership Program, or Leadership Studies Minor): As part of CU Engage and the Center for Community-Based Learning and Research in the School of Education, INVST is a 2-year training program focused on service learning. This program immerses students in real world experiences with one of 36 community partners, such as City of Boulder Climate and Sustainability Division, or Boulder Housing Division.

On-Site Solar: The University of Colorado and the city of Boulder are working together to analyze and implement the installation of on-site solar with the help of a program of the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), Renewable Energy Optimization (ReOpt). The ReOpt Program will assess availability and feasibility for the addition of solar panels to CU’s campus. This information will also help assess these same variables for the addition of solar panels to a neighborhood in Boulder.

Through the ReOpt Program, NREL gathers data to find the viable amount of renewables that can be installed on campus in regards to their energy needs and financial constraints. This amount will be limited, as solar cannot be installed to red tile roofs; yet off-site solar and geothermal technologies are being considered. NREL will also study how additional renewables on campus will affect CU's main campus microgrid. Currently, the campus’ combined heat and power turbine runs when financially beneficial. This program will also explore possibilities for optimizing its use. Facilities Management on CU’s campus will manage the installation of the additional solar to their existing 2.25 megawatts already on campus.

The city will help fund this ReOpt Program analysis for the university, in order to gather information that can be applied at a community-wide scale. The first step in expanding this to a community-wide scale will be to apply this knowledge to the Spartan Acres neighborhood in Boulder: The national lab will gather information from implementation on CU’s campus to help assess how the neighborhood can implement 100% renewable energy.

Regarding the ReOpt program, the university’s Facilities Management meets with the city regularly. These NREL analyses involve consideration of the capabilities aging infrastructure, incentives needed for behavioral changes, necessary upgrades, additional renewables’ affect on the grid, financial balance between new and existing technologies, among many others.

The city has helped provide opportunity for the university to add solar to their grid by offering to install solar at one of their city locations. While the university does not have an abundant amount of roof space for solar panels, the city has made this offer in order to receive the community-wide electricity savings and carbon emission reductions, and to ultimately meet their intended goals.

Power Purchase Agreements: Together, the university and city are considering how a power purchase agreement (PPA) could become a strategy for achieving reduced emissions in the community. They are contemplating this possibility by calculating the amount of renewable energy needed at both separate entities and collectively; examining potential partners whom CU could aggregate with; and exploring which technologies could be used throughout the city.

The two entities make decisions regarding PPAs on a case-by-case basis after coordinated deliberation, considering each advantage and disadvantage of every choice. For example, an advantage of a PPA to the university is a savings on investment in maintenance and upkeep; therefore, the university would only pay for the electricity produced. This, however, would not help the city meet their emissions reduction goals, and would eliminate an opportunity for student learning. While this is a project the city and university are in the process of collaborating on, they have not jointly agreed to any PPAs.

Community-Wide GHG Emissions Inventory: Uniquely, the city of Boulder’s community-wide emissions inventory encompasses the university’s energy use and emissions. With this information and a path toward carbon neutrality, the city assists the university in increasing energy efficiency and in adding renewables to their grid. The city benefits by growing closer to meeting their own goals, while the university benefits by having increased support in improving their campus.

City assistance is especially useful to the university because Xcel Energy no longer incentivizes the university for energy efficiency projects - campus energy use has been greatly reduced. To the city, this decrease in incentives means their assistance will be somewhat necessary to reduce campus emissions. Though the university needs city assistance, they can also provide something to the city. Xcel feeds energy to CU’s main campus through one feed (as mentioned above); therefore, the university owns all energy infrastructure on main campus and has the capacity to sync on and off the grid. This allows the city to use campus as a test bed for energy microgrid research.

Complementing each other by meeting the others’ needs, the university and city have worked together toward meeting city goals, and have utilized their unique situation.

Master Transportation Plan: The city of Boulder plans to reduce emissions through combined-generation power, renewable technologies, changes in transportation, and improved efficiency in buildings on and off campus. Another way the university contributes in reducing those emissions is through improved transportation. Improving transportation, in this case, is done by increasing public transportation options throughout the city for the large student body population and campus staff: The university makes an additional payment for more frequent bus routes to ensure less cars are driven by students, faculty, and staff. The Director of Parking and Transportation Services at CU, Tom McGann, has participated in creating Boulder’s community transit plans for many years to make this happen.


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Ten model communities, cities, towns, colleges, universities, and organizations were mentioned by faculty and staff at the university and city. These included:

  1. Portland State University
  2. Metro State University
  3. Stanford University
  4. University of Oregon - Eugene
  5. University of Colorado - Denver
  6. Colorado Communities for Climate Action (CC4CA)
  7. Arizona State University - Tempe
  8. Arizona State University - Phoenix
  9. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Carnegie Mellon University
  10. Vancouver, British Columbia and the University of British Columbia
  11. Oberlin College


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