Solar energy will be an integral part of a more sustainable future, but with current technology, generating the amount of power needed in Colorado alone would require using roughly the land area of Denver.
That’s a lot of space – and potential disturbance to ecosystems, especially when you consider that in the past, energy companies have typically first graded the land and then put gravel or short, easy-to-mow turf grass beneath their solar panels.
Agrivoltaics – the dual use of land for both solar installations and agriculture – offers an alternative way to generate renewable solar energy. Now, two Colorado State University researchers are proposing taking this a step further through what’s known as “ecovoltaics,” which co-prioritizes energy production and ecosystem services during the design and management phases of solar development.
“It’s important to talk about the sustainability of the solar industry so it doesn’t make the same environmental oversights as oil and gas,” said Matt Sturchio, a Ph.D. student in Biology and the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology. “With ecovoltaics, we hope to encourage an ecologically informed approach to solar array design and operation.”
“It will take a lot of solar panels and a lot of land to produce the electricity our society needs,” Knapp said. “As a land-grant institution, we see ourselves as stewards of the land, and it’s our job to offer sustainable solutions about how to use land wisely.”
Solar panels create unique microenvironments
While agrivoltaics is a step in the right direction, Sturchio said in many applications, it still prioritizes producing the most electricity possible in a given land area. This allows for the use of land beneath solar panels but overlooks opportunities to manipulate array designs in ways that might benefit the plants and animals beneath, especially in water limited ecosystems like the grasslands of Colorado.
With ecovoltaic designs, solar energy production and preserving the landscape go hand-in-hand.
The ecovoltaic concept is partly informed by the researchers’ current work at Jack’s Solar Garden in Longmont, which is the largest commercially active site for agrivoltaics research in the U.S.
Here, the CSU team studies how solar panels affect sunlight patterns and redistribute rainfall to create microenvironments that influence grassland ecosystem processes. These microenvironments promote diversity within solar installations and are a cornerstone of the ecovoltaics concept.
“What we’re trying to do is show the potential impacts of solar energy on our land, and how we can mitigate and potentially leverage them to reach desired outcomes,” he said.
And perhaps most importantly, these approaches can be used to restore severely degraded or abandoned agricultural lands – which are prime candidates for large solar installations.
“Ecovoltaic approaches could help restore and even enhance biodiversity in these places, while providing much-needed clean energy,” Sturchio said.
“It’s a climate solution”
Sturchio and Knapp will continue their research at a new facility in the plains east of CSU’s campus in Fort Collins.
Here, solar panels will be installed in a native grassland environment – offering new insights about how they impact the ecology of places that are known to be harsh and dry, and where conditions are expected to become more volatile as climate change worsens in the future.
“Building our own research solar arrays will allow us to discover better ways to use this amazing energy source and will help us determine what we can do to make sure large-scale solar installations have less of a negative impact,” Knapp said. “We will study the impacts of placing solar panels farther apart, changing their orientations, and orienting panels vertically during rainstorms – there are many potential options.”
Sturchio said he’s hopeful that energy companies will use some of these principles as they build future installations.
“This research is really important because it’s a land use solution for a climate solution,” he said.
The climate crisis is no longer a looming threat – people are now living with the consequences of centuries of greenhouse gas emissions. But there is still everything to fight for. How the world chooses to respond in the coming years will have massive repercussions for generations yet to be born.
In my book How to Save Our Planet, I imagine two different visions of the future. One in which we do very little to address climate change, and one in which we do everything possible.
This is what the science suggests those very different realities could look like.
Year 2100: the nightmare scenario
The 21st century draws to a close without action having been taken to prevent climate change. Global temperatures have risen by over 4°C. In many countries, summer temperatures persistently stay above 40°C. Heatwaves with temperatures as high as 50°C have become common in tropical countries.
The extra heat in the ocean has caused it to expand. Combined with water from melting ice sheets, sea levels have risen by more than one metre. Many major cities, including Hong Kong, Rio de Janeiro and Miami, are already flooded and uninhabitable. The Maldives, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu and many other small island nations have been abandoned.
Fish stocks have collapsed. The acidity of the ocean has increased by 125%. The ocean food chain has collapsed in some regions as the small marine organisms that form its base struggle to make calcium carbonate shells and so survive in the more acidic waters.
This is what our planet could look like if we do everything in our power to contain climate change.
Global temperatures rose to 1.5°C by 2050 and remained there for the rest of the century. Fossil fuels have been replaced by renewable energy. Over a trillion trees have been planted, sucking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The air is cleaner than it has been since before the industrial revolution.
Global diets have shifted away from meat. Farming efficiency has greatly improved during the transition from industrial-scale meat production to plant-based sustenance, creating more land to rewild and reforest.
Half of the Earth is dedicated to restoring the natural biosphere and its ecological services. Elsewhere, fusion energy is finally set to work at scale providing unlimited clean energy for the people of the 22nd century.
Two very different futures. The outcome your children and grandchildren will live with depends on what decisions are made today. Happily, the solutions I propose are win-win, or even win-win-win: they reduce emissions, improve the environment and make people healthier and wealthier overall.
Thousands of homes across Indian Country are still not connected to electricity, including an estimated more than 14,000 on the Navajo Nation alone.
That accounts for more than 80% of the tribal homes in the United States that aren’t electrified.
But it could all change with the launch of the Tribal Electrification Program by the U.S. Department of the Interior, which will provide funding to help tribal nations get connected to electricity.
“The goal of the funding is to get electricity to homes,” Onna Lebeau, director of the Office of Indian Economic Development (OIED), told the Arizona Mirror. “We do see the electrification need in Indian Country is in a critical state.”
The Department of the Interior launched the Tribal Electrification Program on Aug. 15 with $72.5 million that will directly help tribal nations electrify homes and expand the availability of clean energy in Indian Country.
“This funding from the president’s Investing in America agenda will bring electricity to homes in Tribal communities that have never had it,” Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland said in a press release. “It will have a fundamental and significant impact on businesses, communities, and families.”
Newland added that this historic investment is one of many the department is making to fund long-overdue infrastructure needs in Indigenous communities.
Regarding connecting homes to electricity within Indigenous communities, Lebeau said the need has long been there, and through the funding available from the new program, they can prioritize this need.
It will help the homes within tribal communities that not only need updating, Lebeau said, but the homes that need to be connected to the grid for the first time.
In 2022, the Department of Energy’s Office of Indian Energy released a report about Tribal Electricity Access and Reliability, where they found 16,805 tribal homes were not connected to electricity, resulting in 54,209 residents living without electricity. The price of electricity on tribal lands, according to the report, is 56% higher than the national average.
The Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe have some of the highest numbers of homes not connected to electricity, and together account for nearly 90% of all unelectrified tribal homes nationwide.
According to the report, there are 68,101 homes on the Navajo Nation, with an estimated 14,063 without electricity and about 45,001 people living without power. For the Hopi Tribe, there are 2,508 homes located on their tribal land, with an estimated 878 homes without electricity and about 2,810 people living without power.
Between the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe, that is roughly 15,000 homes and nearly 48,000 people between just two communities living without power, compared to the approximately 16,800 homes and more than 54,000 people living without electricity in the U.S.
The funding comes via the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which was signed into law last summer. It is part of an overall $150 million investment from the IRA to support the electrification of homes in tribal communities.
The new program increases efforts to electrify Indian Country to provide reliable, resilient energy that tribes can rely on, Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a press release. The program will also advance the department’s work to tackle the climate crisis and build a clean energy future.”
“Climate change is the crisis of our lifetimes and has left far too many communities managing for worsening water challenges, extreme heat, devastating wildfires, and unprecedented storms,” Haaland added. “Every action we take now to lessen the impacts for future generations is critical.”
The program will work to provide electricity to unelectrified homes located on tribal land through zero-emissions energy systems, and it will transition electrified tribal homes to zero-emission energy systems, including the associated home repairs within homes to install necessary systems for zero-emission energy.
The program will work to meet the unique needs of individual tribal communities, according to the Department of Interior, because the demand for electrification across Indian Country is significant, and each tribe has its own energy and electrification-related needs and implementation capacity.
Lebeau said a unique component of the program is that it will also coordinate financial and technical assistance to tribes to increase the number of tribal homes connected with zero-emission electricity.
“We do understand each of our tribes are at various levels within their development,” she said. “The technical assistants will be able to support those tribes who need additional guidance through the program.”
Lebeau said there are tribal nations that have the infrastructure set in place, such as wind power or solar energy, but then there are others that need help getting their projects off the ground, which is where the technical assistance from the program comes in.
“The technical assistance will be able to support them,” Lebeau said. “We are doing our best to meet the needs of each community.”
Lebeau said that when tribes start applying, they need to state their unique needs to meet their capacity within their community.
“The primary goal is to get electricity into the homes. That’s what’s driving this program,” Lebeau added. “The individuality of each need of each community is so important when it comes down to truly understanding how we’re going to be able to support everyone.”
The Department of the Interior stated that the program expects to obligate roughly half of the funding by the end of the year.
As part of the program, the Office of Indian Economic Development will select a range of tribal communities in stages ranging from early planning to already implementing plans and actions for household electrification.
There are two deadlines tribal nations should be aware of when applying for the program. The first deadline is for the pre-application process, due by Sept. 18, and the second is for the full application, due Dec 22.
Applications will only be accepted by eligible applications, which include federally recognized Native American or Alaska Native tribes or an approved tribal entity. Applicants must demonstrate need, community impact, and capacity.
Dave Marston has written a profile of friend of Coyote Gulch Allen Best. Click the link to read the article on the Writers on the Range website (David Marston):
Usually seen with a camera slung around his neck, Allen Best edits a one-man online journalism shop he calls Big Pivots. Its beat is the changes made necessary by our rapidly warming climate, and he calls it the most important story he’s ever covered.
Best is based in the Denver area, and his twice-a-month e-journal looks for the radical transitions in Colorado’s energy, water, and other urgent aspects of the state’s economy. These changes, he thinks, overwhelm the arrival of the telephone, rural electrification and even the internal combustion engine in terms of their impact.
Global warming, he declares, is “the biggest pivot of all.”
Whether you “believe” in climate change — and Best points out that at least one Colorado state legislator does not — there’s no denying that our entire planet is undergoing dramatic changes, including melting polar ice, ever-intensifying storms, and massive wildlife extinctions.
A major story that Best, 71, has relentlessly chronicled concerns Tri-State, a wholesale power supplier serving Colorado and three other states. Late to welcome renewable energy, it’s been weighed down with aging coal-fired power plants. Best closely followed how many of its 42 customers — rural electric cooperatives — have fought to withdraw from, or at least renegotiate, contracts that hampered their ability to buy cheaper power and use local renewable sources.
Best’s first newspaper job was at the Middle Park Times in Kremmling, a mountain town along the Colorado River. He wrote about logging, molybdenum mining and the many miners who came from eastern Europe. His prose wasn’t pretty, he says, but he got to hone his skills.
Because of his rural roots, Best is most comfortable hanging out in farm towns and backwaters, places where he can listen to stories and try to get a feel for what Best calls the “rest of Colorado.” Pueblo, population 110,000 in southern Colorado, is a gritty town he likes a lot.
Pueblo has been forced to pivot away from a creaky, coal-fired power plant that created well-paying jobs. Now, the local steel mill relies on solar power instead, and the town also hosts a factory that makes wind turbine towers. He’s written stories about these radical changes as well as the possibility that Russian oligarchs are involved in the city’s steel mill.
Best also vacuums up stories from towns like Craig in northwestern Colorado, home to soon-to-be-closed coal plants. He says he finds Farmington, New Mexico, fascinating because it has electric transmission lines idling from shuttered coal power plants.
His Big Pivots may only have 1,091 subscribers, but story tips and encouragement come from some of his readers who hold jobs with clout. His feature “There Will Be Fire: Colorado arrives at the dawn of megafires” brought comments from climate scientist Michael Mann and Amory Lovins, legendary co-founder of The Rocky Mountain Institute.
“After a lifetime in journalism, his writing has become more lyrical as he’s become more passionate,” says Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability for the Aspen Ski Company. “Yet he’s also completely unknown despite the quality of his work.”
Among utility insiders, and outsiders like myself, however, Best is a must-read.
His biggest donor has been Sam R. Walton’s Catena Foundation — a $29,000 grant. Typically, supporters of his nonprofit give Big Pivots $25 or $50.
Living in Denver allows him to be close to the state’s shot callers, but often, his most compelling stories come from the rural fringe. One such place is the little-known Republican River, whose headwaters emerge somewhere on Colorado’s Eastern Plains. That’s also where Best’s grandfather was born in an earthen “soddie.”
Best grew up in eastern Colorado and knows the treeless area well. He’s written half a dozen stories about the wrung-out Republican River that delivers water to neighboring Kansas. He also sees the Eastern Plains as a great story about the energy transition. With huge transmission lines under construction by the utility giant Xcel Energy, the project will feed renewable power from wind and solar to the cities of Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins.
Best admits he’s sometimes discouraged by his small readership — it can feel like he’s speaking to an empty auditorium, he says. He adds, though, that while “I may be a tiny player in Colorado journalism, I’m still a player.”
He’s also modest. With every trip down Colorado’s back roads to dig up stories, Best says he’s humbled by what he doesn’t know. “Just when I think I understand something, I get slapped up the side of the head.”
Dave Marston is the publisher of Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He lives in Durango, Colorado.
Colorado is starting another chapter in what could be a future history book, “How We Decarbonized our Economy.”
In that book, electricity will be the easy part, at least the storyline through 80% to 90% reduction in emissions. That chapter is incomplete. We may not figure out 100% emissions-free electricity on a broad scale for a couple more decades.
This new chapter is about tamping down emissions associated with buildings. This plot line will be more complicated. Instead of dealing with a dozen or so coal plants, we have hundreds of thousands of buildings in Colorado, maybe more. Most burn natural gas and propane to heat space and water.
I would start this chapter on August 1. Appropriately, that’s Colorado Day. It’s also the day that Xcel Energy and Colorado Springs Utilities will deliver the nation’s very first clean-heat plans to state regulators.
Those clean heat plans, required by a 2021 law, will tell state agencies how they intend to reduce emissions from the heat they sell to customers. The targets are 4% by 2025 and 22% by 2030.
Wishing I had a sex scandal to weave into this chapter or at least something lurid, maybe a conspiracy or two. Think Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in “Chinatown.”
Arguments between utilities and environmental advocates remain polite. Both sides recognize the need for new technologies. The disagreements lie in how best to invest resources that will pay off over time.
The environmental groups see great promise in electrification, particularly the use of air-source heat pumps. Heat pumps milk the heat out of even very cold air (or, in summer, coolness from hot air).
Good enough for prime time? I know of people in Avon, Fraser, and Gunnison who say heat-pumps deliver even on the coldest winter days.
Xcel says that heat pumps have a role—but cautions that cold temperatures and higher elevations impair their performance by about 10% as compared to testing in coastal areas. They will need backup gas heat or electric resistance heating. After two winters of testing at the National Research Energy Laboratory in Golden, the testing of heat pumps will move to construction trailers set up in Leadville, Colorado’s Two-Mile City next winter.
Xcel also frets about adding too much demand, too quickly, to the electrical grid.
Another, perhaps sharper argument has to do with other fuels that would allow Xcel to use its existing gas pipelines. Xcel and other gas utilities have put out a request for renewable natural gas, such as could be harvested from dairies. Xcel also plans to create hydrogen from renewable resources, blending it with natural gas. It plans a demonstration project using existing infrastructure in Adams County, northeast of Denver.
Jeff Lyng, Xcel Energy’s vice president for energy and sustainability policy, talks about the need for a “spectrum of different approaches.” It is far too early, Lyng told me, to take any possible technology off the table.
In a 53-page analysis, Western Resource Advocates sees a greater role for weatherization and other measures to reduce demand for gas. It sees renewable gas, in particular, but also hydrogen, as more costly and slowing the broad market transformation that is necessary.
“I think there’s a real tension that came out between different visions of a low-carbon future when it comes to the gas system,” Meera Fickling, an economist with WRA, told me.
We already have a huge ecosystem of energy, a huge investment in natural gas. Just think of all the natural gas lines buried under our streets. No wonder this transition will be difficult.
“It’s more difficult because everything you do in the gas sector now has a spillover effect in the electric sector,” says Jeff Ackermann, the former chair of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. “Each of these sectors moves in less than smooth, elegant steps. We don’t want people to fall off one and onto the other and get lost in the transition. There has to be sufficient energy of whatever type.”
Getting back to the book chapter. Colorado has nibbled around the edges of how to end emissions from buildings. With these proceedings, Colorado is moving headlong into this very difficult challenge. The foreplay is done. It’s action time.
Xcel talks about a decades-long transition and stresses the need to understand “realistic limitations in regard to both technologies and circumstances.”
Keep in mind, 25 years ago, it had little faith in wind and even less in solar.
Do you see a role for Jack Nicholson in hearings and so forth during the next year? I don’t. Even so, it promises to be a most interesting story.
A scorcher has settled over the entire Southwestern United States, with highs expected to hit the triple digits for several days in a row from Bakersfield to Las Vegas to Grand Junction. Phoenicians will be doing the Summer Solstice Swelter during that long day and short night—the minimum temperature is sticking at just below 90 degrees, to give even those used-to-be-cool predawn hours an ovenlike ambience.
That type of heat can cause the human body to go haywire, short-circuiting the renal system, causing the brain to swell, blood pressure to drop, heart-rate to increase, blood clots to form. Last year this heat-caused cascading failure proved fatal for more than 300 people in greater Phoenix.
Now, the electricity grid is not a living organism, but it can behave like one in a variety of ways. And just as excessive heat can ripple through the vital organs of the body, so too can it trigger chain reactions and feedback loops in the power system that keeps society churning along. Which is why during heatwaves like this one—that threatens to drag on in varying degrees of intensity throughout the summer—the power often goes out, right when folks need it most to keep their homes habitable.
To continue with the body metaphor, the grid has a heart, made up of all of the generators such as power plants and wind farms and so forth; a circulation system made up of arteries (high voltage transmission lines) and capillaries (distribution lines that carry power to your home or business); and organs, or the electricity consumers. The supply of power generated must always be equal to the collective demand. If demand kicks up, then the grid operators (the brain) have to increase the output of the “heart” accordingly.
In the West, we get our power from the Western Interconnect, which is actually broken up into about 38 separate grids, each with its own heart and brain and organs.
On a summer’s afternoon, as the temperature rises, thermostats signal air-conditioners to start running in order to keep homes and businesses comfortable and—in some cases—survivable. Cooling space requires a lot of energy. A 2013 study found that during extreme heat events, about half of all electricity use goes toward space-cooling of some sort. So when some 18 million residential AC units, plus all of the commercial units, kick in across the West, it increases the demand—or load—on the respective electricity grids significantly.
Some of that sudden increase in demand is offset by a corresponding uptick in solar generation, if available on the grid, and wind power—assuming the wind’s blowing at the time. The problem is, solar generation tends to peak in the early afternoon, but temperatures—and therefore AC-related demand—peak a few hours later. Grid operators need to turn to other resources in order to match that late afternoon peak.
Probably the best source of “peaking” power is a hydroelectric dam, which is essentially a big battery in that it stores energy in the form of water that can be run through turbines to generate power at the flip of a switch. Except, well, in the hottest, driest years, just when that hydropower is most needed, hydroelectricity is in short supply thanks to shrinking reservoirs.
Meanwhile, the nuclear reactors that are currently in service can’t be ramped up or down to “follow the load.” The same goes for coal power plants. Still, those sources provide important baseload, a fairly constant stream of power. Yet many thermal power plants run less efficiently when the ambient temperature is high, and nearly all of them—whether nuclear, coal, or natural gas (steam, not turbine)—need billions of gallons of water per year for cooling and steam-generation purposes, another problem during drought. And the warmer that water is, the less effective it is: Nuclear plants have been forced to shut down because the cooling water is too warm.
Since grid operators have no control over wind or solar generation and there aren’t enough batteries online yet, they have little choice but to turn to natural gas peaker plants, which can be cranked up quickly but are also expensive to run and emit more pollutants than conventional plants, including greenhouse gases that warm the climate and exacerbate heat waves and drought. Sometimes even that’s not enough to meet demand and grid operators must “shed load,” or do rolling power outages.
And that smoke? It’s not so good for solar power: Smoke from wildfires was so thick last summer that it blotted out the sun and diminished solar power generation in California, which meant grid operators had to scramble to make up for the loss.
Even when the power does make it to the air conditioners without triggering disasters, troubles remain. Air conditioners work by pulling heat from indoors and blowing it outside, as anyone who has walked past an AC vent when its running has experienced. Multiply that phenomenon by hundreds of thousands and you’ll get an increase in nighttime temperatures and exacerbate the urban heat island effect, according to a study by an Arizona State University researcher. Not only are the emissions from generating power to run the air conditioners heating things up, but so is running the air conditioners, themselves.
And heat doesn’t affect everyone equally. Various studies have found that heat disproportionately affects people of color and those who live in lower-income neighborhoods. That’s in part because those neighborhoods don’t have as many trees or green-spaces, which mitigate the urban heat islands. And it’s also due to the fact that they are less likely to be able to afford air conditioning equipment or the electricity to run them. It’s just another way in which wealth inequality ripples throughout society, creating health inequality, quality of life inequality, opportunity inequality, and so forth.
The first priority is to help the people who are most affected by the heat and the resulting grid failures, while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions so as not to exacerbate the heat even further. And we need to pursue solutions for the grid, by installing more batteries and energy storage, breaking down the divisions between the balkanized grids in the West, expanding transmission in some places to enable moving clean power across big distances so that solar and wind from the Interior can match up with California’s demand peak, while also focusing on micro-grids for fire-prone areas and rooftop solar paired with batteries—for everyone, not just the wealthy—so that the grid becomes somewhat redundant.
It’s a massive challenge, but we have to take it on before it’s too late.
And on the lighter side, please witness comedian Blair Erskine’s impression of a spokesperson for the Texas grid:
As part of a deal struck by President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to suspend the nation’s debt ceiling — and avoid an economically devastating default — federal officials would issue permits for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which is designed to carry planet-warming natural gas from West Virginia. The pipeline would worsen the climate crisis. But it’s a top priority for West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III, a conservative Democrat without whom the party would lose control of the Senate…
The bill would set a two-year deadline for federal agencies reviewing energy projects to issue environmental reports, and set a page limit on those reports (150 pages, or 300 for “extraordinarily complex” projects). It would allow energy companies to hire a third-party consultant to write those reports, rather than having a slow-moving federal agency take responsibility. Other changes would make battery-storage facilities eligible for quicker approval under the Obama-era FAST Act, and help federal agencies avoid duplicative environmental analyses of energy technologies that other agencies have already studied…
But it’s a double-edged sword. Most of those provisions could also be used to speed up permitting for fossil fuel infrastructure, such as pipelines, power plants and export terminals. Other provisions could limit the number of coal, oil and gas projects subject to federal scrutiny under the National Environmental Policy Act, conservationists say — and in the process harm the Black, Latino and low-income communities that have long suffered the injustice of fossil-fueled air and water pollution.
The National Environmental Policy Act “is one of the most powerful tools that environmental justice communities have on the books,” said Jean Su, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. “If we keep making these exemptions … then we’re undercutting the whole point of the [law], which is to give voice to these environmental justice communities and the public to weigh in on how projects will affect them.”
Scientists say the United States must dramatically pick up the pace of building solar farms, wind turbines, batteries and electric power lines to have any hope of avoiding the worst consequences of global warming. Those consequences include deadlier heat waves, harsher droughts, more powerful storms, larger wildfires and more destructive coastal flooding. But across the country, local opposition has made it increasingly difficult to build clean energy. Conservationists, rural residents and Native American tribes are pushing back against projects they say would destroy wildlife habitat, spoil beautiful views and desecrate sacred sites. A report released Wednesday by Columbia Law School found that local governments across 35 states have implemented 228 ordinances blocking or restricting renewable energy facilities.
There is no better time to invest in rural Colorado and in climate action. The best science is telling us that the window is still slamming shut for staving off significantly worse effects from climate change. Congress might be focused on the debt limit and spending cuts, but we should not be distracted by the drama.
Still, for those who insist on weighing the price of action or inaction today as a bottom line, take note: The future in which we do not act to avert this cascading catastrophe will be far more expensive than almost any future in which we did.
The good news is that there is more funding available than ever to help rural communities transition into 21st century economies that center conservation, climate action, and prosperity. The catch is that they need to participate to get these resources. And for many small communities, that in itself is a burden that may be too much to overcome.
Smart investment in frontline climate action needs to make it to the regions facing the most severe risk from climate change. It needs to reach the places that have borne and will bear the impacts from past and current fossil fuel activity. And it needs to be accessed by the communities that have the furthest to go to catch up in metrics of prosperity, including income, education, and access to housing, jobs, and services. But many of these places, needing such investments the most, do not have development staff or lobbyists in Denver or Washington, D.C.
In response to these constraints, my organization, the Colorado Farm & Food Alliance, is seeking to assist the North Fork Valley, where we are based, to find these federal and state partnerships that can bring those resources here. And we want to do it in a way that serves as a model for what rural climate leadership looks like.
Recently we were the named recipient in a national prize to spur community solar projects. This award is for a collaborative, community-based project that we are helping lead that will pair solar energy and farming in a practice called agrivoltaics. As exciting as this pilot project is, for us and we hope for others watching, it will truly be a success if it is followed by meaningful investments that make more ideas like this possible — such as state policy changes to smooth the way for rural electric co-ops to facilitate and integrate more community solar projects.
For starters, here are three places where smart state and local policy should align to ensure that historic federal investments are making a difference for rural communities.
Expanding community-based rural renewables
Strengthening land and watershed health and resilience
Boosting and incentivizing farm-based ecosystem services
So, while it is the case that the debt-ceiling debate has shifted media and other attention to competing economic needs and proposals, it is worth recounting why investment now in climate action remains more critical than ever.
In our recent report, “Gunnison Basin-Ground Zero in a Climate Emergency,” we lay out clearly the high stakes of failure to act. It all adds up to more human suffering, declining environmental health, and severe economic hardship. Most importantly, though, and on point, is that this report lays out the path for action. It makes the case that western Colorado is particularly well suited to be a national leader in rural-based climate leadership. But to get there, we need government partners that prioritize those outcomes.
We are grateful for federal investments that can drive this type of thoughtful, innovative and scalable climate action, especially for frontline, transitioning, and disproportionately impacted communities. And certainly, Congress ought not “claw back” or otherwise diminish that funding. Climate action is an imperative and rural America should not be left behind.
So we are also eager to see that investment show up in our communities now. We are ready to make a difference before the window for effective climate action slams shut. There is no more time to delay and an incredible opportunity to act. Smart investment now will help rural Colorado, and help all of us to succeed.
Day 6 was a drive back to Denver from Glenwood Springs to return to work and the urban landscape that has run amok with all the beautiful precipitation. We followed US-6 as much as we could to save charge, see more of the countryside and the Eagle River.
Charging was in Vail (CHAdeMO) where the Leaf reported 56% charge and 118 miles of range. We stopped for lunch in Frisco and charged at the Town of Frisco facility (J1772) and then keeping with the US-6 strategy we climbed up to Loveland Pass. It is pretty much downhill from Loveland Pass to our home in Denver and the Leaf reported 56% charge and 191 miles of range when we got home. You have to love regenerative charging.
Day 4 was the longest day so far. We travelled from Grand Junction to Moab along I-70 at first and then along Utah-128. The rainy weather joined us along the way. This route into Moab is one of my favorites as the road winds along the canyon walls near the river. We spotted a few folks testing the high flows in rafts nearer to Moab and a pair of enthusiasts in an inflatable kayak and on a standup paddle board.
The river was all the more impressive along this route, bankfull and moving along at a pace where you could experience the power.
A real treat this wet water year was the super bloom along Utah-128 near Cisco. The desert was so green compared to other years and the wildflowers put on a great show.
We left Moab driving by Arches and up to Green River to get a look at the river there. The Green River was also bankfull. There is a restaurant along the river where I’ve seen the tire tracks of off-roaders in the river bed — not this year.
We headed over to Glenwood Springs from Kremmling on Day 2 going over Gore Pass to Toponas and Yampa then along CO-131 S. to the Colorado River Road where we joined the Colorado River. The route winds along the river to Dotsero where we picked up I-70 to Glenwood Springs through Glenwood Canyon. The river was runinng bank to bank. We were treated to beautiful cool and wet weather for most of the drive.
Charging was near Penny’s Diner in Yampa — a ChargePoint fast charger (CHAdeMO connector) installed by the Yampa Valley Electric Association.
We headed up to the west entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park over Berthoud Pass on Day 1 and drove into the park up the Kawuneeche Valley as far as we could for the official start to our jaunt along the Colorado River. It was cloudy (and smoky?) and rained off an on. Cold and wet is pretty much my favorite weather so things were near perfect.
It was great to see the river bank to bank on the way to Kremmling. It was roiling in Byers Canyon and there is a lot of the snowpack left at higher elevations to feed the runoff in the weeks ahead.
After driving my 2017 Leaf for six years the range of the new Leaf, greater than 200 miles, helps immensely with range anxiety. The first road charge for the new Leaf was in Granby on the way to Rocky Mountain National Park although we could have easily waited until after the excursion in the park. I always charged the old Leaf in Granby on the way to Steamboat Springs and old habits die hard. Also, the chargers at the Kum & Go have CHAdeMO connectors which the Leaf requires for fast charging. All of the ChargePoint chargers I’ve used in western Colorado have those connectors. The free chargers provided by the Town of Kremmling were working when I tested them.
The charging infrastructure along US 40 has improved greatly since my first EV adventure to Steamboat Springs in 2017 so you can concentrate on the scenery. Much of this is due to the Colorado Energy Office’s efforts.
Colorado will probe the pairing of solar panels with canals and reservoirs. Can solar integrated into agriculture help solve the San Luis Valley’s water woes?
Agrivoltaics—the marriage of solar photovoltaics and agriculture production— has been filtering into public consciousness, if still more as an abstraction than as a reality. In Colorado, other than Jack’s Solar Garden near Longmont, there’s little to see.
Aquavoltics? The idea of putting solar panels above water? Similarly thin. You have to travel to North Park to see the solar panels above the small water-treatment pond for Walden.
SB23-092, a bill passed on the final day of Colorado’s 2023 legislative session, [ed. Signed by Governor Polis May 18, 2023] orders study of both concepts. In the case of aquavoltaics, the bill headed toward the desk of Gov. Jared Polis authorizes the Colorado Water Conservation Board to study the feasibility of using solar panels over or floating on, irrigation canals or reservoirs. The bill also authorizes the state’s Department of Agriculture to award grants for new or ongoing agrivoltaics demonstration projects.
Still another section requires the Colorado Department of Agriculture, in consultation with related state agencies, to begin examining how farmers and ranchers can be integrated into carbon markets. The specific assignment is to “examine greenhouse gas sequestration opportunities in the agricultural sector, including the use of dry digesters, and the potential for creating and offering a certified greenhouse gas offset program and credit instruments.”
While Democrats and Republicans got angry with each other in some cases, in this case there was broad comity. The primary Democratic sponsors were from Denver and Boulder County, and the Republicans from the San Luis Valley and Delta. Votes were lopsided in favor.
The agrivoltaics idea was originally included in the 2022 session in a big suitcase of ideas sponsored by Sen. Chris Hansen, a Democrat from Denver. It fell just short of getting across the finish line.
This past summer, Sen. Cleve Simpson, a Republican from the San Luis Valley whose district now sprawls across southwestern Colorado, took keen interest—and for very good reason. A fourth-generation native of the San Luis Valley, his day job there is general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, whose farming members must cut back water use so that Colorado can comply with the Rio Grande Compact with New Mexico and Texas. It will be a tough challenge—and he’s trying to figure out how to leave his communities as economically whole as might be possible.
The aquavoltaics idea is new to this year’s bill, though.
Hansen, who grew up along the edge of the declining Ogallala Aquifer in Kansas, said his study of water conservation efforts around the world found that aquavoltaics was one of the most advantageous ways to reduce evaporation from canals and reservoirs. Doing so with solar panels, he said in an April interview, produces a “huge number of compounded value streams.”
Covering the water can reduce evaporation by 5% to 10%, he explained, while the cooler water can cause solar panels to produce electricity more efficiently, with a gain of 5% to 10%. Electricity can in turn be used to defray pumping costs.
Solar panels in cooler climates can actually produce electricity more efficiently, which is why solar developers have looked eagerly at potential of Colorado’s San Luis Valley. At more than 7,000 feet in elevation, the valley is high enough to be far cooler than the Arizona deserts but with almost as much sunshine.
Colorado already has limited deployment of aquavoltaics. Walden in 2018 became the state’s first location to deploy solar panels above a small pond used in conjunction water treatment. The 208 panels provide roughly half the electricity needed to operate the plant. The town of 600 people, which is located at an elevation of 8,100 feet in North Park, paid for half the $400,000 cost, with a state grant covering the other.
Other water and sewage treatment plants, including Fort Collins, Boulder and Steamboat Springs, also employ renewable generation, but not necessarily on top of water, as is done with aquavoltaics.
Hansen said he believes Colorado has significant potential for deploying floating solar panels on reservoirs or panels installed above irrigation canals. “There is significant opportunity in just the Denver Water reservoirs,” he said. “Plus you add some of the canals in the state, and there are hundreds of megawatts of opportunity here.”
Bighorn, Colorado’s largest solar project, has a 300-megawatt generating capacity on land in Pueblo adjacent to the Rocky Mountain Steel plant Comanche’s two remaining units have a combined capacity of 1,250 megawatts, although both are scheduled to be retired by 2031.
Why now and not a decade ago for aquavoltaics? Because, says Hansen, most of the best sites for solar were still available. Because aquavoltaics has an incremental cost, land-based solar was the low-hanging fruit.
Now, as land sites are taken, the economics look better, says Hansen, who has a degree in economics. Plus, with solar prices dropping 10% annually, the economics look even better. The Inflation Reduction Act passed by Congress in August 2022 delivers even more incentives. “I think there will be more and more aquavoltaic projects that will pencil out,” he said.
Arizona water providers have resisted aquavoltaics but are now taking a second look. The Gila River Indian Community announced last year that it is building a canal-covering pilot project south of Phoenix with aid of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “This project will provide an example of new technology that can help the Southwest address the worst drought in over 1,200 years,” said Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the tribe.
When completed, the canal-covered solar project will be the first in the United States. But both the Gila and a $20 million pilot project launched this year by California’s Turklock Irrigation District are preceded by examples in India.
Officials with the Central Arizona Project, the largest consumer of electricity in Arizona, responsible for delivering Colorado River water through 336 miles of canals to Phoenix and Tucson, will be following closely the new projects in Arizona and California, according to a report in the Arizona Republic.
In its final legislative committee hearing in late April, the bill got robust support. Both the Colorado Farm Bureau and the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union voiced support.
So did a Nature Conservancy representative. “If we want to solve the climate crisis while at the same time not exacerbating biodiversity and farmland loss, we have to think creatively,” testified Duncan Gilchrist.
“This bill has nothing but winners,” said Jan Rose, representing the Colorado Coalition for a Livable Climate.
The most probing questions were directed to Byron Kominek, the owner and manager of Jack’s Solar Garden. There for the last several summers, vegetable row crops have been grown in conjunction with dozens of solar arrays assembled on a portion of the 24-acre farm. He readily receives reporters and all others, casting the seeds of this idea across Colorado and beyond.
The questions were directed by State Sen. Rod Pelton, whose one district covers close to a quarter of all of Colorado’s landscape, the thinly populated southeast quadrant. A farmer and rancher from the Cheyenne Wells area, Pelton wondered how high off the ground the panels were and what kind of racking system was high enough to address the issue of cattle rubbing against them?
The question, though, jibes with what Mike Kruger, chief executive of the Colorado Solar and Storage Association, sees for agrivoltaics. “I don’t think it will ever be ‘amber waves of grain’ under panels,” he said in April. “It will more likely be cattle and sheep grazing.”
Hansen, in his wrap-up comments before the committee in April, talked about different places needing different approaches depending upon climate zones, topography, growing conditions and other factors. That, he said, was the intent of the studies: to figure out how to maximize potential, to get it right.
Environmental advocates said the Democrat-controlled General Assembly created some new policies that should help chip away at air pollution, but the legislators missed out when making changes that could have a sweeping, long-term impact. The successes included a push toward expanded use of electric-powered cars and trucks, lawn equipment and home appliances that should eliminate some greenhouse gas emissions as the state weans itself from a reliance on fossil fuels. But the failures, environmentalists said, hurt the state’s overall goal to get into compliance with the federal Clean Air Act by reducing ozone pollution. The Front Range is listed by the Environmental Protection Agency as being in “severe non-attainment” for failing for years to meet federal clean air standards. On that front, HB23-1294, a bill that would have closed loopholes for new oil and gas permits, was gutted in order to win over Gov. Jared Polis’ support. And a massive land-use bill, which would have benefitted the environment by building more dense housing projects and encouraging people to drive less, failed…
The land-use bill, which would have reshaped how the state plans housing development, was mostly discussed as an answer to Colorado’s affordable housing issues. But SB23-213 was backed by environmentalists, who believed it would reduce sprawl and eliminate people’s reliance on cars by building more dense housing around places where people live, work and play. Denser development also means buildings use less energy and water, said Matt Frommer, senior transportation associate at Southwest Energy Efficiency Project. Frommer said he was so disappointed in the bill’s failure that he had to step away from talking about it for a few days after the session ended…
Kirsten Schatz, a clean air advocate for the Colorado Public Interest Research Group, was pleased that the legislature approved tax credits of up to 30% for Coloradans who buy electric-powered lawn and garden equipment…
SB23-016: Greenhouse gas emissions reduction measures
This lengthy bill created multiple measures aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and changes the goals for how fast the state must meet certain benchmarks between 2035 and 2045. The bill created a 30% tax credit for electric lawn and garden equipment and added regulations to how the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission regulates greenhouse emissions from fracking. Polis signed the bill on Thursday.
This bill requires the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to conduct a rulemaking to define, evaluate, and address the cumulative impacts of oil and gas drilling by April 2024. It also updates the complaint process by requiring the commission to respond to public complaints within 30 days, requiring the commission to consider credible evidence of pollution violations.
The bill eliminates a statute of limitations loophole as well as what’s known as the “start-up, shutdown and malfunction” loophole. It also establishes an interim legislative committee to craft more comprehensive legislation tackling these air pollution problems.
The bill is awaiting the governor’s signature and proponents believe he will do so.
The bill sets tougher emissions standards for new gas furnaces and water heaters sold in Colorado, phases out the sale of fluorescent light bulbs that contain mercury and sets new energy- and water-saving standards for appliances. The bill is on the governor’s desk but has not been signed.
HB23-1233: Electric vehicle charging and parking requirements
This bill accelerates the implementation of new electric vehicle charging requirements for new buildings, increasing the availability of charging stations at apartment buildings and condominiums. It also created a standard definition of disproportionately impacted communities to guide the state in establishing environmental programs in the areas that need them the most. The bill has not been signed.
The bill’s goal was to lower utility bills for Coloradans but environmentalists liked it because it pushes the state further away from a reliance on natural gas. It prohibits utility companies from charging their customers to subsidize natural gas service for new construction projects and requires the Public Utilities Commission to stop charging customers who choose to stop using natural gas. Polis signed the bill on Thursday.
Air quality panel unanimously approves California-style standards after yearlong delay
Colorado air quality regulators on Friday approved a pair of rules aimed at reducing pollution from truck engines and speeding up adoption of medium- and heavy-duty electric vehicles — albeit a year or two later than many environmentalists hoped.
In a unanimous vote after a three-day hearing, members of the Air Quality Control Commission adopted the Advanced Clean Trucks and Low-Nitrogen Oxides rules largely as proposed by state staff, with only minor tweaks to certain data-collection provisions in the proposal requested by environmental groups.
The move makes Colorado the eighth state to follow California’s lead in adopting the Advanced Clean Trucks rule, which requires manufacturers of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles to sell an increasing percentage of zero-emission models in the coming years. The rule’s mandate for clean trucks, buses and vans is similar to the approach Colorado and many other states have already taken towards passenger cars with their Zero Emission Vehicles rules.
While the transition to fully electric truck fleets could take decades, the Low-NOx rules, also pioneered by California, establish new standards for gas- and diesel-powered truck engines, lowering emissions of a hazardous air pollutant that contributes to ground-level ozone formation.
The rules, AQCC commissioners said Friday, will be key tools for the state in its efforts to reduce both ozone pollution and emissions of climate-warming greenhouse gases.
“We know that transportation sources are huge for both of these,” said commissioner Patrick Cummins, a senior policy advisor at Colorado State University’s Center for the New Energy Economy. “Transitioning to a clean transportation system, we’re really at the very beginning of that. It’s going to take time, and we need to get going.”
There are about 480,000 trucks, vans and buses registered in Colorado, according to state data, and together they emitted more than 5.3 million tons of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gases in 2019. That’s far less than the 17 million tons emitted by the state’s millions of light-duty vehicles, but cuts will need to be made in all areas of the transportation sector if Colorado hopes to achieve its statutory goals of a 50% reduction in statewide emissions by 2030, and a 90% cut by 2050.
In addition to broad climate effects, environmental-justice advocates and experts say the trucking sector has a disproportionate impact on low-income communities and people of color who live near the highways, depots and industrial facilities where heavy-emitting trucks largely operate.
Will Toor, director of the Colorado Energy Office and the state’s top climate official, highlighted new grant programs to incentivize the purchase of clean trucks and buses and other policies that will help manufacturers and fleet operators meet the targets set by the ACT rule.
“Colorado has established a strong foundation for a successful transition,” Toor said. “We’re very much taking a whole-of-government approach, with interagency coordination and planning to support ZEV adoption, multiple pieces of legislation that have created dedicated revenue streams both for charging infrastructure and vehicle purchase incentives, and … significant utility engagement and investment to support transportation electrification.”
‘Shocked, in a good way’
Environmental groups had urged Colorado policymakers to move forward with the ACT rule as early as 2021, and were dismayed by state officials’ decision last year to push back the rulemaking to 2023. Officials said at the time that the delay would allow for a more “robust stakeholder process.”
In the end, however, there was little controversy over the rule’s adoption this week. The Colorado Motor Carriers Association, a group representing the state’s trucking industry, asked commissioners to consider an alternative plan that would have included longer phase-in periods and more exemptions, and joined representatives of Weld County in requesting that cleaner-burning natural gas vehicles count towards the rule’s requirements. Neither alternative proposal was adopted.
But vehicle manufacturers themselves offered no testimony in opposition to the rule, a fact that Garry Kaufman, a deputy director of the state’s Air Pollution Control Division, said showed that the market stands ready to comply with its targets.
“If we can’t meet them, why isn’t Dodge, and Ford, and some of these other companies that produce heavy vehicles — why aren’t they in here screaming bloody murder that there’s no way we can achieve this?” Kaufman said. “I think the answer is because they can.”
“The fact that not one vehicle manufacturer or engine maker showed up here to voice any concern or opposition to these standards — honestly, I’m shocked, in a good way,” Cummins agreed.
Colorado’s clean-energy industry hailed the new electric truck standards, which will go into effect in 2026, as a watershed moment in the transition to a zero-emission transportation system.
“Colorado’s adoption of ACT is a windfall for Coloradans who want to see the state meet its climate goals, avoid shouldering increasing costs from climate-related disasters, and live in an overall healthier environment,” Susan Nedell, an advocate with the industry group Environmental Entrepreneurs, said in a statement. “This rule gives businesses the tools they need to work with the state to drive its transition to clean transportation and widen the path for fruitful innovation and investment in the nascent clean transportation industry already in Colorado.”
A coalition of environmental and social-justice groups, including Conservation Colorado, the Colorado Sierra Club, GreenLatinos and the Rocky Mountain NAACP, applauded the adoption of the rules while noting the “work still to come.”
“This is by no means the end of our fight to make Colorado’s air safer to breathe and to reduce the toxic pollution accelerating the worst effects of climate change, but it is a step in the right direction,” the coalition said in a press release. “To meet the state’s emissions reduction targets, we need those in positions of power to hold polluters accountable to the rules that already exist; our economy and future generations of Coloradans depend on it.”
Here’s the release from the Colorado Farm & Food Alliance:
PAONIA, CO. (April 20, 2023) – Today the Colorado Farm & Food Alliance was named by the National Community Solar Partnership (NCSP) as a recipient of a Community Power Accelerator Phase 1 prize to study and advance community-owned farm-based renewable projects in the North Fork Valley.
The Community Power Accelerator Prize is a U.S. Department of Energy led initiative to spur development of community-owned solar and renewable projects. The North Fork award is for a collaboration that involves the CO Farm & Food Alliance and other organizations, community leaders and businesses. In March this group submitted a proposal to help plan a small solar project that will benefit area farms and farm-related businesses and to use that project as a springboard for additional renewable energy to benefit rural communities. Phase 1 prize recipients can compete for additional awards.
“Our goal is to promote rural climate leadership and to show that the clean energy transition can support agriculture, boost local enterprise, and work toward greater energy equity,” said Pete Kolbenschlag, director of the Colorado Farm & Food Alliance. “We are extremely excited to move our project forward, and we see it as a model for rural climate action that puts land health, people and local community first.”
The North Fork team first coalesced around a small agrivoltaic project being scoped near Hotchkiss, and saw this as an opportunity to consider how the area might advance more community-owned renewables that integrate with agriculture and serve local residents.
“We see agrivoltaics as part of our effort to pursue sustainability, adding renewable energy to our efforts to improve the health of our land and soil and to better feed our local community,” said Mark Waltermire, owner of Thistle Whistle Farm in Hotchkiss, Colorado. “This project will give a handful of farms like this one, and a few food-related businesses that use our produce, a way of accessessing cleaner power, while benefiting our farm by giving us more gentle growing conditions under the panels to grow some of our crops. Our whole farm community benefits. And, we can set the stage for similar projects in areas around the valley that can help other producers,” he added.
Agrivoltaics is an emerging field of solar development that is paired with agriculture. In the U.S. Southwest, as we head into a warmer and drier future, interest in agrivoltaics, as a means to adapt farming to a changing climate while co-locating clean energy production, is high. Some studies show that growing certain crops under solar panels can provide shade benefits, help regulate soil-moisture, and can also help to cool the panels, which increases their efficiency.
The projects being considered by the North Fork team will involve working agriculture, grid energy production, and scientific research conducted in partnership with the Colorado State University Western Colorado Research Center at Rogers Mesa, to gather more data on how renewable energy and agriculture can co-exist and can even benefit each other.
“Innovative solar projects involving agrivoltaics and community ownership models promise significant benefits for rural agricultural communities and there isn’t a better place than the Western Slope to demonstrate that potential and to provide a model that can be replicated,” said team-member Alex Jahp, who works at Paonia-based Solar Energy International. “Receiving the Community Power Accelerator Prize demonstrates that we aren’t alone in our thinking.”
The North Fork Valley is named after a major stem of the Gunnison River, which is the second largest tributary to the imperiled Colorado River system. The region is at the epicenter of the global climate emergency, as a critical headwaters area and due to its heating at a more rapid rate than many places in the nation. The North Fork Valley is home to both the state’s largest operating coal-mine and its highest concentration of organic farms. Many in the region still see both agriculture and energy as key parts of a diverse economic future, but also see the critical need to act to address climate change.
“With Delta County warming double the national and global average, the impacts of local warming are upon us. Building community resilience–through community-driven projects like the ones being considered here, at the nexus of agriculture, water, and energy–is critical if we are to survive and thrive” said Natasha Léger, Executive Director, Citizens for a Healthy Community. She added that “farms play a critical role in transitioning away from oil and gas as energy sources for running farm operations, and will be leadership models for new approaches to land use.”
Citizens for a Healthy Community has recently completed a Climate Action Plan for Delta County, hoping to help local governments act more boldly to address the climate crisis. In its recent report, Gunnison Basin: Ground Zero in the Climate Emergency, the Colorado Farm & Food Alliance also made a pitch for the potency of rural-based climate action – including the expansion of farm-based renewables. The North Fork Valley agrivoltaic team is not waiting to act.
“The Community Power Accelerator Prize is a key award that will allow us to take the great work already being done by local community groups and turn it into tangible results,” said Kolbenschlag on behalf of the Colorado Farm & Food Alliance which accepted the prize for the community collaboration. “We have an exceptional team and an exceptional project. We think this can be a model for rural climate action and community resilience. We thank the Department of Energy and Solar Partnership for this opportunity to prove it.”
Colorado lawmakers on Thursday, April 13, will hear why Colorado should study the nexus of solar energy and water. Aquavoltaics, as this still-emerging practice is known, positions solar panels above canals and other water bodies.
The marriage, proponents say, can save water by reducing evaporative losses while boosting the amount of electricity solar panels generate.
The proposal is part of a bill, SB23-092, that will be heard by the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee.
That same bill also proposes to nudge development of agrivoltaics, where solar production occurs simultaneously with agricultural production. A similar agrivoltaics bill was introduced last year, but was not passed. Aquavoltaics is new to this year’s bill.
State Sen. Chris Hansen, D-Denver, a principle sponsor of both bills, said his study of water conservation efforts around the world found that aquavoltaics was one of the most advantageous ways to reduce evaporation from canals and reservoirs. Doing so with solar panels, he says, produces a “huge number of compounded value streams.”
Covering the water can reduce evaporation by 5% to 10%, he says, while the cooler water can cause solar panels to produce electricity more efficiently, with a gain of 5% to 10%. Electricity can in turn be used to defray costs of pumping water.
Solar panels in cooler climates produce electricity more efficiently, which is why solar developers have looked eagerly at the potential of Colorado’s San Luis Valley. At more than 7,000 feet in elevation, the valley is high enough to be far cooler than the Arizona deserts but with almost as much sunshine.
Colorado already has limited deployment of aquavoltaics. Walden in 2018 became the state’s first community to deploy solar panels above a small pond used in conjunction with water treatment. The 208 panels provide roughly half the electricity needed to operate the plant. The town of 600 people, which is located at an elevation of 8,100 feet in North Park, paid for half of the $400,000 cost, with a state grant covering the rest.
Other water and sewage treatment plants, including Fort Collins, Boulder and Steamboat Springs, also employ renewable generation, but not necessarily on top of water, as is done with aquavoltaics.
As introduced, the bill would authorize the Colorado Water Conservation Board to “finance a project to study the feasibility of using aquavoltaics.”
Hansen said he believes Colorado has significant potential for deploying floating solar panels on reservoirs or panels above irrigation canals. “There is significant opportunity in just the Denver Water reservoirs,” he said. “Plus you add some of the canals in the state, and there are hundreds of megawatts of opportunity here,” he said.
Other Western states are also eying the technology.
Arizona’s Gila River Indian Community announced last year that it is building a canal-covering pilot project south of Phoenix with the aid of the U.S. Amy Corp of Engineers. “This project will provide an example of new technology that can help the Southwest address the worst drought in over 1,200 years,” said Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the tribe.
When completed, the canal-covering solar project will be the first in the United States.
But both the Gila and a $20 million pilot project launched this year by California’s Turlock Irrigation District are preceded by examples in India.
Officials with the Central Arizona Project (CAP), a major user of Colorado River water and the largest consumer of electricity in Arizona, will be closely following the pilot projects in Arizona and California, according to a report in the Arizona Republic. In the past, both CAP and the Salt River Project, two of the largest water providers in Arizona, have cited engineering challenges of aquavoltaics.
The new Colorado bill also would authorize the Colorado Agricultural Drought and Climate Resilience Office to award grants for new or ongoing demonstration or research projects that demonstrate or study the use of agrivoltaics. This is to be overseen by a stakeholder group.
Mike Kruger, chief executive of the Colorado Solar and Storage Association, says his members want to see the most expansive definition of eligible projects possible. “I don’t think it will ever be ‘amber waves of grain’ under panels. It will more likely be cattle and sheep grazing,” he says.
That is indeed what will be happening near Delta. There, a solar project was proposed near an electrical substation with the intent of serving the Delta-Montrose Electric Association. Neighbors objected, and the county commissioners rejected it in a 2-to-1 vote. The project developer returned with a revised project, one that calls for sheep grazing to occur amid the solar panels. This revised proposal passed in a 3-to-0 vote.
Hansen says this is exactly the model he expects to see play out in the contest between devoting land for agriculture and for renewable power generation.
“What is clear is that county commissions do not want the fight between solar and agriculture if they can help it,” says Hansen. He cites the Delta County case as a prime example.
“If you combine it with grazing, we are going to say yes, and that’s exactly what the Delta County commissioners did. That is why I see this as one of the ways to address the fight between solar and agriculture.”
Allen Best is a frequent contributor to Fresh Water News. He also publishes Big Pivots, an e-journal that chronicles the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond.
Glenwood Springs-based cooperative says it can leap from 50% emission-free energy to 92% by next year—despite owning a coal plant. Exactly how do this work? Is it a model for others?
Let’s start with the obvious. The sun doesn’t always shine and, except for springtime in Colorado, the wind doesn’t always blow.
So how can Holy Cross Energy, which serves the Vail, Aspen, and Rifle areas, achieve 92% emission-free energy in 2024? Last year it was 50%.
And if Holy Cross can do it, what is possible for utilities serving Crested Butte and Steamboat Springs, Holyoke and Crestone, Sterling and Pueblo?
By the way, Holy Cross still owns 8% of Colorado’s newest coal plant, Comanche 3.
Directors of Holy Cross several years ago adopted what seemed like the audacious goal of achieving 100% emissions-free power by 2030. Municipal utilities serving Aspen and Glenwood springs already have 100% renewables, but do not own their own generation.
I expected small steps. Wind and solar have become far less expensive than coal or gas. But what windless, sunless days?
Resource adequacy has become a major question in this energy transition. Coal plants, if sometimes down, are far more reliable than wind and sunshine. Now we’re hurriedly closing those high-priced and polluting plants. Natural gas can respond quickly to demand. However, those plants are costly and pollute, too.
Do we need more natural gas plants?
Colorado’s two largest electrical providers, Xcel Energy and Tri-State Generation and Transmission, both say they can reduce carbon emissions 80% carbon by 2030 as compared to 2005 levels. But both have refrained from embracing higher, short-term goals.
Tri-State, which delivers power to 17 of the state’s 22 electrical cooperatives, warns of ambitions outpacing realities. Duane Highley, the chief executive, likens resource adequacy to a “big bad wolf.” The Western Energy Coordinating Council in December warned that Western states risked having insufficient resources by 2025 to meet electric demand on the grid they share.
Storage will be crucial. Lithium-ion batteries, if increasingly more affordable, can store electricity for just a few hours. We need technologies that can store energy for days if not weeks. Xcel Energy will be testing one such long-term technology, called iron-air, at Pueblo. Colorado wants to be part of the elusive answer to hydrogen, perhaps using existing electricity infrastructure at Brush or Craig. And transmission and other new infrastructure, such that could allow Colorado to exploit the winds of Kansas or the sunshine of Arizona, can help—but remains unbuilt.
Holy Cross actually has the second lowest electrical rates among Colorado’s 22 electrical cooperatives. And its rates are 5% less than those of Xcel. This is not Gucci electricity, a Tesla Model X Plaid. The Aspen Skiing Co. and Vail Resorts make snow with some of Colorado’s lowest electricity rates.
Bryan Hannegan, the chief executive and head wizard at Holy Cross, laid out his utility’s broad strategy in recent presentations to both state legislators and the Avon Town Council. Holy Cross, he explained, will add new wind from eastern Colorado and several new solar-plus-storage projects within its service territory.
The cooperative also intends to integrate new storage in homes and businesses. It incentivizes home batteries that can be tapped as needed to meet demand from neighborhoods. Holy Cross also wants to integrate vehicle batteries, such as from electric school buses, in its efforts to match demands with supplies. Time-of-use rates will be crucial. This market mechanism aims to shift demands to when renewable electricity is most readily available — and cheapest.
Importantly, Holy Cross expects to achieve this high mark without need of new natural gas capacity. Many environmentalists loathe the idea of new and rarely used – but always expensive – natural gas plants. Most utilities see even more gas generation as necessary.
Speaking to the Avon council, Hannegan expressed confidence Holy Cross can meet growing demand from electric vehicles, heat pumps, and other uses. He called it “smart electrification.”
Holy Cross’s journey from 92% to 100%, though, will “be a bit of a doozie,” he said. He likened it to the climb from Camp 4 on Everest to the peak.
“We have to think about how we balance (supply and demand) at every location on our grid at every moment of every day,” he said. That “fine-grained balancing” will be “quite an engineering challenge. There is reason we have given ourselves six years” to figure this out.
What about that coal plant that Holy Cross still owns? Does that muck up the math? Can Holy Cross truly claim 92% ? And what prevents other utilities from following in its footsteps? These are questions I will ask Holy Cross and others in coming weeks.
Wyoming’s largest utility will either retire or convert #coal-fired units to natural (#methane) gas, sparing only two coal-burning units in the state beyond 2030
Wyoming coal will play a shrinking role in PacifiCorp’s energy supply portfolio as the utility adds more wind and solar power and either retires or converts its coal-fired power units in the state to natural gas.
Only two of the utility’s 11 coal-fired power units currently operating in the state will continue burning coal beyond 2030 — Wyodak near Gillette and Unit 4 at the Dave Johnston plant in Glenrock — according to the utility’s biennial Integrated Resource Plan filed on Friday. Several coal units will be spared from earlier decommissioning plans and instead be converted to natural gas — Jim Bridger units 3 and 4 in 2030 and Naughton units 1 and 2 in 2026.
Dave Johnston Unit 3 will be retired in 2027, and units 1 and 2 will be retired in 2028 rather than 2027.
All told, PacifiCorp will cut its coal-fired power generation capacity across its six-state operating region by 1,153 megawatts by 2026 and 3,000 megawatts by 2032, and replace it with wind and solar energy, battery storage, nuclear power, wholesale power purchases and energy efficiencies, according to the company, which operates as Rocky Mountain Power in Wyoming.
“Our Integrated Resource Plan is designed to determine the lowest-cost options for customers, adjusting for risks, future customer needs, system reliability, market projections and changing technology,” said Rick Link, who serves as PacifiCorp senior vice president of resource planning, procurement and optimization.
No carbon capture for coal
One option that doesn’t fit those parameters is retrofitting decades-old coal-fired power units with carbon capture, use and sequestration technologies. PacifiCorp also filed a mandatory report to the Wyoming Public Service Commission Friday to update officials on its call for bidders to possibly install CCUS facilities at its coal units in the state — an action mandated by Wyoming law.
“Through 2042, the [analysis] for all CCUS variants result in higher costs than the preferred portfolio,” PacifiCorp said in its 48-page report. The summary suggests it will cost Wyoming ratepayers “$514 million [to retrofit] Dave Johnston Unit 2, $857 million for Dave Johnston Unit 4, and $1.3 billion for Jim Bridger units 3 and 4.”
Of the 54 companies that PacifiCorp sought bids from, only 21 qualified and only three participated in mandatory site visits, PacifiCorp said. The bidding and analysis also confirmed that adding CCUS to an existing coal-fired power unit drastically reduces a facility’s generation capacity, which would require replacing that lost capacity.
PacifiCorp is still working with vendors to explore the potential for taking on CCUS retrofits, however.
“The company has determined that Dave Johnston Unit 4 and Jim Bridger units 3 and 4 remain potentially suitable candidates for CCUS and are being further analyzed under the company’s RFP process approved by the [Wyoming Public Service Commission] in the initial application,” PacifiCorp said in its report.
CCUS retrofits remain a significant cost and power-delivery-reliability risk for Wyoming ratepayers, Powder River Basin Resource Council Chairman David Romtvedt said.
“Ratepayers should not be asked to cover the costs of uneconomical energy projects,” Romtvedt said in a prepared statement. “Instead, we support the addition of cost effective and environmentally responsible renewable energy sources to the company’s overall energy profile.”
Renewable shift and potential nuclear
PacifiCorp’s updated Integrated Resource Plan, which looks ahead 20 years, includes quadrupling its wind and solar resources to 20,000 megawatts by 2032, backed with an additional 7,400 megawatts of energy storage.
The utility still envisions taking ownership of TerraPower’s Natrium nuclear energy facility at Kemmerer — which is expected to begin operating in 2030 — and possibly taking on two more small modular reactors co-located at coal plants in Utah.
The expansion of renewable and low-carbon electric generation facilities is accompanied by approximately 2,500 miles of new transmission lines, many of which will connect Wyoming renewable sources to PacifiCorp service territories in the West. All told, the power shift and transmission buildout should result “in a system-wide 70% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2030, an 87% reduction by 2035 and a 100% reduction by 2050,” PacifiCorp reported.
Paramount to those greenhouse gas emission savings is curbing the utility’s reliance on coal.
“Driven in part by ongoing cost pressures on existing coal-fired facilities and dropping costs for new resource alternatives, of the 22 coal units currently serving PacifiCorp customers, the preferred portfolio includes retirement or gas conversion of 13 units by 2030 and 20 units by year-end 2032,” PacifiCorp said.
Though it remains to be seen how PacifiCorp’s shift away from coal and toward a lower-carbon energy portfolio will affect jobs and revenue in the state, the company’s plan acknowledges a larger energy industry shift and opportunities for the state, according to Romtvedt.
“Greater use of renewable energy will help us to ease the dislocation caused by the transition away from extractive resources while developing a more sustainable energy future that can support stable economies in our communities,” he said.
Click the link to read the article on the Carbon Brief website (Aruna Chandra, Daisy Dunne, Orla Dwyer, Simon Evans, Robert McSweeney, Ayesha Tandon, and Giuliana Viglione)
The final part of the world’s most comprehensive assessment of climate change – which details the “unequivocal” role of humans, its impacts on “every region” of the world and what must be done to solve it – has now been published in full by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The synthesis report is the last in the IPCC’s sixth assessment cycle, which has involved 700 scientists in 91 countries. Overall, the full cycle of reports has taken eight years to complete.
The report sets out in the clearest and most evidenced detail yet how humans are responsible for the 1.1C of temperature rise seen since the start of the industrial era.
It also shows how the impacts of this level of warming are already deadly and disproportionately heaped upon the world’s most vulnerable people.
The report notes that policies in place by the end of 2021 – the cut-off date for evidence cited in the assessment – would likely see temperatures exceed 1.5C this century and reach around 3.2C by 2100.
In many parts of the world, humans and ecosystems will be unable to adapt to this amount of warming, it says. And the losses and damages will “escalate with every increment” of global temperature rise.
But it also lays out how governments can still take action to avoid the worst of climate change, with the rest of this decade being crucial for deciding impacts for the rest of the century. The report says:
“There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all…The choices and actions implemented in this decade will have impacts now and for thousands of years.”
The report shows that many options for tackling climate change – from wind and solar power to tackling food waste and greening cities – are already cost effective, enjoy public support and would come with co-benefits for human health and nature.
At a press briefing, leading climate scientist and IPCC author Prof Friederike Otto said the report highlights “not only the urgency of the problem and the gravity of it, but also lots of reasons for hope – because we still have the time to act and we have everything we need”.
Carbon Brief’s team of journalists has delved through each page of the IPCC’s AR6 full synthesis report to produce a digestible summary of the key findings and graphics.
The synthesis report is the final part of the IPCC’s sixth assessment cycle. It “integrates” the main findings of the three working group reports, which have been published over the last 18 months or so:
The synthesis report is much shorter than the full assessment reports. The combined length of the “summary for policymakers” (SPM) – a short, non-technical synopsis – and the underlying report clocks in at 122 pages. This is longer than the 42.5 pages that were planned (pdf), but a fraction of the assessment reports that can top 3,000 pages. As with the assessment reports, the synthesis report has been through several rounds of review by experts and governments.
The report’s SPM was signed off via a line-by-line approval session involving authors and government delegates last week in Switzerland.
However, unlike the assessment reports, the session also approved the underlying full report “section by section”. It was also the IPCC’s first approval session since the Covid-19 pandemic that was held in person.
The approval process was scheduled to be completed on Friday 17 March, but overran – despite multiple “night sessions” and “round-the-clock deliberations”. The SPM was finally approved on the morning of Sunday 19 March in a “sparsely attended room”, as many developing country delegates had already left the venue, Third World Network reported. “People who have to contribute have left the meeting,” said India’s representatives in the early hours before the closing plenary.
Once the SPM was approved, there was then a “huge moment of panic” around whether “it would at all be possible to do the approval of the long report”, Otto said:
“We all almost died of adrenaline poisoning during [Sunday], but then it was approved quite straightforwardly.”
(The Earth Negotiations Bulletin has published a summary of the discussions during the approval session. This is referenced frequently in this article.)
The synthesis report shares the IPCC’s “calibrated language” that the assessment reports use to communicate levels of certainty behind the statements it includes.
The findings are given “as statements of fact or associated with an assessed level of confidence”, based on scientific understanding. The language indicates the “underlying evidence and agreement”, the report explains:
“A level of confidence is expressed using five qualifiers: very low, low, medium, high and very high, and typeset in italics, for example, medium confidence.
“The following terms have been used to indicate the assessed likelihood of an outcome or result: virtually certain 99-100% probability; very likely 90-100%; likely 66-100%; more likely than not >50-100%; about as likely as not 33-66%; unlikely 0-33%; very unlikely 0—10%; and exceptionally unlikely 0-1%. Additional terms (extremely likely 95-100%; more likely than not >50-100%; and extremely unlikely 0-5%) are also used when appropriate.”
The WG1 report “assessed the climate response to five illustrative scenarios based on Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs) that cover the range of possible future development of anthropogenic drivers of climate change found in the literature”, the synthesis explains:
“The high and very high GHG emissions scenarios (SSP3-7.0 and SSP5-8.5) have CO2 emissions that roughly double from current levels by 2100 and 2050, respectively. The intermediate GHG emissions scenario (SSP2-4.5) has CO2 emissions remaining around current levels until the middle of the century. The very low and low GHG emissions scenarios (SSP1-1.9 and SSP1-2.6) have CO2 emissions declining to net-zero around 2050 and 2070, respectively, followed by varying levels of net-negative CO2 emissions.”
In contrast, the WG3 report assessed “a large number of global modelled emissions pathways…of which 1,202 pathways were categorised based on their projected global warming over the 21st century, with categories ranging from pathways that limit warming to 1.5C with more than 50% likelihood with no or limited overshoot (C1) to pathways that exceed 4C (C8)”.
The table below, taken from the synthesis report, shows how these pathways relate to the SSPs and their predecessors, the Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs).
The synthesis report is the final product of the IPCC’s sixth assessment cycle. Its delay from the planned publication in September last year for “management reasons” – and the lack of transparency surrounding these issues – resulted in “unusually blunt statements of discontent from governments” about the IPCC’s impact and credibility, the Earth Negotiations Bulletin reported at the time.
Nonetheless, governments agreed at a September meeting that the IPCC’s seventh assessment cycle (AR7) will begin in July this year and will have a length of between five and seven years. The end of AR6 and the start of AR7 will see the election of a new IPCC leadership team – including chair, vice-chairs and working group co-chairs. The first full assessment reports of AR7 would likely not be expected until 2027 or 2028.
The SPM says with high confidence that human activities have “unequivocally caused global warming”.
2. How is the Earth’s climate changing?
This statement – first made in the IPCC’s WG1 report – is the strongest wording to date about the role of human activities on observed warming from any IPCC assessment cycle.
Overall, the report says that global surface temperature in 2011-20 averaged at 1.09C above 1850-1900 levels – with a 1.59C rise seen over land and a 0.88C rise over the ocean. It adds, with high confidence, that “global surface temperature has increased faster since 1970 than in any other 50-year period over at least the last 2000 years”.
According to the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, delegates “disagreed on how much information to include” in the SPM sub-paragraph on global surface temperature increases. The bulletin outlines the lengthy discussion needed to finalise this section of the text – including decisions on whether to use the “more precise” 1.09C or the rounded 1.1C figure and warnings that the addition of extra sentences “overloaded the sub-paragraph with numbers and diluted the message”.
The SPM also discusses the observed changes and impacts of climate change to date. It makes the following statement with high confidence:
“Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred. Human-caused climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. This has led to widespread adverse impacts and related losses and damages to nature and people.”
It says that global average sea levels increased by 0.2 metres between 1901 and 2018. Sea level rise accelerated over this time, from a rate of 1.3mm per year over 1901-71 to 2.7mm per year over 2006-18, it adds.
The SPM for the AR6 synthesis report is longer than its AR5 counterpart (pdf) and contains more numbers in its section on observed changes in the climate system.
For example, the AR5 report does not quantify the rate of acceleration of sea level rise, instead saying that “the rate of sea level rise since the mid-19th century has been larger than the mean rate during the previous two millennia (high confidence)”.
Meanwhile, the SPM says human influence has likely increased the chance of “compound” extreme events since the 1950s, including increases in the frequency of concurrent heatwaves and droughts.
The SPM has very high confidence that “increases in extreme heat events have resulted in human mortality and morbidity” in all regions. It adds that extreme temperatures also cause mental health challenges, trauma and the loss of livelihoods and culture. The report also has high confidence that climate change is “contributing to humanitarian crises where climate hazards interact with high vulnerability”.
Elsewhere, the report has high confidence that animal and human diseases including zoonoses – infections that pass between animals and people – “are emerging in new areas” and very high confidence that “the occurrence of climate-related food-borne and water-borne diseases has increased”.
The SPM warns that climate and weather extremes are “increasingly driving displacement in Africa, Asia, North America (high confidence), and Central and South America (medium confidence), with small island states in the Caribbean and South Pacific being disproportionately affected relative to their small population size(high confidence)”.
The authors write that hot extremes have intensified in cities and that they have high confidence that the observed adverse impacts are “concentrated amongst economically and socially marginalised urban residents”.
The report elaborates, saying it has high confidence that “urban infrastructure including transportation, water, sanitation and energy systems have been compromised by extreme and slow-onset events, with resulting economic losses, disruptions of services and impacts to well-being”.
The table below shows observed changes in the climate and their attribution to human influence. Darker colours indicate a higher confidence in the changes and their human influence. Notably, the table lists “warming of the global climate system since pre-industrial times” as a “fact”.
The report has high confidence that climate change has hindered efforts to meet the Sustainable Development Goals by reducing food security, changing rainfall patterns, melting bodies of ice such as glaciers and driving more intense and frequent extreme weather events.
For example, the report says that “increasing weather and climate extreme events have exposed millions of people to acute food insecurity and reduced water security”. (For more on how climate change is affecting extreme weather, see Carbon Brief’s coverage of the IPCC’s WG1 report.)
The report also says that “substantial damages, and increasingly irreversible losses” have already been sustained. For example, it has very high confidence that approximately half of the species assessed globally have shifted polewards or to higher elevations. It has medium confidence that impacts on some ecosystems are “approaching irreversibility” – for example the impacts of hydrological changes resulting from glacial retreat.
The report also has high confidence that “economic impacts attributable to climate change are increasingly affecting peoples’ livelihoods and are causing economic and societal impacts across national boundaries”.
3. How are human-caused emissions driving global warming?
The report states as fact – that is, with no calibrated language – that “human activities, principally through emissions of greenhouse gases, have unequivocally caused global warming”.
In other words, the report states, “human-caused climate change is a consequence of more than a century of net GHG emissions from energy use, land-use and land use change, lifestyle and patterns of consumption, and production”.
Specifically, the report explains that humans have contributed to 1.07C of the observed warming between 1850-1900 and 2010-19, with a likely range of 0.8-1.3C. As the total observed warming over the same period is 1.06C, this means that humans have caused 100% of the long-term global warming to date.
This conclusion is in line with the synthesis report (pdf) of the IPCC’s fifth assessment report (AR5), published in 2014, which said:
“The best estimate of the human-induced contribution to warming is similar to the observed warming over [1951-2010].“
That the influence of human activity is marginally larger than the observed temperature rise reflects the mix of impacts that an industrialised society is having. The warming impact of the GHGs that human activity has produced is likely to be in the range of 1.0-2.0C. But then there is also the cooling influence of other “human drivers (principally aerosols)”, the report notes.
Aerosols include tiny particles – such as soot – that are produced from cars, factories and power stations. They tend to have an overall cooling effect on the Earth’s climate by scattering incoming sunlight and stimulating clouds to form. These human drivers could have contributed to a cooling of 0.0-0.8C, the IPCC says.
The net cooling effect of human-caused aerosols “peaked in the late 20th century”, the report notes with high confidence.
Natural influences on the climate had only a small influence on the long-term trend in global temperature, the reports says, with fluctuations in the sun and volcanic activity causing between -0.1C and 0.1C of temperature change and other natural variability causing between -0.2C and 0.2C.
The increase in concentrations of GHGs in the atmosphere since around 1750 “are unequivocally caused by GHG emissions from human activities over this period”, the IPCC says:
“In 2019, atmospheric CO2 concentrations (410 parts per million) were higher than at any time in at least 2m years (high confidence), and concentrations of methane (1866 parts per billion) and nitrous oxide (332 parts per billion) were higher than at any time in at least 800,000 years (very high confidence).”
The figure below shows “the causal chain from emissions to resulting warming of the climate system”. The bottom panel shows the increase in GHGs over 1850-2019, the middle panel shows the resulting rise in atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions, the top left panel shows the change in global surface temperature since 1850 and the top right panel separates the warming out into its different contributing factors.
The report says with high confidence that “land and ocean sinks have taken up a near-constant proportion (globally about 56% per year) of CO2 emissions from human activities over the past six decades”. However, looking to the future, it adds:
“In scenarios with increasing CO2 emissions, the land and ocean carbon sinks are projected to be less effective at slowing the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere (high confidence).
“While natural land and ocean carbon sinks are projected to take up, in absolute terms, a progressively larger amount of CO2 under higher compared to lower CO2 emissions scenarios, they become less effective, that is, the proportion of emissions taken up by land and ocean decreases with increasing cumulative net CO2 emissions (high confidence).”
In 2019, global net emissions of GHGs clocked in at 59bn tonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e), the report says. This is 12% higher than in 2010 and 54% higher than in 1990, with “the largest share and growth in gross GHG emissions occurring in CO2 from fossil fuels combustion and industrial processes followed by methane”.
The report says, with high confidence, that GHG emissions since 2010 have increased “across all major sectors”. It continues:
“In 2019, approximately 34% (20GtCO2e) of net global GHG emissions came from the energy sector, 24% (14GtCO2e) from industry, 22% (13GtCO2e) from AFOLU, 15% (8.7GtCO2e) from transport and 6% (3.3GtCO2e) from buildings.”
However, although average annual GHG emissions between 2010 and 2019 were “higher than in any previous decade”, the rate of growth during this period (1.3% per year) “was lower than that between 2000 and 2009” (2.1% per year), the report notes. This sentence – which also featured in the WG3 report – was added during the approval session at the request of China, the Earth Negotiations Bulletin reported.
Historical contributions to global GHGs “vary substantially across regions” and “continue to differ widely”, the authors note.
In 2019, around 35% of the global population were in countries emitting more than nine tonnes of CO2e per capita – excluding CO2 emissions from land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF), the report says.
In contrast, 41% were in countries emitting less than three tonnes of CO2e. It adds that least developed countries (LDCs) and small island developing states (SIDS), in particular, have much lower per-capita emissions (1.7 and 4.6 tonnes of CO2e, respectively) than the global average (6.9 tonnes), excluding CO2 from LULUCF.
Perhaps most starkly, the authors note with high confidence:
“The 10% of households with the highest per-capita emissions contribute 34-45% of global consumption-based household GHG emissions, while the bottom 50% contribute 13-15%.”
The regional variations in emissions are illustrated by the figure below, which shows historical contributions (top-left), per capita emissions in 2019 (top-right) and global emissions since 1990 broken down by emissions (bottom). (For more on historical responsibility for emissions, see Carbon Brief’s analysis from 2021.)
During the approval session, France – supported by around 15 other countries, including the US and Canada – requested that this figure was elevated into the SPM “to provide a clear and necessary narrative about the causes of warming”, the Earth Negotiations Bulletin reported. However, Saudi Arabia, India and China opposed the move and a subsequent huddle was “unable to reach consensus”.
4. How much hotter will the world get this century?
The world will continue to get hotter “in the near term (2021-40)”, the report says, “in nearly all considered scenarios and pathways” for greenhouse gas emissions.
Crucially, however, there is a choice over how hot it gets by the end of the century. As the synthesis report explains: “Future warming will be driven by future emissions.”
The amount of warming this century largely depends on the amount of greenhouse gases that humans release into the atmosphere in the future “with cumulative net CO2 dominating”.
The report looks at a range of plausible futures, known as the shared socioeconomic pathways (SSPs), spanning very low to very high emissions. (See: What is this report?)
If emissions are very low (SSP1-1.9), then warming is expected to temporarily “overshoot” 1.5C by “no more than 0.1C” before returning to 1.4C in 2100, the report says.
If emissions are very high (SSP5-8.5), warming could reach 4.4C in 2100. (See below for more on what it would take for the world to follow these different emissions pathways.)
Notably, there is less uncertainty in these projections than there was in AR5. This is because the IPCC has narrowed the range of “climate sensitivity”, using observations of recorded warming to date and improved understanding of clouds.
The alternative emissions futures are shown in the figure below, which illustrates the 1.1C of warming to date and potential increases to 2100 in the style of the famous “climate stripes”.
The figure also illustrates the warming that would take place during the lifetimes of three representative generations born in 1950, 1980 and 2020.
While limiting warming in line with global targets would require “deep and rapid, and, in most cases, immediate greenhouse gas emissions reductions in all sectors this decade”, these efforts would not be felt for some time. The SPM explains with high confidence:
“Continued greenhouse gas emissions will lead to increasing warming…Deep, rapid and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions would lead to a discernible slowdown in global warming within around two decades.”
This delay means that global temperatures are more likely than not to reach 1.5C during 2021-40, the report says, even if emissions are very low.
The report does not give specific “exceedance” years that breach 1.5C for each emissions pathway. (The 1.5C limit of the Paris Agreement relates to long-term averages, rather than warming in a single year.)
The SPM explains that for very low, low, intermediate and high emissions, “the midpoint of the first 20-year running average period during which [warming] reaches 1.5C lies in the first half of the 2030s”. If emissions are very high, it would be in “the late 2020s”.
Similarly, the report says warming will exceed 2C this century “unless deep reductions in CO2 and other GHG emissions occur in the coming decades”.
At the other end of the spectrum, it has “become less likely” that the world will match the very high emissions scenario (SSP5-8.5), where warming exceeds 4C this century.
The report says, with medium confidence, that emissions could only reach such high levels if there is “a reversal of current technology and/or mitigation policy trends”.
However, it says 4C of warming is possible with lower emissions, if carbon cycle feedbacks or climate sensitivity are larger than thought. It explains in a footnote to the SPM:
“Very high emissions scenarios have become less likely, but cannot be ruled out. Warming levels >4C may result from very high emissions scenarios, but can also occur from lower emission scenarios if climate sensitivity or carbon cycle feedbacks are higher than the best estimate.”
In addition to the path of greenhouse gas emissions, changing emissions of “short-lived climate forcers” (SLCFs) can also add to near- and long-term warming, the report says with high confidence. SLCFs include methane, aerosols and ozone precursors, it explains.
There have been concerns that efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions could also reduce output of cooling aerosols, “unmasking” additional warming. The report plays down this risk:
“Simultaneous stringent climate change mitigation and air pollution control policies limit this additional warming and lead to strong benefits for air quality (high confidence).”
5. What are the potential impacts at different warming levels?
With every extra bit of global warming, extremes facing the world will become larger, the report says.
For example, it says with high confidence that continued climate change will further intensify the global water cycle, driving changes to monsoons and to very wet and very dry weather.
As temperatures rise, natural land and ocean carbon sinks will be less able to absorb emissions – worsening warming further, the report says with high confidence.
Other changes to expect include further reductions in “almost all” the world’s ice systems, from glaciers to sea ice (high confidence), further global sea level rise (virtually certain), and increasing acidity and decreasing oxygen availability in the oceans (virtually certain).
Every world region will experience more climate impacts with every bit of further warming, the report says.
Compound heatwave and drought extremes are expected to become more frequent in many regions, the report says with high confidence.
Extreme sea level events that currently occur once in every 100 years are expected to take place at least annually in more than half all measurable locations by 2100, under any future emissions scenario, it says with high confidence. (Extreme sea level events include storm surges and flooding.)
Other projected changes include the intensification of tropical storms (medium confidence) and increases in fire weather (high confidence), according to the report.
It says that the natural variability of the Earth’s climate will continue to act alongside climate change, sometimes worsening and sometimes masking its effects.
The graphic below, from the report’s SPM, illustrates some of the regional impacts of climate change at 1.5C, 2C, 3C and 4C of global warming. (Current policies from governments have the world on track for around 2.7C of warming.)
In the near term, every world region is expected to face further increases in climate hazards – with rising risk for humans and ecosystems (very high confidence), the report says.
Risks expected to increase in the near-term include heat-related deaths (high confidence), food-, water- and vector-borne diseases (high confidence), poor mental health (very high confidence), flooding in coastal and low-lying cities (high confidence) and a decrease in food production in some regions (high confidence).
At 1.5C, risks will increase for “health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security and economic growth”, the report says. At this level of global warming, many low-elevation and small glaciers around the world would lose most of their mass or disappear, the report says with high confidence. Coral reefs are expected to decline by a further 70–90%, it adds with high confidence.
At 2C, risks associated with extreme weather events will transition to “very high”, the report says with medium confidence. At this level of warming, changes in food availability and diet quality could increase nutrition-related diseases and undernourishment for up to “hundreds of millions of people”, particularly among low-income households in sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia and central America, the report says with high confidence.
At 3C, “risks in many sectors and regions reach high or very high levels, implying widespread systemic impacts”, the report says. The number of endemic species in biodiversity hotspots at a very high risk of extinction is expected to be 10 times higher than at 1.5C, it says with medium confidence.
At 4C and above, around half of tropical marine species could face local extinction, the report says with medium confidence. Around four billion people could face water scarcity, it says with medium confidence. It adds that the global area burned by wildfires could increase by 50-70% (medium confidence).
The graphic below, from the report’s SPM, illustrates the risks facing Earth’s species (a) and human health risk from extreme heat-humidity (b) under different levels of global warming.
It shows that, at temperatures above 2C, some regions will see all of their wildlife exposed to dangerous temperatures, assuming the species do not relocate to somewhere else.
It also shows that, above 2C, some people will live in regions where temperature and humidity conditions are deadly every day of the year.
The risks identified in this report are larger at lower levels at warming, when compared to the IPCC’s last assessment in 2014.
This is because of new evidence from climate extremes already recorded, improved scientific understanding, new knowledge on how some humans and species are more vulnerable than others and a better grasp of the limits to adaptation, the report says with high confidence.
Because of “unavoidable” sea level rise, risks for coastal ecosystems, people and infrastructure will continue to increase beyond 2100, it adds with high confidence.
As climate change worsens, risks “will become increasingly complex and more difficult to manage”, the report says.
Climate change is likely to compound other societal issues, it says. For example, food shortages driven by warming are projected to interact with other factors, such as conflicts, pandemics and competition over land, the report says with high confidence.
Most pathways for how the world can meet its ambitious 1.5C temperature involve a period of “overshoot” where temperatures exceed this level of warming temporarily before dropping back down.
During this period of overshoot, the world would see “adverse impacts” that may worsen climate change, such as increased wildfires, mass mortality of ecosystems and permafrost thawing, the report says with medium confidence.
The report adds that solar geoengineering – methods for reflecting away sunlight to reduce temperature rise – has the “potential to offset warming within one or two decades and ameliorate some climate hazards”, but could also “introduce a widespread range of new risks to people and ecosystems” and “would not restore climate to a previous state”.
6. What are the risks of abrupt and irreversible change?
The report warns that continued emissions of GHGs will “further affect all major climate system components and many changes will be irreversible on centennial to millennial timescales”.
While “many changes in the climate system” will become larger “in direct relation to increasing global warming”, the likelihood of “abrupt and/or irreversible outcomes increases with higher global warming levels”, the report says with high confidence. For example, it says:
“As warming levels increase, so do the risks of species extinction or irreversible loss of biodiversity in ecosystems such as forests (medium confidence), coral reefs (very high confidence) and in Arctic regions (high confidence).”
The impacts of warming on some ecosystems are already “approaching irreversibility”, the report says, “such as the impacts of hydrological changes resulting from the retreat of glaciers, or the changes in some mountain (medium confidence) and Arctic ecosystems driven by permafrost thaw (high confidence)”.
Abrupt and irreversible changes can include those “triggered when tipping points are reached”, the report says:
The report has high confidence that “the probability of low-likelihood outcomes associated with potentially very large impacts increases with higher global warming levels”. The impact of these abrupt changes would be dramatic.
“[AMOC] is very likely to weaken over the 21st century for all considered scenarios (high confidence), however an abrupt collapse is not expected before 2100 (medium confidence). If such a low probability event were to occur, it would very likely cause abrupt shifts in regional weather patterns and water cycle, such as a southward shift in the tropical rain belt, and large impacts on ecosystems and human activities.”
For comparison, the AR5 synthesis report also concluded that a weakening of AMOC was very likely, but said that an abrupt transition or collapse in the 21st century was very unlikely.
The report notes that “low-likelihood, high-impact outcomes could occur at regional scales even for global warming within the very likely assessed range for a given GHG emissions scenario”.
The report has a particularly stark assessment on the projected impacts of global warming on the ocean. The authors warn, with high confidence, that sea level rise is “unavoidable for centuries to millennia due to continuing deep ocean warming and ice sheet melt”. And levels will “remain elevated for thousands of years”.
While the authors are virtually certain that sea level rise will continue through this century, “the magnitude, the rate, the timing of threshold exceedances, and the long-term commitment of sea level rise depend on emissions, with higher emissions leading to greater and faster rates of sea level rise”.
Over the next 2,000 years, global average sea level “will rise by about 2-3 metres if warming is limited to 1.5C and 2-6 m if limited to 2C”, the report says, with low confidence.
Warming beyond 2C could put the Earth’s massive ice sheets at risk, the report says:
“At sustained warming levels between 2C and 3C, the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets will be lost almost completely and irreversibly over multiple millennia (limited evidence).”
These projections of sea level rise across thousands of years are “consistent with reconstructed levels during past warm climate periods”, the report notes.
For example, it says with medium confidence, “global mean sea level was very likely 5-25 metres higher than today roughly 3m years ago, when global temperatures were 2.5-4C higher than 1850-1900”.
In addition to rising sea levels, the authors say it is virtually certain that ocean acidification – where seawater becomes less alkaline – will continue throughout this century. And they have high confidence that deoxygenation – the decline in oxygen levels in the ocean – will too.
The report also cautions that the amount of warming – and the impact it would have – could be more severe than projected.
For example, it says, “warming substantially above the assessed very likely range for a given scenario cannot be ruled out, and there is high confidence this would lead to regional changes greater than assessed in many aspects of the climate system”.
On sea levels, the authors add:
“Global mean sea level rise above the likely range – approaching two metres by 2100 and in excess of 15 metres by 2300 under a very high GHG emissions scenario (SSP5-8.5) (low confidence) – cannot be ruled out due to deep uncertainty in ice-sheet processes and would have severe impacts on populations in low elevation coastal zones.”
It acknowledges that there has been an “improved understanding” of what constitutes economic and non-economic losses and damages. In turn, this has served to inform climate policy as well as highlight governance, financial and institutional gaps in how it is being addressed.
After this single mention, the report discusses “losses and damages” more broadly. These, it defines in a footnote in the SPM, are the “adverse observed impacts and/or projected risks and can be economic and/or non-economic”.
Including loss and damage in the IPCC’s assessments has been a fraught process. The use of two separate terms separates the scientific “losses and damages” from the political debate of “loss and damage” under the UNFCCC, even as impacted countries hope to connect the two.
In the plenary discussions, Grenada – supported by Senegal, Antigua and Barbuda, Timor Leste, Kenya and Tanzania – wanted vulnerable countries to be referenced and the differences between the two terms explicitly clarified, given that “the distinction is often confusing to people outside of the IPCC”. The US, meanwhile, supported putting a definition in the footnote.
On the impacts of climate change, the report recognises and reviews “strengthened” evidence of heatwaves, extreme rainfall, droughts and tropical cyclones, plus their attribution to human influence, since the last synthesis report.
In all regions, extreme heat events have resulted in human mortality and morbidity, it says with very high confidence, while climate-related food-borne and water-borne diseases have increased. Climate change is also contributing to humanitarian crises “where climate hazards interact with high vulnerability”, the report states with high confidence.
Climate change has caused “substantial damages, and increasingly irreversible losses” in land-based, freshwater, coastal, ocean and open ecosystems, as well as in glaciers and continental ice sheets, the report’s summary says with high confidence.
The widespread “losses and damages to nature and people” are unequally distributed across systems, regions and sectors”, says the report’s summary, pointing to both economic and non-economic losses.
Sectors such as agriculture, forestry, fishery, energy, and tourism that are “climate exposed” have experienced economic damages from climate change, the report states with high confidence.
Across the world, non-economic loss and damage impacts, such as mental health challenges, were associated with trauma from extreme weather events and loss of livelihoods and culture. (According to the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, India requested that mental health not be included in these impacts, which Finland opposed.)
The report says with high confidence that “vulnerable communities who have historically contributed the least to current climate change are disproportionately affected”.
For example, fatalities from floods, droughts and storms were 15 times higher in highly vulnerable regions between 2010 to 2020, compared to regions with very low vulnerability, it states with high confidence.
In urban areas, losses and damages are “concentrated” in communities of economically and socially marginalised residents, the report notes.
The figure below shows observed impacts on human systems and ecosystems attributed to climate change at global and regional levels, along with confidence in their attribution to climate change.
The report states with very high confidence that “losses and damages escalate with every increment of global warming”.
These will be higher at 1.5C and even higher at 2C, the report’s summary states. Compared to AR5, “global aggregated risk levels” will be high to very high even at lower warming levels, owing to an improved understanding of exposure, vulnerability and recent evidence, including “limits to adaptation”. Climatic and non-climatic risks will increasingly interact, leading to “compound and cascading risks” that are difficult to manage.
However, near-term climate actions that rein in global warming to “close to 1.5C” could “substantially reduce” losses and damages to humans and ecosystems. Still, even these actions “cannot eliminate them all”, the report notes.
Overall, the magnitude and rate of future losses and damages “depend strongly” on near-term mitigation and adaptation actions, the report says with very high confidence.
Delaying mitigation will only increase warming, which could derail the effectiveness of adaptation options, it says with high confidence, leading to more climate risks and related losses and damages.
However, the report and its summary warn with high confidence that “adaptation does not prevent all losses and damages”. The authors point out with high confidence that some ecosystems, sectors and regions have already hit limits to how much they can adapt to climate impacts. In some cases, adaptive actions are unfeasible – that is, they have “hard limits” – for certain natural systems or are simply not an option because of socioeconomic or technological barriers – known as “soft limits” – leading to unavoidable loss and damage impacts.
“One of the new messages in this report is that it effectively busts the myth of endless adaptation,” said report author Dr Aditi Mukherji, director at the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), speaking at a press conference.
8. Why is climate action currently ‘falling short’?
Current pledges for how countries will cut emissions by 2030 make it likely that global warming will exceed 1.5C this century and will make it harder to limit temperatures to 2C, according to one of the headline findings of the report.
The establishment of the Paris Agreement – the landmark climate deal reached in 2015 – has led to more target-setting and “enhanced transparency” for climate action, the report says with medium confidence.
At the same time, there has been “rising public awareness” about climate change and an “increasing diversity” of people taking action. These efforts “have overall helped accelerate political commitment and global efforts to address climate change”, the report says, adding:
“In some instances, public discourses of media and organised counter movements have impeded climate action, exacerbating helplessness and disinformation and fuelling polarisation, with negative implications for climate action (medium confidence).”
It says with high confidence that many rules and economic tools for tackling emissions have been “deployed successfully” – leading to enhanced energy efficiency, less deforestation and more low-carbon technologies in many countries. This has in some cases lowered emissions.
By 2020, laws for reducing emissions were in place in 56 countries – covering 53% of global emissions, the report says.
At least 18 countries have seen their production and consumption emissions fall for at least 10 years, it adds. But these reductions have “only partly offset” global emissions increases.
The report adds that there are several options for tackling climate change that are “technically viable”, “increasingly cost effective” and are “generally supported by the public”.
It adds that, over 2010-19, there have been large decreases in the unit costs of solar power (85%), wind (55%) and lithium ion batteries (85%). In many regions, electricity from solar and wind is now cheaper than that derived from fossil fuels, the report says.
(According to the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, a group of countries including Germany, Denmark and Norway strongly argued for the report to highlight that renewables are now cheaper than fossil fuels in many regions. Finland suggested adding that fossil fuels are the “root cause” of climate change, but this was strongly opposed by Saudi Arabia.)
At the same time, there have been “large increases in their deployment”, including a global average of 10 times for solar and 100 times for electric cars, the report says.
Falling costs and increased deployment have been boosted by public research and funding and demand-side policies such as subsidies, it says, adding:
“Maintaining emission-intensive systems may, in some regions and sectors, be more expensive than transitioning to low-emission systems (high confidence).”
(According to the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, India, supported by Brazil, said the sentence “favoured developed countries as it did not reference feasibility and challenges”.)
Despite this, a “substantial emissions gap” remains between what global GHG emissions are projected to be in 2030 and what they must be if the world is to limit global warming to 1.5C or 2C, the report says with high confidence. (The 2030 projections are derived from country climate pledges made prior to COP26 in 2021.)
This gap would “make it likely that warming will exceed 1.5C during the 21st century”, the report says with high confidence.
Pathways for how the world can limit global warming to 1.5C or 2C depend on deep global emissions cuts this decade, it adds with high confidence.
The report says with medium confidence that country climate plans ahead of COP26 would lead to around 2.8C of warming (range from 2.1-3.4C) by 2100.
However, it adds with high confidence that policies put in place by countries by the end of 2020 would not be sufficient to achieve these climate plans. This represents an “implementation gap”.
When just policies put in place by the end of 2020 are considered, around 3.2C of warming (range 2.2-3.5C) is projected by 2100, the report says with medium confidence.
The chart below, from the SPM, illustrates the warming expected in 2100 from policies implemented by 2020 (red), as well as what emissions cuts would need to look like to reach 1.5C (blue) or 2C (green).
“Additional implemented policies since the cut-off date would lead to those curves drawing down a little bit, compared to where they are. But everything that has happened since the IPCC cut-off – which is outside the scope of this synthesis report – would suggest that we’re still some way off.”
(A November 2022 assessment from the independent research group Climate Action Tracker found that country climate plans for 2030 in place by that time would cause 2.4C (range 1.9-2.9C) of warming. Policies in place by that time would cause 2.7C (range 2.2-3.4C), it added.)
The report also notes that many countries have signalled intentions to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas or CO2 emissions by 2050. However, it says such pledges differ “in terms of scope and specificity, and limited policies are to date in place to deliver on them”.
In most developing countries, the rollout of low-carbon technologies is lagging behind, the report adds. This is due in part to a lack of finance and technology transfer from developed countries, it says with medium confidence.
The leveraging of climate finance for developing countries has slowed since 2018, the report says with high confidence. It adds:
“Public and private finance flows for fossil fuels are still greater than those for climate adaptation and mitigation (high confidence).”
9. What is needed to stop climate change?
“There is a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all,” the report says with high confidence.
The synthesis delivers a blunt message on what will be needed to stop climate change, saying “limiting human-caused warming requires net-zero CO2 emissions”.
(The Earth Negotiations Bulletin says there was debate over this opening sentence in section B5 of the SPM. It reports: “The authors said that a fundamental insight of AR6 is that, to hold warming at any level, net-zero [CO2] emissions are required at some point.)
The report goes on to say, with high confidence, that reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions would imply net-negative CO2 – and would “result in a gradual decline in surface temperatures”.
Reaching net-zero emissions requires “rapid and deep and, in most cases, immediate greenhouse gas emissions reductions in all sectors this decade”, according to the report.
Repeating language from the underlying WG3 report, it adds that global GHG emissions must peak “between 2020 and at the latest before 2025” to keep warming below 1.5C or 2C.
In contrast with the direct wording on net-zero, the report barely mentions coal, oil and gas.
However, it does say net-zero would mean a “substantial reduction in overall fossil fuel use”.
Staying below 1.5C or 2C depends on cumulative carbon emissions at the time of reaching net-zero CO2 and the level of greenhouse gas emissions cuts this decade, the report says.
Specifically, net-zero CO2 needs to be reached “in the early 2050s” to stay below 1.5C:
“Pathways that limit warming to 1.5C (>50%) with no or limited overshoot reach net-zero CO2 in the early 2050s, followed by net-negative CO2 emissions. Those pathways that reach net-zero GHG emissions do so around the 2070s. Pathways that limit warming to 2C (>67%) reach net-zero CO2 emissions in the early 2070s.”
(There was some confusion on this point after a speech by UN secretary-general António Guterres launching the IPCC report. Guterres called for global net-zero emissions by 2050, with developed countries going faster, but did not say if he was referring to CO2 or GHGs.)
There is a direct link between cumulative carbon emissions and warming, with the report saying that every 1,000GtCO2 raises temperatures by 0.45C. The report says with high confidence:
“From a physical science perspective, limiting human-caused global warming to a specific level requires limiting cumulative CO2 emissions, reaching at least net-zero CO2 emissions, along with strong reductions in other greenhouse gas emissions.”
This results in “carbon budgets” that must not be exceeded if the world is to limit warming to a given level. As of the start of 2020, the remaining budget to give a 50% chance of staying below 1.5C is 500GtCO2, rising to 1,150GtCO2 for a 67% chance of staying below 2C.
(Stronger reductions of non-CO2 emissions would mean a larger carbon budget for a given temperature limit, the report notes, and vice versa.)
Some four-fifths of the total budget for 1.5C has already been used up during 1850-2019 and the last fifth would be “almost exhaust[ed]” by 2030, if emissions remained at 2019 levels.
In order to stay within the budget for 1.5C, global greenhouse gas emissions would need to fall to 43% below 2019 levels by 2030 and to 60% below by 2035, falling 84% by 2050.
Even faster reductions are required for CO2 emissions, which would fall to 48% below 2019 levels by 2030, 65% by 2035 and 99% by 2050, when they would effectively hit net-zero.
The synthesis report lists these numbers in a new table, below. While the information is not new, it had not previously been presented in an accessible format. It was added during the week-long approval process and is labelled “Table XX”.
At a briefing for journalists held by the UK Science Media Centre, Dr Chris Jones, synthesis report author and research fellow at the UK’s Met Office, said: “We hope, obviously, this information is useful for the stocktake process.”
(This refers to the “global stocktake” of progress to date and the efforts needed to meet international climate goals, which is taking place this year as part of the UN climate process.)
The report outlines how the world could reach net-zero CO2 emissions via a “substantial reduction in overall fossil fuel use, minimal use of unabated fossil fuels, and use of carbon capture and storage (CCS) in the remaining fossil fuel systems”.
(The phrase “unabated fossil fuels” is defined in a footnote to the report, by comparison with “abatement”, which it says would mean “capturing 90% or more CO2 from power plants, or 50–80% of fugitive methane emissions from energy supply”.)
While the world needs to make “deep and rapid” cuts in gross emissions, the use of CO2 removal (CDR) is also “unavoidable” to reach net-zero, the report says with high confidence.
The report explains:
“[P]athways reaching net-zero CO2 and GHG emissions include transitioning from fossil fuels without carbon capture and storage (CCS) to very low- or zero-carbon energy sources, such as renewables or fossil fuels with CCS, demand-side measures and improving efficiency, reducing non-CO2 GHG emissions, and CDR.”
CDR will be needed to “counterbalance” hard-to-abate residual emissions in some sectors, for example “some emissions from agriculture, aviation, shipping and industrial processes”.
Emphasising the challenge of limiting warming, the report says the fossil fuel infrastructure that has already been built would be enough to breach the 1.5C carbon budget, if operated in line with historical patterns and in the absence of extra abatement.
This is shown in the figure below. The top panel shows historical emissions and the remaining budgets for 1.5C or 2C, as well as emissions this decade if they remain at 2019 levels and the emissions of existing and planned fossil fuel infrastructure.
The lower panel shows historical warming and potential increases by 2050, in relation to the carbon budgets and the range of possible emissions over the same period.
Delaying emissions cuts risks “lock-in [of] high-emissions infrastructure”, the report states, adding with high confidence that this would “raise risks of stranded assets and cost-escalation, reduce feasibility, and increase losses and damages”.
The report notes that only “a small number of the most ambitious global modelled pathways” avoid temporary overshoot of the 1.5C target. However, warming “could gradually be reduced again by achieving and sustaining net-negative global CO2 emissions”.
On the other hand, the IPCC warns of “additional risks” as a result of overshoot, defined as exceeding a warming level and returning below it later. It states with high confidence:
“Overshoot entails adverse impacts, some irreversible, and additional risks for human and natural systems, all growing with the magnitude and duration of overshoot.”
The report adds that some of these impacts could make it harder to return warming to lower levels, stating with medium confidence:
“Adverse impacts that occur during this period of overshoot and cause additional warming via feedback mechanisms, such as increased wildfires, mass mortality of trees, drying of peatlands, and permafrost thawing, weakening natural land carbon sinks and increasing releases of GHGs would make the return more challenging.”
It says the risks around overshoot, as well as the “feasibility and sustainability concerns” for CDR, can be minimised by faster action to cut emissions. Similarly, development pathways that use resources more efficiently also minimise dependence on CDR.
10. How can individual sectors scale up climate action?
In order to limit warming to 2C or below by the end of the century, all sectors must undergo “rapid and deep, and in most cases, immediate greenhouse gas emissions reductions”, the report says.
Limiting warming to 1.5C with “no or limited overshoot” requires achieving net-zero CO2 emissions in the early 2050s. To keep warming to 2C, net-zero CO2 must be achieved “around the early 2070s”.
It continues, with medium confidence:
Reducing emissions from the energy sector requires a combination of actions, the report says: a “substantial reduction” in the use of fossil fuels; increased deployment of energy sources with zero or low emissions, “such as renewables or fossil fuels with CO2 capture and storage” (CCS); improving energy efficiency and conservation; and “switching to alternative energy carriers”.
For sectors that are harder to decarbonise, such as shipping, aviation, industrial processes and some agriculture-related emissions, the report notes that using carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies to counterbalance these residual emissions “is unavoidable”.
The language around CCS and CDR was some of the most contentious during the approval session. According to the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, Germany “suggested including a brief overview of the feasibility and current deployment of different CDR methods”, with France adding that policymakers must be made aware of the associated challenges.
But Saudi Arabia countered that if these barriers were made explicit in this section, it “would require similar balancing language on the feasibility of solar and renewables elsewhere in the report”.
Similar discussions were had around CCS, with the authors ultimately agreeing to add a sub-paragraph in a footnote that details both the limits and benefits of CCS, at the urging of Germany and Saudi Arabia, respectively.
The report discusses several technologies across a range of maturity, removal and storage potential and costs. It finds that “all assessed modelled pathways that limit warming to 2C (>67%) or lower by 2100” rely, at least in part, on mitigation from agriculture, forestry and other land use (AFOLU). Such approaches are currently “the only widely practised CDR methods”, the report notes.
However, it details trade-offs and barriers to large-scale implementation of AFOLU-based mitigation, including climate change impacts, competing demands for land use, endangering food security and violation of Indigenous rights.
The report also discusses sector-specific actions that can be taken in order to limit emissions and climate impacts. These transformations, it says, are “required for high levels of human health and well-being, economic and social resilience, ecosystem health and planetary health”.
The chart below shows near-term feasibility of adaptation (left) and mitigation (right) options, divided across six sectors (top left to bottom right): energy supply; land, water and food; settlements and infrastructure; health; society, livelihood and economy; and industry and waste.
For adaptation options, the figure shows the potential for synergies with mitigation strategies and the feasibility of these options up to 1.5C of warming, from low (light purple) to high (dark blue). The dots in each box represent the confidence level, from low (one dot) to high (three dots).
On the right, mitigation options are presented with their potential contribution to emissions reductions by 2030, in GtCO2e per year. The colours indicate the cost of each option, from low (yellow) to high (red), with blue indicating options that are cheaper than fossil fuels. Some of the mitigation options with the highest potential for cost-saving are solar and wind power, efficient vehicles, lighting and other equipment, and public transit and cycling.
Some of these mitigation options relate to changes in energy demand, rather than supply. This includes “changes in infrastructure use, end-use technology adoption and socio-cultural and behavioural change”, the report says, noting that such changes can reduce emissions in end-use sectors by 40-70% by mid-century.
The chart below shows the mid-century mitigation potential of demand-side changes across a range of sectors: food (including diet and waste), land transport, buildings, industry and electricity. The green arrows represent the mitigation potential in GtCO2 per year.
Section 4.5 of the report goes into detail about near-term mitigation and adaptation, in subsections covering energy systems; industry; cities, settlements and infrastructure; land, ocean, food and water; health and nutrition; and society, livelihoods and economies. At the urging of India (supported by Saudi Arabia and China) in the approval session, the report notes that the availability and feasibility of these options differs “across systems and regions”.
On energy systems, the report says with high confidence that “major energy system transitions” are required and with very high confidence that adaptation “can help reduce climate-related risks to the energy system”, including extreme events that can damage or otherwise affect energy infrastructure.
It notes that many of the options for large-scale emissions reductions are “technically viable and supported by the public”. It adds:
“Maintaining emission-intensive systems may, in some regions and sectors, be more expensive than transitioning to low emission systems.”
However, adaptation measures for certain types of power generation, such as hydropower, have “decreasing effectiveness at higher levels of warming” beyond 1.5C or 2C, the report notes. Reducing vulnerabilities in the energy sector requires diversification and changes on the demand side, including improving energy efficiency.
The strategies to reduce industrial emissions “differ by type of industry”, the report says. Light manufacturing can be “largely decarbonised” through available technologies and electrification, while decarbonising others will require the use of carbon capture and storage and the development of new technologies. The report adds that extreme events will cause “supply and operational disruptions” across many industries.
“Effective mitigation” strategies can be implemented at every step of building design, construction and use, the report says. It notes that demand-side measures can help reduce transportation-related emissions, as can re-allocating street space for pedestrians and cyclists and enabling telework.
With high confidence, it says:
“Key infrastructure systems including sanitation, water, health, transport, communications and energy will be increasingly vulnerable if design standards do not account for changing climate conditions.”
The report also says that “green” and “blue” infrastructure have myriad benefits: climate change mitigation, reducing extreme weather risk and improving human health and livelihoods.
AFOLU, as well as the ocean, offer “substantial mitigation and adaptation potential…that could be upscaled in the near term across most regions”, the report finds. It notes that conservation and restoration of ecosystems provide “the largest share” of this potential. It reads:
Such actions must be taken with the cooperation and involvement of local communities and Indigenous peoples, the report adds.
With very high confidence, the report states that “mainstream[ing]” health considerations into policies will benefit human health. There is also high confidence in the existing availability of “effective adaptation options” in the health sector, such as improving access to drinking water and vaccine development. The report states with high confidence:
“A key pathway to climate resilience in the health sector is universal access to healthcare.”
The report calls for improving climate education, writing with high confidence:
“Climate literacy and information provided through climate services and community approaches, including those that are informed by Indigenous knowledge and local knowledge, can accelerate behavioural changes and planning.”
It says that many types of adaptation options “have broad applicability across sectors and provide greater risk reduction benefits when combined”. It also calls for “accelerating commitment and follow-through” from private sector actors.
11. What does the report say about adaptation?
The world is not adapting fast enough to climate change – and limits to adaptation have already been reached in some regions and ecosystems, the report says.
It says with very high confidence that there has been progress with adaptation planning and roll-out in all sectors and regions – and that accelerated adaptation will bring benefits for human wellbeing.
Adaptation to water-related risks make up more than 60% of all documented adaptation practices, the report says with high confidence.
Examples of effective adaptation have occurred in food production, such as through planting trees on cropland, diversification in agriculture and water management and storages, the report says with high confidence.
“Ecosystem-based approaches”, such as urban greening and restoring wetlands and forests, have been effective in “reducing flood risks and urban heat”, it adds with high confidence.
In addition, combinations of “non-structural measures”, such as early warning systems, and structural measures such as levees have reduced deaths from flooding, the report says with medium confidence.
But, despite progress, most adaptation is “fragmented, incremental, sector-specific and unequally-distributed across regions”, the report says, adding:
“Adaptation gaps exist across sectors and regions, and will continue to grow under current levels of implementation, with the largest adaptation gaps among lower income groups.”
Key barriers to adaptation include a lack of financial resources, political commitment and a “low sense of urgency”, the report says.
The total amount spent on adaptation has increased since 2014. However, there is currently a widening gap between the costs of adaptation and the amount of money set aside for adaptation, according to the report.
It says with very high confidence that the “overwhelming majority” of climate finance goes towards mitigation rather than adaptation. (See: Why is finance an ‘enabler’ and ‘barrier’ for climate action?)
It adds with medium confidence that financial losses caused by climate change can reduce funds available for adaptation – hence, leaving countries more vulnerable to future impacts. This is particularly true for developing and least-developed countries.
The report says with medium confidence that some people are already experiencing “soft limits” to adaptation. “Soft limits” are those where there is currently no way to adapt to the change, but there may be a way in the future. This includes small-scale farmers and households living in low-lying coastal areas.
Some areas have reached “hard limits” to adaptation, where no further adaptation to climate change is possible, the report says with high confidence. This includes some rainforests, tropical coral reefs, coastal wetlands, and polar and mountain ecosystems.
In the future, “adaptation options that are feasible and effective today will become constrained and less effective with increasing global warming”, the report says. It adds:
“With increasing global warming, losses and damages will increase and additional human and natural systems will reach adaptation limits.”
For example, the effectiveness of reducing climate risks by switching crop varieties or planting patterns – commonplace on farms today – is projected to decrease above 1.5C of warming, the report says with high confidence. The effectiveness of on-farm irrigation is projected to decline above 3C, it adds.
Above 1.5C of warming, small island populations and regions dependent on glaciers for freshwater could face hard adaptation limits, the report says with medium confidence.
At this level of warming, ecosystems such as coral reefs, rainforests and polar and mountain ecosystems will have surpassed hard adaptation limits – meaning some ecosystem-based approaches will become ineffective, the report says with high confidence.
By 2C, soft limits are projected for multiple staple crops, particularly in tropical regions, it says with high confidence. By 3C, hard limits are projected for water management in parts of Europe, it says with medium confidence.
(According to the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, China requested removing a reference to “adaptation limits” from one of the headline statements of the SPM. It was opposed by countries including the UK, Denmark, Germany, Saint Kitts and Nevis, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Mexico and Belize.)
The report says with high confidence that sea level rise poses a “distinct and severe adaptation challenge”. This is because it requires dealing with both slow onset changes and increases in extreme sea level events such as storm surges and flooding.
The graphic below illustrates some of the adaptation responses to sea level rise, including the time it takes for implementation and their typical intended lifetimes.
“Ecosystem-based” approaches include enhancing coastal wetlands. Such approaches come with co-benefits for biodiversity and reducing emissions, but start to become ineffective above 1.5C of warming, the report says with medium confidence.
“Sediment-based” approaches include seawalls. These can be ineffective “as they effectively reduce impacts in the short-term but can also result in lock-ins and increase exposure to climate risks in the long-term”, the report says.
Planned relocation methods can be more effective if they are aligned with sociocultural values and involve local communities, the report says.
The report warns with high confidence that there is now more evidence of “maladaptation” – actions intended to adapt to climate change that create more risk and vulnerability.
Examples of maladaptation include new urban buildings that cannot easily be adjusted for climate risks or high-cost irrigation systems for agriculture in areas where droughts are projected to intensify, the report says.
Maladaptation “especially affects” marginalised and vulnerable groups, including Indigenous peoples, ethnic minorities, low-income households and people living in informal settlements. This can “reinforce and entrench” existing inequalities.
12. What are the benefits of near-term climate action?
The report is clear that fast action to mitigate emissions and adapt to climate impacts has a range of benefits – but acknowledges that it will likely be disruptive and have high up-front costs.
The rate of climate change and the associated risks “depend strongly” on near-term climate action, the report says. The SPM notes with high confidence:
“The choices and actions implemented in this decade will have impacts now and for thousands of years.”
The overarching benefit of near-term mitigation action is less global warming over time and thereby fewer negative impacts, such as extreme weather events.
Accelerated mitigation measures would also reduce future adaptation costs alongside other benefits, such as reducing the risk of irreversible climate changes, the synthesis report says.
A quick reduction in methane emissions, in particular, can limit near-term warming, the report says with high confidence. Methane has a much shorter lifespan in the atmosphere than CO2.
Delaying actions to prevent further warming will lead to a larger temperature rise, which will, in turn, make adaptation measures less effective, it says.
Adaptation actions can take a long time to be put in place. The report stresses that long-term planning and faster implementation, especially in this decade, “is important to close adaptation gaps”.
Adaptation measures, the report adds, can improve agricultural productivity, innovation, health and wellbeing, food security, livelihood and biodiversity conservation.
There are other co-benefits to cutting emissions and taking faster action on adaptation. The SPM says that “deep, rapid and sustained” action in this decade would lower air pollution, spark more walking and cycling and prompt more sustainable, healthy diets.
The money saved from a health perspective as a result of improved air quality “can be of the same order of magnitude as mitigation costs, and potentially even larger”, the report adds.
There are further economic benefits to near-term climate action, but the SPM says the cost-benefit analysis “remains limited” in assessing all avoided damages.
Outside of the benefits of avoiding possible damages, the economic and social benefits of limiting global warming to 2C exceeds mitigation costs in most literature, the SPM says with medium confidence.
The SPM says that faster mitigation with emissions peaking earlier increases the co-benefits of action and reduces risks and costs in the long-term.
It further says, with high confidence, that near-term actions require “high up-front investments and potentially disruptive changes”.
Barriers to deploy mitigation and adaptation actions need to be removed or reduced to utilise these options at scale, the report says.
To scale up these actions, the report says that both low- and high-cost options, such as using more renewables, making buildings more efficient and using electric vehicles, are required to avoid future lock-ins, advance innovation and start transformational changes.
The impacts of these changes can be “moderated” by reforms and policies in order to accelerate climate action such as improving access to finance for low-emissions infrastructure and technologies, especially in developing countries.
Delaying action comes with multiple challenges, the report says, such as cost escalation risks, lock-in of infrastructure and stranded assets.
In other words, continuing to install unabated fossil fuel infrastructure will “lock-in” emissions into the future. And taking action on fossil-fuel burning sooner rather than later would limit the size of stranded assets – such as fossil-fuel infrastructure – that will be worth a lot less money in future in a world more reliant on low-carbon energy.
Delaying action on this would increase policy risks and may endanger efforts to limit global warming, the report says with high confidence.
Climate action is enabled by good climate governance providing an overall direction, the report says.
This involves setting targets, including climate action in different policy areas, prioritising equitable decision-making and enhancing access to finance. The report adds that climate action benefits from drawing on a diverse range of knowledge.
13. Why is finance an ‘enabler’ and ‘barrier’ for climate action?
Finance is one of the “critical enablers” to speed up climate action, the synthesis report outlines, and lack of funding is a barrier to progress.
Difficulty accessing climate finance slows down both mitigation and adaptation action, particularly in developing countries, the report warns. Improving access to funds will help to accelerate climate action, the report says with very high confidence.
It adds that funding for mitigation and adaptation needs to increase “many-fold” to achieve climate goals, address risks and speed up investment in emissions reductions.
Global climate finance flows have increased and financing channels have broadened over the past decade, but the report notes that average growth has slowed since 2018. The report adds with high confidence:
“Public and private finance flows for fossil fuels are still greater than those for climate adaptation and mitigation.”
It assesses that climate funding is “uneven” and has “developed heterogeneously across regions and sectors”, adding that the money falls short of what is needed to slash emissions and adapt to climate impacts.
There is enough global capital to close investment gaps, the report says, but “barriers” are preventing this funding being used instead for climate action.
Closing gaps and improving access to finance, alongside other actions, can “act as a catalyst for accelerating” climate action, the SPM says. The report builds on this, saying:
“Accelerated support from developed countries and multilateral institutions is a critical enabler to enhance mitigation and adaptation action and can address inequities in finance, including its costs, terms and conditions, and economic vulnerability to climate change.”
Many developing countries do not have enough financial resources for adaptation to help reduce associated economic and non-economic losses and damages, the report says.
The SPM outlines with high confidence that increasing access to finance can help tackle “soft”, avoidable adaptation limits and avert some of the rising risks of climate change. (See: What does the report say about adaptation?)
The “overwhelming majority” of climate finance is geared towards mitigation. But this still falls short, the SPM says, adding with medium confidence:
“Average annual modelled mitigation investment requirements for 2020 to 2030 in scenarios that limit warming to 2C or 1.5C are a factor of three to six greater than current levels, and total mitigation investments (public, private, domestic and international) would need to increase across all sectors and regions.”
Limited access to funding is listed as one of the key barriers to a number of actions including the adoption of low-emissions technology in developing countries.
Harmful impacts of climate change can further reduce a nation’s climate financial resources by causing losses and damages and also impeding economic growth. This adds to the financial constraints for adaptation, especially in developing and least developed countries.
The largest climate finance gaps and opportunities exist in developing countries, the report says, adding that more support is needed from developed nations and multilateral institutions to address inequities.
This could come in the form of larger public grants for climate funding “for vulnerable regions, e.g., in sub-Saharan Africa,” the report says. It adds that these would be cost-effective and have high social returns in terms of access to basic energy.
Reducing the barriers standing in the way of committing more money to climate action would require “clear signalling and support by governments” through actions such as decreasing the perceived risks of climate investments and increasing the returns, the SPM says.
Central banks, investors and other financial actors can change the “systemic underpricing of climate-related risks” and also reduce the “widening disparities” between the money available and the amount required, the SPM adds, noting:
“Public finance is an important enabler of adaptation and mitigation, and can also leverage private finance.”
Developed countries pledged to provide $100bn in climate funding each year by 2020 to help developing countries deal with climate change. The SPM notes that, as of 2018, finance levels were below this goal. (In 2021, Carbon Brief analysed why climate finance flows are falling short.)
According to the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, India, supported by Saudi Arabia and Brazil, requested a reference to this goal in a section on the adoption of low-emission technologies to highlight the finance gap for developing countries.
The final report does reference the missed pledge elsewhere, but the text of low-emission technologies instead refers more broadly to the constraints of “limited finance”.
The SPM says that climate-resilient development – prioritising climate in all aspects of decision-making and policies – is aided by more international cooperation to improve access to finance and better align climate finance flows with the money required.
The report says faster global financial cooperation is key to aiding low-emission and just transitions. (A just transition is one in which workers and their communities are supported in the shift to a low-carbon economy, which is central to the idea of climate justice.) It can also address inequities in access to finance.
In order to scale-up financial flows, the report says there must be lower regulatory market barriers, a stronger alignment of public finance and more public funding in an effort to reduce the perceived risks of low-emission investments.
14. What are the co-benefits for the Sustainable Development Goals?
Comprising 17 goals, this “shared blueprint” for people and the planet recognises that ending poverty “and other deprivations” must accompany strategies that improve health, education, reduce inequality while combating climate change and protecting oceans and forests.
The synthesis report lays out how climate adaptation and mitigation actions can translate into co-benefits that aid countries’ efforts to meet their SDGs.
According to the report, both sets of actions have more potential synergies than potential trade-offs with the SDGs. This, however, depends on the scale and context of how mitigation and adaptation measures are implemented, the interactions between and within different sectors involved, cooperation between countries, governance, policy design and how these options are timed, sequenced and stringently deployed.
Ending “extreme poverty, energy poverty and providing decent living standards to all, consistent with sustainable development objectives…can be achieved without significant global emissions growth”, the report states with high confidence.
The report’s summary recognises that countries are at different levels of development, seeking to improve the well-being of people. With high confidence, it states:
“Development priorities among countries also reflect different starting points and contexts, and enabling conditions for shifting development pathways towards increased sustainability will therefore differ, giving rise to different needs.”
Nonetheless, many mitigation and adaptation systems can help countries meet their near-term development goals in energy, urban and land systems, the report says with high confidence.
For instance, better air quality and improved health are some of the many co-benefits of deploying low-carbon energy systems, while urban mass transit powered by these systems can contribute to health, employment, energy security and “deliver equity”.
Conserving, protecting and restoring ecosystems, while managing them to help communities adapt to climate impacts, can help regions attain their food security and biodiversity conservation goals, the report says with high confidence.
In countries and regions that are highly dependent on fossil fuels – not just for energy, but revenues and jobs – mitigating risk calls for “just transition principles, processes and practices” and policies that promote economic and energy diversification, the SPM says with high confidence.
Mitigation actions that are embedded within a wider development context can, therefore, make for faster, deeper and wider emissions reductions, it states with medium confidence.
But to design “context-relevant” actions and plan for their implementation “requires considering people’s needs, biodiversity, and other sustainable development dimensions”, the report states with very high confidence.
Importantly, the report calls “effective governance” to limit potential trade-offs of some mitigation choices – such as the risks posed by large-scale afforestation and bioenergy projects to food systems, biodiversity, ecosystems and livelihoods, it says with high confidence.
Crucially, this requires “adequate institutional capacity at all levels” to safeguard against trade-offs.
Mitigation and adaptation actions taken together – accounting for trade-offs – can benefit not just human well-being, but deliver better ecosystem and planetary health, the report states with high confidence. Social safety nets and land restoration are examples that serve both adaptation and mitigation goals, with co-benefits for poverty reduction and food security.
However, there will be trade-offs, the report cautions. But these can be “evaluated and minimised” by giving weight to “capacity building, finance, technology transfer, governance, development, gender and social equity considerations with meaningful participation of local communities, Indigenous peoples and vulnerable populations”, it states with high confidence.
15. What does the report say about equity and inclusion?
“Equity remains a central element in the UN climate regime,” the SPM says. The report has a section dedicated to “equity and inclusion in climate change action”, which discusses how to ensure that those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change can contribute to and benefit from climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.
The SPM says that “ambitious mitigation pathways imply large and sometimes disruptive changes in economic structure”. This can include a “shifting of income and employment” during the transition to low-emissions activities.
But the report has high confidence that “social safety nets” and “redistributive policies” that “shield the poor and vulnerable” can resolve trade-offs for a range of sustainable development goals, such as education, hunger, poverty, gender and energy access.
For example, it has high confidence that “while some jobs may be lost, low-emissions development can also open up opportunities to enhance skills and create jobs”. The report emphasises the importance of “broadening equitable access” to the relevant finance, technologies and governance.
“Equity, inclusion, just transitions, broad and meaningful participation of all relevant actors in decision making at all scales enable deeper societal ambitions for accelerated mitigation, and climate action more broadly, and build social trust, support transformative changes and an equitable sharing of benefits and burdens”.
The report says that between 3.3 and 3.6 billion people are living in “contexts that are highly vulnerable to climate change”, where vulnerability is highest in “locations with poverty, governance challenges and limited access to basic services and resources, violent conflict and high levels of climate-sensitive livelihoods”.
It says that adaptation can be used to moderate the risks of climate change and the authors have high confidence that “adaptation progress is unevenly distributed with observed adaptation gaps”. The report adds:
“Present development challenges causing high vulnerability are influenced by historical and ongoing patterns of inequity such as colonialism, especially for many Indigenous Peoples and local communities.”
To effectively address adaptation gaps and avoid maladaptation, the report says that “meaningful participation and inclusive planning, informed by cultural values, Indigenous knowledge, local knowledge, and scientific knowledge can help”.
The report also notes that different countries have their own priorities for development, which give rise to differing needs.
For example, it says that “in several countries just transition commissions, task forces and national policies have been established”, while in others, the principles of a just transition need to be integrated into policies through “collective and participatory decision-making processes”.
This section of the report also discusses behavioural interventions. It has high confidence that “individuals with high socioeconomic status contribute disproportionately to emissions, and have the highest potential for emissions reductions”. It says there are many options for reducing emissions from this group, which can be supported by policies, infrastructure, and technology.
Meanwhile, it has high confidence that, for lower-income groups, “eradicating extreme poverty, energy poverty, and providing decent living standards to all in these regions in the context of achieving sustainable development objectives, in the near-term, can be achieved without significant global emissions growth”.
“Mainstreaming effective and equitable climate action will not only reduce losses and damages for nature and people, it will also provide wider benefits,” said IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee. “This Synthesis Report underscores the urgency of taking more ambitious action and shows that, if we act now, we can still secure a liveable sustainable future for all.”
In 2018, IPCC highlighted the unprecedented scale of the challenge required to keep warming to 1.5°C. Five years later, that challenge has become even greater due to a continued increase in greenhouse gas emissions. The pace and scale of what has been done so far, and current plans, are insufficient to tackle climate change.
More than a century of burning fossil fuels as well as unequal and unsustainable energy and land use has led to global warming of 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels. This has resulted in more frequent and more intense extreme weather events that have caused increasingly dangerous impacts on nature and people in every region of the world.
Every increment of warming results in rapidly escalating hazards. More intense heatwaves, heavier rainfall and other weather extremes further increase risks for human health and ecosystems. In every region, people are dying from extreme heat. Climate-driven food and water insecurity is expected to increase with increased warming. When the risks combine with other adverse events, such as pandemics or conflicts, they become even more difficult to manage.
Losses and damages in sharp focus
The report, approved during a week-long session in Interlaken, brings in to sharp focus the losses and damages we are already experiencing and will continue into the future, hitting the most vulnerable people and ecosystems especially hard. Taking the right action now could result in the transformational change essential for a sustainable, equitable world.
“Climate justice is crucial because those who have contributed least to climate change are being disproportionately affected,” said Aditi Mukherji, one of the 93 authors of this Synthesis Report, the closing chapter of the Panel’s sixth assessment.
“Almost half of the world’s population lives in regions that are highly vulnerable to climate change. In the last decade, deaths from floods, droughts and storms were 15 times higher in highly vulnerable regions,“ she added.
In this decade, accelerated action to adapt to climate change is essential to close the gap between existing adaptation and what is needed. Meanwhile, keeping warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels requires deep, rapid and sustained greenhouse gas emissions reductions in all sectors. Emissions should be decreasing by now and will need to be cut by almost half by 2030, if warming is to be limited to 1.5°C.
Clear way ahead
The solution lies in climate resilient development. This involves integrating measures to adapt to climate change with actions to reduce or avoid greenhouse gas emissions in ways that provide wider benefits.
For example: access to clean energy and technologies improves health, especially for women and children; low-carbon electrification, walking, cycling and public transport enhance air quality, improve health, employment opportunities and deliver equity. The economic benefits for people’s health from air quality improvements alone would be roughly the same, or possibly even larger than the costs of reducing or avoiding emissions.
Climate resilient development becomes progressively more challenging with every increment of warming. This is why the choices made in the next few years will play a critical role in deciding our future and that of generations to come.
To be effective, these choices need to be rooted in our diverse values, worldviews and knowledges, including scientific knowledge, Indigenous Knowledge and local knowledge. This approach will facilitate climate resilient development and allow locally appropriate, socially acceptable solutions.
“The greatest gains in wellbeing could come from prioritizing climate risk reduction for low-income and marginalised communities, including people living in informal settlements,” said Christopher Trisos, one of the report’s authors. “Accelerated climate action will only come about if there is a many-fold increase in finance. Insufficient and misaligned finance is holding back progress.”
Enabling sustainable development
There is sufficient global capital to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions if existing barriers are reduced. Increasing finance to climate investments is important to achieve global climate goals. Governments, through public funding and clear signals to investors, are key in reducing these barriers. Investors, central banks and financial regulators can also play their part.
There are tried and tested policy measures that can work to achieve deep emissions reductions and climate resilience if they are scaled up and applied more widely. Political commitment, coordinated policies, international cooperation, ecosystem stewardship and inclusive governance are all important for effective and equitable climate action.
If technology, know-how and suitable policy measures are shared, and adequate finance is made available now, every community can reduce or avoid carbon-intensive consumption. At the same time, with significant investment in adaptation, we can avert rising risks, especially for vulnerable groups and regions.
Climate, ecosystems and society are interconnected. Effective and equitable conservation of approximately 30-50% of the Earth’s land, freshwater and ocean will help ensure a healthy planet. Urban areas offer a global scale opportunity for ambitious climate action that contributes to sustainable development.
Changes in the food sector, electricity, transport, industry, buildings and land-use can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, they can make it easier for people to lead low-carbon lifestyles, which will also improve health and wellbeing. A better understanding of the consequences of overconsumption can help people make more informed choices.
“Transformational changes are more likely to succeed where there is trust, where everyone works together to prioritise risk reduction, and where benefits and burdens are shared equitably,” Lee said. “We live in a diverse world in which everyone has different responsibilities and different opportunities to bring about change. Some can do a lot while others will need support to help them manage the change.”
“We’ve known the answers for decades, it’s just a matter of political will for implementing them,” Jill Locantore, executive director of Denver Streets Partnership, said.
Perhaps the biggest piece of Denver’s air-quality problem would be solved by expanding the city’s public transit options, Jill Locantore, executive director of Denver Streets Partnership, said. Each piece overlaps with the others, Locantore, whose nonprofit works to reduce the city’s dependence on cars, said.
“The key is land use and transportation. Reduce vehicle miles traveled. Reduce land consumption. Reduce water consumption,” Locantore said. “We’ve known the answers for decades, it’s just a matter of political will for implementing them.”
Denver’s mayor could buy additional, dedicated service from RTD, like Boulder does, Danny Katz, executive director of the nonprofit Colorado Public Interest Research Group. Building new train lines would be expensive, time-consuming and would consume land that’s already occupied or needed for other things, Katz said. Better to increase service on existing train lines to start…
As for cars that can’t be eliminated from the city’s streets, like the thousands of vehicles that Denver owns, Katz said the next mayor could work to phase out gas-powered vehicles in favor of electric ones. Not only would that shift reduce emissions from thousands of vehicles but it also means the city would likely have to install charging stations around Denver, which could be used by residents also switching to electric vehicles…
Increasing the city’s density would mean more people live within walking distance of public transit and other amenities, Locantore said. The City Council holds sway over zoning and building codes and it could change the codes to encourage higher-density, multi-use projects and turn away others that don’t meet the criteria. The City Council is already working to cut emissions from Denver’s large commercial and multi-family buildings. New building codes approved in January will phase out gas furnaces and water heaters in new construction…The last step of that process, outgoing City Councilman Jolon Clark said, would likely be replacing gas furnaces and water heaters in existing buildings, particularly homes…
Other things the next mayor and City Council members could do to cut emissions, Katz added, would be to continue offering rebates for residents looking to buy electric bicycles. They could also work to limit or phase out the use of gas-powered leaf blowers and lawnmowers…
Part of the deal Wyoming struck for sending its water down the Colorado River was that state residents would be able to tap electricity generated at Glen Canyon Dam. But that arrangement is becoming less tenable as water levels at Lake Powell required for hydro-power production continue to drop.
Sinjin Eberle, southwest communications director with the group American Rivers, explained in order to be able to generate electricity, Lake Powell can drop no lower than 3,490 feet.
“Figuring out how we’re going to manage this system in the face of a much smaller river is what everybody in the Colorado River Basin, whether you are in Wyoming or California, need to be concerned about,” Eberle said.
Glen Canyon Dam currently generates energy for nearly 6-million households in Wyoming, Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. Lake Powell water levels dropped to their lowest point since 1967 last summer, reaching 3,533 feet, and some warn the lake could dip below levels necessary for power generation as early as this spring, and have proposed demolishing the dam to help restore the Colorado River’s health and long-term viability.
If Lake Powell drops below Dead Power to Dead Pool status at 3,370 feet, water would no longer be able to flow through the dam to lower basin states. This year’s higher-than-average snow pack may provide short-term relief, but Eberle said it could take years of above-average precipitation to reverse decades of drought across the region, and added the challenges facing Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam are multi-faceted.
“Water-supply issues from a lingering 23-year drought, with impacts from climate change continuing to exacerbate those drought conditions,” Eberle said. “And then (we have) some of the fastest growing areas of the country demanding more water.”
When the Colorado River Compact was first negotiated in 1922, there were just 475,000 people living in the seven-state basin. Then-Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover projected that population could swell to two million people over time. But there are now at least 40-million people across the basin that depend on water from the river, Eberle said.
“This framework that was built in 1922 has lasted 100 years, but is also trying to support a system that is many, many times larger than the wildest imaginations of the framers when they built this compact,” he said.
Disclosure: American Rivers contributes to our fund for reporting on Environment, Public Lands/Wilderness, Salmon Recovery, Water. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Two proposed pumped water storage projects that could expand Colorado’s ability to store renewable energy – one in Fremont County and another between Hayden and Craig in the Yampa River Valley – are moving forward.
Colorado will need green energy storage of some type if it is to attain its mid-century goals of 100% renewable energy. Solar and wind power are highly variable and cannot be turned off and on, like coal and natural gas plants are.
So the search is on for ways to build large-scale storage projects to hold the energy wind and solar generate. Lithium-ion batteries are part of the answer and are being rapidly added to supplement wind and solar. But they typically have a short life span, while pumped water storage hydropower projects can operate for decades.
Pumped water storage has been refined in recent decades but the basic principles remain unchanged. Water is released from a higher reservoir to generate power when electricity is most in demand and expensive. When electricity is plentiful and less expensive, the water is pumped back up to the higher reservoir and stored until it is needed again.
This technology even today is responsible for 93% of energy storage in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. That includes Cabin Creek, Xcel Energy’s 324-megawatt pumped storage unit near Georgetown. It was installed in 1967.
“These pumped-storage projects are anathema to the modern way of thinking,” says Peter Gish, a principal in Ortus Climate Mitigation, the developer of the Fremont County pumped water storage project.
“But once built and operating, the maintenance costs are very, very low, and the system will last, if properly maintained, a century or longer. The capital investment up front is quite high, but when you run the financial models over 30, 50 or 60 years, this technology is, hands down, the cheapest technology on the market for [energy] storage.”
Ortus Climate Mitigation wants to build a 500-megawatt pumped water storage facility on the South Slope of Pikes Peak above the town of Penrose in Fremont County. This facility – essentially a giant battery for energy storage – would require two reservoirs.
Gish hopes to have a permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2026. Construction would take up to five years after the permit is approved.
In the Yampa Valley, another developer continues to plug away at a potential application for a site somewhere between Hayden and Craig. Still another idea is said to be in formulation in southwestern Colorado, but no details could be gleaned about that project.
Phantom Canyon, as Ortus calls its project in Fremont County, would require 17,000 acre-feet of water for the initial fill of the two reservoirs to be augmented by about 1,500 acre-feet annually due to losses from evaporation.
The company says it has accumulated water rights.
Gish, a co-founder of Ortus, says his company is “keenly aware” of water scarcity issues in Colorado and looks into ways to reduce the evaporative loss and hence shave water needs. One option is to place solar panels over the reservoirs, producing energy while shading the water. On a vastly smaller scale, that has been done at the Walden municipal water treatment plant in north-central Colorado.
Unlike an unsuccessful attempt by Xcel in 2021 to build a pumped water storage project in Unaweep Canyon on federal land in Western Colorado, the Ortus project near Pikes Peak would involve only private land. The company has exclusive purchase options for 4,900 acres. It also has secured 12 easements for pipeline access from the lower reservoir to the Arkansas River.
Proximity to water sources matters, and so does the location relative to transmission. Penrose is about 30 miles from both Colorado Springs and Pueblo and major transmission lines.
The company last year laid out the preliminary plans with Fremont County planners and hosted a meeting in Canon City to which environmental groups and others were invited. By then, FERC had issued a preliminary permit which is the start of the permitting process. Gish, who has worked in renewable energy for 25 years, says no potential red flags were noted.
“I have found that the local stakeholders are the first people you need to talk to about a project like this,” Gish says, “If you are able to get local support, the rest of the pieces will tend to fall into place. If not, the rest of the process is a much more difficult proposition.”
In Western Colorado, Xcel faced local opposition but also the more daunting process of permitting for a project on federal land. In the Craig-Hayden area, Matthew Shapiro, a principal in green energy company Gridflex Energy, had been examining sites that are on private land. Work continues on geological assessments and other elements, but he says that a “lot of other pieces need to come together before there is real progress.”
In addition to having water, that portion of the Yampa Valley also has the advantage of transmission lines erected to dispatch power from the five coal-burning units that are now scheduled to close between 2025 and 2030.
Shapiro hopes to also use Colorado-sourced water to generate electricity in a pumped-storage project on the North Platte River in Wyoming. Gridflex Energy filed for a license application with FERC last week for the project on Seminoe Reservoir.
“Very few projects have made it that far since the turn of the millennium. It’s a pretty big deal,” Shapiro said.
Long-time Colorado journalist Allen Best produces an e-journal called Big Pivots and is a frequent contributor to Fresh Water News.
A preliminary analysis of potential modifications to the dam emerged during a virtual meeting held by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which is also reviewing options for averting a collapse of the water supply along the river. These new discussions about retooling the dam reflect growing concerns among federal officials about how climate change is contributing to the Colorado River’s reduced flows, and how declining reservoirs could force major changes in dam management for years to come…
Roerink and two other people who listened to the webinar told The Times that cost estimates for several alternatives ranged from $500 million to $3 billion. The agency will need congressional approval and will have to conduct an environmental review to analyze options. The Bureau of Reclamation’s presentation, given by regional power manager Nick Williams, included some additional alternatives that wouldn’t require major structural modifications of the dam. Those options included adjusting operations to maximize power generation at low reservoir levels, studying ways of using the existing intakes at lower water levels, and making up for the loss of hydroelectric power by investing in solar or wind energy…
According to a slide presentation shown at the meeting, officials see potential hazards in some of the six alternatives. Piercing the dam’s concrete to create new low-level or mid-level intakes, for example, would entail “increased risk from penetration through dam,” the presentation says. They also describe risks due to possible “vortex formation,” or the creation of whirlpools above horizontal intakes as the water level declines. Their formation could cause damage if air is pulled into the system. The presentation says one alternative would involve lowering the minimum power pool limit and possibly installing structures on the intakes to suppress whirlpools, but it said this still would not allow for the water level to go much lower.
Golden could require all-electric in new construction by as early as January 2024.
The city council Tuesday evening gave staff members direction to continue working on a roadmap but with additional research and public meetings to resolve concerns about a proposed requirement for on-site renewable generation that some community members see as problematic.
Crested Butte was the first jurisdiction in Colorado to ban natural gas. The regulations it adopted last August allow natural gas only within special cases, such as for restaurants and other commercial uses, in the 100-plus lots remaining to be developed.
As Colorado jurisdictions go about updating their building codes, several are still undecided about whether to ban natural gas or other fossil fuels for space and water heating. Some have decided to lay the ground-work for all electric without actually raising that bar. Many, perhaps most, have given no thought to the day of all-electric buildings.
Towns, cities, and counties have until July 1 to update their building codes to recent iterations of the national standard or accept a code being drawn up by a state committee identified in 2022 legislation.
Golden is not facing that deadline as it has already adopted the 2021 national building codes. Instead, it is being pushed by its own climate action goals, which correspond with the Paris Accord of 2017. To hit its targets, Golden will have to achieve 100% renewables for heating by 2050.
As was observed at the council meeting, the first step in achieving that ambitious goal will be to stop digging a deeper hole. Building new houses that burn natural gas digs the hole deeper because they will ultimately have to be retrofitted. The city has 9,459 buildings.
“Every new building that is constructed and every existing building that is retrofitted without efficiency and electrification as a primary objective works directly against the City’s Goals,” says a report given to the city council members.
In raw numbers, this all-electric requirement will have marginal impact in that Golden is land-locked. That limits new construction to infill or to replacement of existing buildings. In the last five years, Golden has had no more than 17 new single-family houses in any given year. The maximum for one year was 8 commercial buildings.
If modest in numbers by itself, Golden’s work can best be understood in the broader context of local communities looking to reinvent our energy systems. Golden studied what others are doing in Colorado and beyond and expects that others will in turn study what Golden has done.
The efforts to crowd out natural gas from buildings constitutes the most easily identified story. Theresa Worsham, the sustainability director for Golden, emphasizes that each community’s needs are likely to be different, and its decarbonization plans need to be similarly different.
What works for Denver is entirely appropriate there, “but it does not suit Golden,” she says. “That is why we are coming up with a lot of solutions across many communities. Golden’s plan works for our scale and size and might also work for other jurisdictions similar to Golden.”
After adopting a resolution aligning the city’s goals with those of the Paris Accord in 2017, Golden in 2019 adopted its climate action goals and then, in 2020, began assembling the document that more narrowly addresses emissions from buildings. Two city-appointed commissions—the Community Sustainability Advisory Board and the Planning Commission—were principally responsible for creation of the recommendations, called “A Roadmap to Net-Zero Buildings.”
In addition, 12 community members with a diversity of interests and backgrounds were enlisted to participate in the Energy Code Stakeholder Group.
Others from the city’s affordable housing, building and planning staffs were also engaged, and several dozen public meetings were held, some with the specific intent of inviting comment from builders and others.
The report to the city council identified four strategies. One would require owners of commercial buildings of 5,000 square feet or more to track their emissions. The state now has a similar requirement for buildings 50,000 square feet or more. The idea is to get building owners and managers to understand their emissions with the potential for instituting programs in the future that may seek to reduce emissions. Among the city’s goals, adopted with the Paris agreement, is to squeeze energy use in all buildings by 15% through efficiency measures.
Another strategy—given virtually no attention at the city council meeting—would commit the city to further research during 2023 about how to convert existing buildings toward net-zero all-electric in coming years.
Still to be worked out is how the policy will address building retrofits. Ken Jacobs, a member of the sustainability committee for six years who remains involved, suggests the most effective policy would trigger the net-zero requirement if the remodeling is extensive enough to require new heating systems. Building professionals may have other and better ideas, he says. But in any case, retrofits will be more complicated than new builds.
Where Golden’s work stands most prominently is the proposed requirement for on-site renewable generation. This proposed requirement comes from core assumptions by the Golden groups who worked on these recommendations. While it might easily be possible to import all of Golden’s electricity from distant wind and solar farms, the groups concluded that the city has a moral responsibility to generate electricity locally. This also has the advantage of furthering the city’s interests in resilience.
The proposed regulation would require that on-site energy storage be deployed or off-site solar via solar gardens located in Golden. The last resort would be purchase of renewable energy credits for renewable energy systems located in Colorado.
This on-site requirement provoked nearly the only red flag. Articulating that concern was Angela Schwab, principal architect at AB Studio.
She said she supports sustainability goals, including the 100% net-zero goal. However, it may not work well in the case of some commercial properties and other special properties, such as those with view and other considerations, she said.
To illustrate her concerns, she cited her work on the Astor House, a stone hotel built in 1867, when Colorado was a territory and Golden was its capital.
The building has been expanded to accommodate an art gallery but also improve accessibility as required for buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Regulations for such buildings preclude solar on the roofs.
Solar panels could be located on the ground, but that would have conflicted with the planting of trees and the planned open space.
Golden’s city staff and advisory board will be working over concerns centered around the on-site renewables requirement in coming weeks and months.
Holy Cross Energy aims to distribute 100% emission-free electricity to its 55,000 members in the Aspen, Rifle, and Vail areas by 2030. How will it do that?
Tri-State Generation and Transmission, Colorado’s second largest utility, has a different but related problem. It wants to best use infrastructure associated with its coal-burning operations at Craig after the last unit closes before 2030.
One clue may lie in Pueblo. There a pilot program testing a new technology for long-duration energy storage will be deployed by Xcel Energy and Form Energy by the end of 2025. The new iron-air batteries will be able to use chemical processes to store electricity and then discharge it for up to 100 hours.
The new battery technology has been reported to be 10 times less expensive than lithium-ion batteries. Iron is abundant in the United States, and the batteries are non-flammable.
In announcing the pilot projects, Bob Frenzel, the chief executive of Xcel, said the 100-hour batteries at Pueblo and at a coal site in Minnesota “will strengthen the grid against normal day-to-day, week-to-week, and season-to-season weather variability, in addition to extreme weather events, including severe winter storms and polar vortex events.”
Duration of storage matters entirely as electric utilities add low-cost and emissions-free renewables. Short-duration storage, such as the lithium-ion batteries installed in conjunction with a new solar farm near Glenwood Springs in 2022, can help. They provide two to four hours of storage.
With 100 hours of storage, utilities can smooth the highs and the lows of renewables. Consider Uri, the week of cold in 2022 when wind on Colorado’s eastern plains ceased for several days. Utilities cranked up turbines burning natural gas that was suddenly in high demand. Consumers are still paying off those bills. Tri-State even resorted to burning oil.
Summers have brought inverse problems of spiking demand caused by heat. In 2021, it got so hot in Portland that electric lines for trains melted, and some people without air conditioning literally baked to death in apartments. Colorado regulators worry whether the state’s utilities can handle such weather extremes.
Iron-air batteries alone are unlikely to solve the intermittencies of renewable energy or the havoc produced by a warming and more erratic climate. This pilot project does represent a notable effort to explore whether they can be scaled.
“This is an exciting new frontier for energy storage in Colorado,” said Mike Kruger, chief executive of the Colorado Solar and Storage Association, a trade group of 275 members. “This announcement goes to show that when there is clear policy, American companies can innovate to meet the electric power sector’s needs.”
Holy Cross Energy has been diversifying its supplies, both locally and regionally, but still depends largely upon wholesale deliveries from Xcel. The Glenwood Springs-based cooperative in 2022 delivered 50% emissions free electricity but has a goal of 100% just seven years from now.
Sam Whelan, the vice president for finance at Holy Cross, said that increased reliability by Xcel will help Holy Cross reliably deliver electricity to its members.
Holy Cross has been investigating its own options—and has had conversations with Form Energy. It will look at many alternatives, including green hydrogen and pumped-storage hydro, each with problems but also promise.
“You have to start something, and you have to start in small increments as well,” says Whelan.
The solar industry, he also started small. “It was not that long ago that solar costs were significantly higher,” he observed. Now, solar has become competitive. “It will take these incremental storage projects to prove out and hopefully pave the way.”
Tri-State, at a recent meeting with stakeholders, also reported that iron-air storage technology was among several options for Craig being studied once the coal plants there close. Transmission lines already exist, capable of carrying renewable energy to the site to be stored – and then released as needed.
Xcel may have gleanings about how they will act at scale and be used to manage the grid by 2026.
Will these new batteries eliminate need for expensive natural gas plants designed for use to meet peak demands? Such plants are expensive to build, and they do produce emissions. Too soon to tell, says Robert Kenney, the president of Xcel Energy’s Colorado division.
“If we see success with this program, we will explore how we can expand it and scale it up further. But to what extent it will displace ‘peaker’ plants or any other technology, that would be the learning that we would expect to come out of the pilot itself. So stay tuned.”
GEM is an interactive web-based decision support system that allows users to locate areas with high suitability for clean power generation and potential energy transmission corridors in the United States. Browse and download data layers, or create a custom suitability model to identify areas for energy development.
On a sunny dayin early December, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland stood on a dais outside the Phoenix exurb of Buckeye, Arizona, where about 3,000 acres of desert had been scraped clean and leveled to make way for the Sonoran Solar Project, which will soon provide power to some 91,000 homes.
Haaland came with good news for utility-scale solar and climate hawks: The Bureau of Land Management would review three massive solar projects proposed in Arizona and hoped to expedite permitting for solar energy on federal lands in Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. “Solar energy projects on public lands will help communities across the country be a part of the climate solution, while creating good-paying jobs,” Haaland said.
But these projects could also potentially uproot imperiled Joshua trees and cactus, kill or displace threatened desert tortoises, block wildlife migratory paths and harm local communities. This puts conservationists and policymakers in the difficult position of having to choose between saving the desert — or the planet.
There are other ways, however, and other locations for solar panels, from residential rooftops to farm fields fallowed by drought. France, for instance, recently required large parking lots to be covered by solar canopies that shade cars and provide up to 11 gigawatts of new generating capacity, equivalent to about 10 times the three proposed projects in Arizona.
This inspired us to ask: How much power could be generated by slapping solar panels not only over the West’s vast parking lots, but also on its 21,000 big-box store rooftops? We did the math, and this is what we found out.
1,155 megawatts Estimated generating capacity if solar panels covered all 370 miles of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, as LA officials propose.
37,500 gigawatt-hours per year Energy output of solar canopies if all of Phoenix, Arizona’s 12.2 million parking spots were covered.
139 Number of desert tortoises relocated to make way for the Yellow Pine Solar Project in southern Nevada in 2021. Within a few weeks, 30 of them were killed, possibly by badgers.
4,200 (215,000 acres) Grazing leases bought and retired in the Mojave Desert in California by Avantus this year to protect wildlife habitat and Joshua trees. The Onyx Conservation Project is a partnership with federal and state land management agencies to “offset” the impacts of the company’s developments elsewhere in the region.
1.3 million Estimated number of Joshua trees destroyed by the 2020 Dome Fire, thought to be exacerbated by climate change, in the Mojave National Preserve in California.
Note: We worked from two figures that were calculated by Greta Bolinger and Mark Bolinger in “Land Requirements for Utility-Scale PV: An Empirical Update on Power and Energy Density,” published in the IEEE Journal of Photovoltaics in March 2022:
Power density: .35 megawatts per acre for utility-scale, fixed-tilt photovoltaics. Most residential solar systems are about 400 watts, or .0004 megawatts.
Energy density: 447 megawatt-hours per year per acre for utility-scale fixed-tilt photovoltaics. An average American household uses about 10 megawatt-hours of electricity annually.
We used Environment America’s figures and Google Earth’s measurements to determine that an average big-box store has 3.25 acres of rooftop. We used American Planning Association calculations to estimate that one acre contains about 145 parking spaces.
Additional sources: BLM, EIA, Basin & Range Watch, UC Davis, Berkeley Lab, Avantus, Primergy, American Planning Association, USGS, Environment America, Google Earth.
Click the link to read the guest column on the Aspen Times website (Stacy Standley). Here’s an excerpt:
Now is the time to take a giant step into the future with revolutionary ideas that transcend the parochial local interests of the Roaring Fork River Valley by recognizing that climate/weather change, along with population growth, has erased the boundaries of the Colorado River Basin…Aspen is now the pivotal headwaters of the Colorado River Basin, which has become a small, compacted irrigation canal instead of a great river system and has shrunk many hundreds of miles into but a few feet…
1. There should be 100% metering and billing of every drop of water: 7% of the Aspen distribution is unmetered and/or unbilled and unmetered, and this should be eliminated.
2. You can not distribute or control what you do not measure: Metering and billing should be by constant recorded, instantaneous, wifi-linked electronic services on all distribution points and reported to every customer and the Water Department on a instantaneous daily basis, with auto shutoffs for an aberration of usage by 1% or more.
3. All wastewater and storm water must be a fully-integrated part of the treated water-supply system by municipal recycling and/or irrigation and municipal water usage.
4. Downstream water flows that exceed minimum stream flow must be acquired and piped back into the upstream Aspen intake.
5. Aspen and Pitkin County must negotiate with Twin Lakes Canal and Reservoir Co. and the Fry-Ark project to create water savings for their service area and water that can be allowed to stay in the Roaring Fork River Valley.
6. Salvation Ditch, Red Mountain Ditch, and all other local irrigation systems should become a part of the Aspen water conservation and re-use ethic.
7. 100% of all leaks and water waste must be ended immediately.
8. Every tree, plant, and natural out-of-house improvement must be identified and the water usage calculated by Lysimeter and/or other instantaneous soil moisture storage measurement system and then a local research and development lab created to test, grow, and install water conserving plants and systems for out-of-house water management and control.
9. All local streets should be coated with bright reflective surfaces to maintain a cooler urban-heat island and, thus, improve out-of-house water usage.
10. Aspen should create its own bottled (no plastic) water supply for individual use from a high-quality spring and distribute at least 2 gallons per person per day inside of the city service area for drinking water usage at cost to increase the Aspen water supply.
11. Aspen should divert into vertically oriented pipeline coils (24 to 48 inch) in all area streams to capture water runoff that exceeds minimum stream flows and keep the vertical-coiled pipelines at or above the city base elevation for instantaneous “pipeline coil reservoir storage.”
12. Every new or remodeled home and business must have installed an on-site water-storage tank for at least three months of driest in-house water usage.
13. Aspen should participate individually and/or with other Colorado River Basin water users in regional ocean, salt flats, and poor quality oil field wastewater/produced water (i.e., Rangely Field and Utah Basin) purification desalination and urban wastewater recycling for earning water-use credits.
14. Aspen should negotiate with Colorado River Basin Native American tribes to create constructive water savings and water-credit system for the benefit of reservation and also Aspen water usage.
15. Aspen should negotiate to replace Colorado River Basin hydroelectric-power generation with renewable energy to earn water storage credits for regional reservoir.
…welcome to the Imperial Valley. Wedged in California’s southeastern corner, it’s one of the most important places you’ve probably never been. To one side of [Ralph] Strahm’s farm is the Sonoran Desert at its most stark, where creosote-studded washes give way to glimmering sand dunes and craggy mountain peaks. To the other side is an astonishingly productive agricultural empire. Nearly half a million acres of lush green fields sprawl into the distance, popping out lettuce, sugar beets, onions, cattle feed and more…
But keeping the vegetable aisle stocked comes at a cost. Imperial County farm barons use more Colorado River water than the rest of California combined. And as the planet heats up, there’s less and less water to go around…
Clean energy advocates see Imperial as an ideal place for solar farms and battery projects that can help solve the American West’s energy and water crises. The land is flat; the sunlight, abundant. The Colorado River desperately needs relief. And Imperial is one of California’s poorest counties,its agriculture-heavy economy practically crying out for diversification and higher-paying jobs But resistance to change runs deep, particularly among the few hundred families who own all the farmland. Agriculture is the only way of life many of them have known, and they’re raring to defend it. Their ancestors settled here a century ago, staking an early claim to the Colorado and carving canals to carry its riches through the desert. Again and again, they’ve faced pressure to sell water to coastal cities. They’re ready to pounce on anything that smells like a water grab. And to some of them, solar power smells like a water grab…
Lurking beneath these battles are urgent questions with no easy answers: What is the land’s best use? Who gets to decide? And how do we balance water conservation, food production and clean power generation in an era of climate emergency?
Many Western states have declared they will achieve all-renewable electrical goals in just two decades. Call me naïve, but haven’t energy experts predicted that wind, sun and other alternative energy sources aren’t up to the job?
Alice Jackson, former CEO of Xcel energy’s Colorado operation, was blunt at a renewable energy conference in February 2020: “We can reliably run our grid with up to 70% renewables. Add batteries to the mix and that number goes up to just 72%.”
Grid experts now say that Jackson’s number is 80%, but still, how will that utility and others produce that missing power?
Bill Gates and a raft of other entrepreneurs see the answer in small, modular nuclear reactors, pointing to the small nuclear engines that have safely run America’s nuclear submarines for decades.
Here’s what we know about these efficient reactors: They’re built in factories, and once in operation they’re cheap to keep going. Each module is typically 50 megawatts, self-contained, and installed underground after being transported to its site. The modular design means that when more power is needed, another reactor can be slotted in.
Breakthrough features include safety valves that automatically send coolant to the reactor if heat spikes. This feature alone could have eliminated disasters like Fukushima or Chernobyl, where water pumps failed and cores started melting down.
If small nuclear modules don’t fill the renewables gap, where else to find the “firm power” that Jackson says is needed? The Sierra Club calls on pumped hydro and geothermal as sources of reliable electricity you can just flip on when renewables slow down. But the best geothermal spots have been taken, and pumped hydro has geographic limits, and environmental resistance.
Another proposal is linking grids across the country for more efficiency. The idea is that excess wind blowing in Texas could be tapped after the sun goes down on California’s solar farms. This holds incremental promise but progress has been routinely blocked by conservative lawmakers.
There’s also the cost argument — that renewables are cheaper. In a fossil-fuel-dominated grid that’s true. However, MIT points out that as renewables dominate the grid, on-demand forms of power rise in value.
The extreme danger to the grid is the dreaded “dunkelflaute,” a German word for cloudy, windless weather that slashes solar and wind power generation for weeks.
So the problem remains: To avoid rolling blackouts, we need reliable power at the right times, which are usually from 5-8 p.m. That’s when people come home and fire up their gadgets and appliances.
The increasing demand for electricity only adds to the problem: A 2020 Washington Post articlepredicted that electrification of the economy by 2050 would result in a usage bump of 38%, mostly from vehicles. Consider Ford’s all-electric F150 Lightning, cousin to the bestselling gasoline F150. The $39,000 entry-level truck was designed to replace gasoline generators at job sites, meaning vehicle recharge happens when workers go home, just as renewables flag.
This calls into question what many experts hope car batteries can provide — doing double duty by furnishing peak power for homes at night.
Longer-lasting storage batteries have long been touted as a savior, though Tara Righetti, co-director of the Nuclear Energy Research Center at the University of Wyoming, has reservations. “There are high hopes that better batteries will be developed. But in terms of what is technically accessible right now? I think nuclear provides an appealing option.”
Meanwhile, small nuclear reactors are underway, with Bill Gates’ TerraPower building a sodium-cooled fast reactor in the coal town of Kemmerer, Wyoming. One 345-megawatt reactor, which generates enough electricity for 400,000 homes, will be paired with a molten-salt, heat storage facility.
Think of it as a constantly recharging battery in the form of stored heat. In the evening as renewable power flags, it would pump out 500 megawatts of power for up to 5 hours.
These reactors also tackle the little-known problem of cold-starting the electrical grid after an outage. In 2003, suffering a blackout, the Eastern grid could not have restarted with renewables alone.
However we choose to close the energy gap, there’s no time to lose. Wild temperature swings have grid operators increasingly nervous. California has come close to rolling blackouts, and temperatures in the West now break record after record.
As our climate becomes more erratic, reliable electricity is becoming a matter of life and death.
Dave Marston is the publisher of Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He lives in Colorado.
In Colorado’s energy transition, some work has advanced at a remarkable pace in the last 15 years. Other aspects are as perplexing now as in 2011 when Dave Bowden interviewed Matt Baker, then a Colorado public utilities commissioner, for a documentary film commemorating CRES’s accomplishments on its 15th anniversary.
Baker described a two-fold challenge. One was to achieve the legislative mandate of getting 30% of electricity from renewables while keeping the cost increase below 2%.
Check that box. In 2021, renewables provided 35% of Colorado’s electricity, according to the Energy Information Administration, even as costs of wind, solar and batteries continue to decline. And utilities now say they can achieve at least 70% by 2030 (and some aim for 100%).
With its sunny days and its windy prairies, Colorado has resources many states would envy. Plus, it’s nice to have NREL in your midst.
Clean energy technologies can and must ramp up even faster. At one time, the atmospheric pollution could be dismissed as unpleasant but worth the tradeoff. That debate has ended. The science of climate change is clear about the rising risks and unsavory outcomes of continuing this 200-year devotion to burning fossil fuels.
Big, big questions remain, though. Some are no more near resolution than they were in 2011 when Baker, who now directs the public advocates office at the California Public Utilities, identified the “desperate need to modernize the grid,” including the imperative for demand-side management.
Leave that box unchecked. Work is underway, but oh so much remains to be figured out.
For example, how much transmission do we need if we emphasize more dispersed renewable generation? Can we figure out the storage mechanisms to supplement them? Might we need fewer giant power lines from distant wind and solar farms? This debate is simmering, on the verge of boiling.
In buildings, the work is only beginning. Colorado has started, in part nudged by the host of laws adopted in 2021, among them the bill that Meillon had worked on for a decade.
Others had been working on the same issue in a different way. Consider John Avenson. Now retired, he was still working as an engineer at Bell Labs when he began retrofitting his house in Westminster to reduce its use of fossil fuels.
The house had a good foundation. It was built in the early 1980s in a program using designs created in partnership with SERI, the NREL precursor. It was part of a Passive Solar Parade of Homes in 1981. And unlike about 80% of houses in metro Denver according to the calculations of Steve Andrews, it faces south, allowing it to harvest sunshine as needed and minimizing the need for imported energy.
Avenson then tweaked and fussed over how to save energy here and then there. Finally, in 2017, he convinced himself that he no longer needed natural gas. He ordered the line stubbed.
To those who want to follow the same path, Avenson has been generous with his time. He can commonly be seen pitching in on other, mostly behind-the-scene roles, for CRES and affiliated events.
CRES’s membership is full of such individuals, people committed to taking action, whether in their own lives or in making the case why change must occur in our policies.
But what about the carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere? Can it be mopped up just a bit? Certainly, it’s better to not emit emissions. But we’re cornered now. Focus is growing on ways to return carbon from the atmosphere into the soil. Revised and rewarded agricultural practices may be one way. That will be a component of a major bill in the 2023 Colorado General Assembly climate change docket.
This is also a topic that Larson, since his time in Africa after the Reagan administration short-sheeted the solar laboratory in Golden, has avidly promoted. In 2007, the idea got a name: biochar. It is one technique for restoring carbon to soils. Today, it remains an obtuse idea to most people. It may be useful to remember that a renewables-powered economy sounded weird to many people in 1996, if they thought about it at all.
CRES has been regaining its financial health. “Through disciplined and lean operations, we have been able to slowly grow our annual income to nearly $40,000 a year,” said Eberle, the board president at a 25th anniversary celebration in October. “We have a solid financial base to not only maintain our current programs but consider new opportunities.”
The question lingers for those deeply engaged in CRES about what exactly its role can be and should be.
Always, there are opportunities for informed citizens such as those who are the lifeblood of CRES. Mike Kruger made this point clear in a CRES presentation in October 2022. As the executive director of COSSA, he routinely contacts elected officials and their staff in Washington D.C.
“The same thing happens at the State Capitol,” he said. Two or three phone calls to a state legislator has been enough to bring to their attention a particular issue or even change their vote.
And that takes us to the big, big question: What exactly has CRES achieved in its 26 years?
In this history you have read about a few salient elements:
the shove of Xcel into accepting Colorado Green;
the passing of Amendment 37, which raised Colorado’s profile nationally and set the stage for the election of Bill Ritter on a platform of stepped-up integration of renewables;
the work in recent years to revamp the calculations used in evaluating alternatives to methane.
Teasing out accomplishments, connecting lines directly can be a difficult task. Perhaps instructive might be a sideways glance to other major societal changes. Much has been written about the civil rights movement after World War II that culminated in the landmark federal legislation of the mid-1960s.
There were individuals, most notably the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and, in some contexts, his key lieutenants, John Lewis and Jessie Jackson.
But there were others. Consider the march from Selma to Montgomery. There were strong-willed individuals such as Amelia Boynton Robinson and, at one point in the Selma story, the school children themselves who took up the cause as their parents and other elders hesitated.
Civil rights and the energy transition have differences. The former had a deep moral component that was not yet clearly evident in energy when CRES was founded in 1996. The seriousness of climate change was not at the same level then, although arguably it is now.
Now Colorado has emerged as a national leader in this energy transition. For that, CRES deserves recognition. It’s not a singular success. CRES has had teammates in this. But it can rightfully take credit.
Other installments in this series about the history of CRES:
The organization grew and then decided to spread its wings. It didn’t work out, raising questions of how a group like CRES should operate. What it did do was expand with two new chapters in Colorado.
CRES has had its ups and downs, its time of growth and expanding influence and then times of retraction.
Annual conferences have been held but with some lengthy gaps. The first, held in 1998 at Snow Mountain Ranch, between Granby and Fraser, was regarded as a splendid retreat. However, CRES leaders decided it would be better to hold conferences in places more accessible to the broader public and with greater geographic diversity. Accordingly, the 2002 conference was held in Colorado Springs with Amory Lovins as the featured speaker. The next was in Montrose, followed by the University of Denver, with still others in Fort Collins, Pueblo, and then again in Montrose.
Remarks made by speakers at the conference in Steamboat Springs in June 2007 reveal the rapid change during the last 15 years.
Organizers had recruited Stan Lewandowski, then general manager of Intermountain Rural Electric Association (now called CORE Electric Cooperative) to explain himself. He was known for his embrace of coal and for his financial contribution to Pat Michaels, a climate scientist who argued global warming will cause relatively minor and even beneficial charges. Renewables, said Lewandowski, were expensive, and he refused to socialize their cost to the detriment of elderly people on fixed income.
Now, that same cooperative—under new leadership—is hurrying to get out of its ownership in what will likely be Colorado’s last operating coal plant, Comanche 3.
Chuck Kutscher, then an engineer at NREL (and now a member of the CRES policy committee), also spoke, stressing the importance of the “beef” of energy efficiency to the “sizzle” of renewables. Paul Bony, who was then with Delta-Montrose Electric Association, told about the 100 ground-source heat pumps whose installation he had overseen.
Keynote speaker at the 2007 conference in Steamboat Springs was Patty Limerick, a historian from the University of Colorado-Boulder, who talked about energy conversions of the past 200 years. She warned against expecting immediate change. Even adoption of fossil fuels, if “astonishing in its scale and scope of change,” did not arrive as “one, coherent sequential change.” Fossil fuels, she noted, had lifted women out of household drudgery.
And she left listeners to ponder this thought: “The most consequential question of the early 21st century is who controls the definition of progress.”
Membership in CRES grew from 200 to 2,000 during the 21st century’s first decade. Sheila Townsend, executive director from 2001 to 2011, deftly managed all of CRES’s events, including fundraising, the group’s annual conference, Tour of Solar Homes, and annual party, supported by well-staffed teams of volunteer members over the years.
The Tour of Solar Homes has been an annual event since the beginning of CRES—and an important money raiser, too. Starting in 1996, the tour was focused on Golden but then expanded to the Denver metro area under the umbrella of New Energy Colorado. The tours are part of ASES’s national network, conducted over many years, to showcase green-built and sustainable homes.
From its roots in Golden, driven largely by SERI/NREL employees who sought a greater public impact for renewables, CRES also added new chapters elsewhere in Colorado. Some had lasting power, others not so much. For example, chapters had been created in Durango and Montrose in the early 2000’s. They didn’t survive. The populations were relatively small, and the distances to other population centers too great.
The chapter founded in Pueblo in 2003 had greater success. Tom Corlett and Judy Fosdick founded SECRES (for South East) with the hope of advancing distributed generation and helping develop support for Amendment 37. In time, the chapter gravitated to Colorado Springs, where its current organizer Jim Riggins points with pride to outreach efforts with youngsters in local schools as well as some collaborations with the local military institutions. “Our goal is to inform and educate in a fashion as unbiased as we can and let people make their own decisions based on facts,” he says.
NCRES (for Northern) has cut a notable swath in Larimer County. Jim Manuel had been active in CRES in Jefferson County and other precursor groups in Denver, including the Energy Network, before moving to Loveland. There and in Fort Collins he found kindred spirits who would sometimes meet at restaurants, other times at Colorado State University.
Manuel says he began thinking that it would make sense to be formally affiliated with CRES in an organizational structure similar to that of the Colorado Mountain Club. That latter group has its largest membership in Denver but has chapters at various locations around Colorado. One advantage was avoiding the necessity of duplicating non-profit status by forming a different 501(c)(3).
Alex Blackmer was asked if his off-the-grid solar home in Redstone Canyon, west of Fort Collins, could be included in the 1998 solar tour. His friends who organized that event then started attending NCRES gatherings at the Odell Brewery.
“The meetings were always great networking events and gave me a range of valuable business contacts that have served me to this day,” says Blackmer, who later became a state board member. “In fact, I met my two current business partners through my NCRES interactions. We now a run a nation-wide solar financing company (Solaris Energy) that has been a player in the exponential growth of the solar industry in the last 10 years,” he says.
“I think that my work with NCRES and CRES added greatly to my ability to grow Solaris by making the personal connections and contacts necessary to put all the pieces together.”
Blackmer says that without CRES, he’s not sure Solaris would ever have grown into the successful business that it is. “And it would not have had the national impact that it is now having,” he adds.
Broad influences of NCRES and other chapters can be hard to document. Peter Eberle, the current chair of the state board of directors as well as the leader of NCRES, believes that NCRES, working in concert with other groups, has nudged Fort Collins toward its ambitions to redefine energy. The community’s energy deliberations have drawn national attention, sometimes eclipsing Colorado’s better-known university town.
Blackmer concurs, citing the “steady pressure from the bottom to move the city in the direction of more renewable energy.”
Wade Troxel, a mechanical engineering professor at Colorado State University who has been personally and professionally involved in pushing that transition, confirms being influenced by CRES programming. He sometimes attended NCRES meetings, occasionally asking questions. “I was very aware of NCRES,” says Troxell, who was mayor from 2015 to 2021.
The 501(c)(3) non-profit status for CRES is formally based in Fort Collins in conjunction with Colorado State University’s Powerhouse Energy Campus. That’s where postal mail goes.
A stumble, then a rebirth
Still sensitive more than a decade later is the 2010 decision to spread the organization’s wings by hiring a full-time director. In the eyes of at least some of its members, the organization tended to be “clubby.” Everybody knew everybody else, and the atmosphere was collegial.
But in terms of impact? Well, board members believed CRES could step up its game.
Carol Tombari was among the board members who voted to hire Tony Frank, the clear favorite because of his experience at the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union.
She describes the times around 2010 as difficult. Yes, there had been substantial wins: Colorado Green in 2001, Amendment 37 in 2004, and the 57 bills passed during the Ritter Administration. But public policy was a slog. Advocates were finding it difficult to make their case.
“We did not want to hire somebody who was like us, because we clearly had not succeeded,” says Tombari, now retired from NREL and living in Texas. “We needed somebody who had much more of an entrepreneurial approach than we did. Some of us were academics, some of us were scientists. We weren’t entrepreneurial.”
Tony Frank emerged as the clear favorite. He wanted an office, so a lease was negotiated for space at a cost of $3,000 per year in a former school in North Denver repurposed for non-profit office space. A salary of $55,000 per year was negotiated along with modest insurance and other benefits. The bill, including office space, for the new director came to $68,590 for his first year.
The director was to raise the profile of CRES in the Legislature and elsewhere. CRES was to become the go-to organization for renewable energy in Colorado.
CRES became a partner in creating what was then called the Denver Sustainability Park in the Five Points neighborhood. From his previous experiences with non-profit organizations, Frank was able to introduce CRES volunteers to key state legislators.
But the executive director—this is crucial—was required to figure out how to pay his or her salary. This happened, but not enough. Possibly a factor was that Frank was hired even as the effects of the 2009-2010 recession lingered. When he resigned in February 2012 after nearly two years at the helm, the treasury had drawn down to $59,000. He was replaced by a part-time executive director.
‘We all knew it was risky,” says Tombari. “We felt it was a risk worth taking. It just didn’t work out.”
What lessons can be drawn from this? The simplest takeaway is that CRES over-reached.
The deeper question, though, is what does it take to create an organization with impact? The education that has always been front-and-center of CRES has impact, and grassroots activism has impact. But volunteerism usually needs to be anchored by staff to achieve deeper leverage.
Michael Haughey arrived on the board in 2010 after the decision had largely been made to hire a full-time director. He says he counseled fellow members against the hiring without first creating a better plan to raise money.
“The expectation was that the new director would raise the profile of CRES and money will come. That was the hope, but it didn’t work.”
In a recent interview, he cited the Colorado chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, which created a book of instruction on LEED certification. It sold nationally and continues to sell—creating the revenue to pay the salary of full-time director. With its arsenal of videos, CRES might now have something similar, he says.
Larry Christiansen, another board member at the time, applauds the effort to professionalize CRES and to add muscle to its mission. To be taken seriously, he says, an organization needs full-time staff working from offices.
While CRES temporarily elevated, it didn’t get far enough along to make a legitimate “ask” for funding. Neither the executive director nor board members felt comfortable in making that ask.
“We did not have a board that was able to go out and ask for money or bring money to the table,” he says. “To get an organization off the ground, you need some fundraisers on the board.”
Here’s a question to ponder:
So, why do some organizations immediately spread their wings and others do not? The comparison that may be most relevant is Boulder-based Southwest Energy Efficiency Project [SWEEP]. It was founded in 2001, five years after CRES. It now has a staff of 18 spread out across Colorado as well as other Southwestern states. SWEEP definitely gets invited to the table for policy discussions.
Howard Geller, its founder, had previously been in Washington D.C., where he had established a reputation. That likely made fundraising easier.
Two new chapters
Distributed energy has been one theme for the transition to renewables. That has also been the model for CRES. From three chapters, CRES has grown to five strong chapters during the last decade
Boulder’s chapter, called BCRES, was organized in Boulder in 2014. Kirsten Frysinger, one of the three co-founders, had graduated in 2013 from the University of Colorado-Boulder with a masters’ degree in environmental studies. When Roger Alexander, then the board chair, asked for volunteers from the Boulder area to start the chapter, she enthusiastically raised her hand. She had a strong motivation.
“I needed to find work,’ says Frysinger. “I needed to network with people.”
It took a few years, but she succeeded. Having coffee with CRES member Leslie Glustrom, she learned of a job opening at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project for an operations manager. She applied for the job at SWEEP and was hired.
The BCRES meetings, which were commonly attended by 50 to 100 people before covid, always begin with an invitation to job-seekers to announce themselves, their qualifications, and hopes. Job providers were then given time. At a September 2022 meeting, the first in-person gathering since covid, half of attendees were seeking jobs.
In Denver, MDCRES (for metro Denver) has become a significant player. A prominent figure there—and in the CRES policy and other groups—has been Jonathan Rogers. He arrived in Colorado in 2018 as an energy consultant. In that capacity he began seeking out professional groups. CRES emerged on that landscape. What he found was a refreshing change from Washington DC.
“It was all talk,” says Rogers of his time in Washington. “It was decades-long research and development, everybody was a consultant, and the only real buyer was the government. So we had the same conversations over and over again.”
Somewhat around the same time as Rogers joined CRES he took a job as the City of Denver’s representative in regulatory affairs. It was his job to build relationships with legislators and get immersed in affairs of the PUC, which operates in mostly arcane ways that can test the patience even of lawyers.
It’s one thing to pass a bill, he observes, but another yet to execute it. That, as the cliché goes, is where the rubber meets the road.
The covid pandemic caused MDCRES to shift its programming to online. Attendance jumped to 70 attendees, but then slackened in 2022 as other activities resumed. If convenient, online sessions deprive attendees the pleasure of face-to-face networking. CRES chapters altogether have been trying to strike the right balance.
In Jefferson County, Martin Voelker arrived to continue the thread of prior meetings at the Jefferson Unitarian Church. A native of Germany, Voelker had been a journalist before emigrating to the United States in 1997 with his wife, a college professor. In Boston, while his wife taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Voelker interviewed progressive speakers.
In 2004, the Voelker family moved to Golden where his wife had secured a professorship at the Colorado School of Mines. With the lower-priced real estate of Golden compared to that of Boston, there was enough financial comfort that Martin decided he did not need to chase a paycheck. Beginning in 2015, he began pouring his energy into assembling monthly programs for JCRES.
Voelker traces his epiphany, his desire to get more active, to the appearance in Boulder by Bill McKibben. Voelker had actually interviewed McKibben when in Boston, but he was galvanized by McKibben’s speech in Boulder during McKibben’s national tour following his compelling 2012 essay in Rolling Stone, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.”
“Knowing stuff is fine and dandy, and if you don’t do anything about it, what is it really worth?” says Voelker.
Securing speakers has never been a problem for Voelker, given the proximity of NREL to other institutions in the Denver-Boulder area. He has filmed and edited dozens of the group’s events, building up a large on-line library of CRES and other presentations.
Our environment and economy are at a crossroads. This paper attempts a cohesive narrative on how human evolved behavior, money, energy, economy and the environment fit together. Humans strive for the same emotional state of our successful ancestors. In a resource rich environment, we coordinate in groups, corporations and nations, to maximize financial surplus, tethered to energy, tethered to carbon. At global scales, the emergent result of this combination is a mindless, energy hungry, CO2 emitting Superorganism. Under this dynamic we are now behaviorally ‘growth constrained’ and will use any means possible to avoid facing this reality. The farther we kick the can, the larger the disconnect between our financial and physical reality becomes. The moment of this recalibration will be a watershed time for our culture, but could also be the birth of a new ‘systems economics’. and resultant different ways of living. The next 30 years are the time to apply all we’ve learned during the past 30 years. We’ve arrived at a species level conversation.
“Ecological Economics addresses the relationships between ecosystems and economic systems in the broadest sense.” –Robert Costanza, (the first sentence in the first article in the first issue of Ecological Economics)
“The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology.”– E.O. Wilson
“We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.”–Jean Baudrillard
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” –James Baldwin
The story so far.Triggered by the oil embargoes of the 1970s, Colorado became a forum for explorations of alternative futures for energy. One outcome was creation of a grassroots organization called the Colorado Renewable Energy Society was created in 1996. The organization aimed to provide education, but it also part of a team effort early on to show why Colorado’s largest utility should buy wind power at a project called Colorado Green.
The 2004 success of Amendment 37, Colorado’s first renewable energy mandate, was preceded by nearly a decade of failure. Mark Udall, a Democratic state legislator from Boulder County in the 1990s, had sponsored legislation that proposed to give consumers rights to choose clean energy. He couldn’t get it across the legislative finish line. After Udall went to Congress in 1998, his mission was taken up by what some might have seen an unlikely source, a Republican legislator from rural Colorado.
That legislator, Lola Spradley, the first female speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, had grown up on a farm in Weld County. There, when crops failed, production royalties from “stripper” oil wells—those nearing the end of their productive life—paid the farm’s property taxes. She saw wind turbines being the equivalent of oil wells, a way to secure income for rural landowners in years of crop failures. Lehr says she told him that she also understood the power of a large monopoly because she had worked for AT&T when it was called “Ma Bell” in Colorado and enjoyed a monopoly on telecommunications. She said she understood irrational monopoly behavior toward suppliers and their general aversion to change.
Spradley, representing rural areas of southern Colorado, three times beginning in 2001 proposed the minimum renewable energy standard along with Democratic colleagues from Boulder County. Votes were narrow, but she always fell short.
Rick Gilliam, then with Western Resource Advocates, tells about rising frustration with the legislative process. But although popular accounts have always fingered Xcel Energy as the stick in the renewable mud, he tells a more nuanced story.
“Really it was the coops that stopped it,” he says. “And here’s the thing: It didn’t even apply to them. It would not have applied to any of the coops. They talked about how dangerous renewables would be. In fact, I remember a guy (likely the individual who then directed the Colorado Rural Electric Association) who testified during a committee hearing in the third year we made a run about this. He was arguing against rooftop solar. ‘If you pass this bill, people are going to die,’ he said. I almost laughed out loud, because it was so ludicrous to go to that extreme to try to scare people. I don’t think many of the legislators took him seriously. But it showed how worried and maybe even scared the coops were.”
Finally, that third year, Matt Baker—who was then head of Environment Colorado—proposed a back-up plan. If legislators said no again, then they would make their case directly to voters through a ballot initiative.
That’s what they did. They needed 68,000 signatures to get on the ballot. The allied environmental groups and CRES delivered 115,000. Baker and Gilliam became the most prominent public faces for the advocates.
Gilliam had a wealth of experience on several sides of the energy equation. His first job out of college was with the Federal Energy Regulatory commission in Washington D.C. After six years there, he was offered a position with the Public Service Co. He immediately fell in love with Colorado. He stayed with the company for 12 years and acquired an education in how investor-owned utilities operate and their relations with state regulators. In addition to energy efficiency and demand-management programs, he helped figure out how to shut down St. Vrain, then a trouble-plagued nuclear reactor, and replace it with natural gas-fired generation.
In 1993, he made another career move, this time going to work for Western Resource Advocates. His recruiter there was Eric Blank, who is now chairman of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. Gilliam agreed to a year-long term that turned into 12.
During his time while still at Xcel he had also begun thinking about an alternative energy paradigm. A pivotal experience was leading a tour of Pawnee, the coal-fired power plant near Brush that began operations in 1984. He remembers the dirtiness of coal, wondering if there was a better way. Reading the works of Amory Lovins in Sierra Club bulletins and elsewhere, Gilliam became persuaded by solar energy in particular.
“I always thought it was the coolest technology. It is lovely because it has no moving parts. You just put it out there and it generates electricity.”
On the campaign trail that summer, Gilliam and others found a mostly receptive audience along the Front Range. Fort Collins, for example, had already adopted renewables requirement for its city utility, requiring that 15% of its power come from wind sources by 2015, double what was being proposed for Colorado.
In rural Colorado, the reception was mixed. Rocky Mountain Farmers Union favored the initiative, and the Farm Bureau opposed it.
For some audiences Spradley had a colorful analogy. She described the wind turbines as upside down oil wells. Her view was that it would “keep people on the farm.”
Later, Gilliam and other advocates learned that Xcel had had a strong conversation within its corporate ranks about what position to take. In the end, says Gilliam, the utility seems to have been persuaded by Tri-State Generation and Transmission, Colorado’s second largest utility, about the need for a united front.
“Don’t downplay their opposition too much,” he says. “But they didn’t feel internally near as strongly as Tri-State did.”
Advocates lined up 1,000 volunteers – including many members of CRES. Video scenes for the campaign commercials were provided by Dave Bowden, president of CRES in 2004, who led the group’s fundraising and voter education efforts for the ballot initiative.
Early polling showed 70% to 75% of Colorado voters favoring Amendment 37.
Advocates secured funding for $500,0000 (including $10,000 from CRES), mostly for TV commercials. Xcel, Tri-State, and Washington-based utility trade groups raised $1.5 million, outspending the advocates three to one. Had they started earlier, they might have defeated the initiative. It passed 53.4% to 46.6%. It was the nation’s first voter-initiated renewable-energy standard and a huge victory for CRES and Colorado’s clean energy champions.
Momentum was building: First Colorado Green, then Amendment 37.
What followed soon after was Colorado’s first gubernatorial campaign built on the premise of renewable energy. Its proponent? A one-time farm boy named Bill Ritter Jr.
Next: Next: Bill Ritter was in a tight race until he fired his advertising team and made a commercial that he wanted standing in front of the wind turbines in southeastern Colorado..
In 2000, Colorado’s largest utility rejected a proposed wind farm near Lamar. Why? A team that included CRES fought back. The result: Colorado Green — followed by others.
The story so far.Triggered by the oil embargoes of the 1970s, Colorado became a forum for explorations of alternative futures for energy. Some of those involved in this conversation were natives, others drawn to the state by creation of the Solar Energy Research Institute, the precursor to NREL. Spurred by a national solar organization, a grassroots organization called the Colorado Renewable Energy Society was created in 1996.
The Public Service Co. of Colorado, a subsidiary of Xcel Energy, is a state-regulated investor-owned utility offering electricity and natural gas. In a model created by utility executive Samuel Insull early in the 20th century, Xcel and other investor-owned utilities operate as monopoly service providers but, in exchange, submit to state regulation.
In addition to exercising control over rates, Colorado regulators require the company to file an electric resource plan every three years and to acquire generation resources through competitive bidding. The plan Xcel filed in November 1999 was for new resources to be acquired from 2002 through 2004.
To meet that demand, Xcel planned to go to a familiar tool chest: natural gas. Colorado utilities in the 1990s had been ramping up natural gas generation in ever-larger configurations, a practice that was to continue into the first decade of the 21st century. Altogether, 5,195.5 megawatts of natural gas generating capacity was added in the 20-year period. Coupled with the new natural gas-fired generators, Xcel also planned very modest demand-side management programs. Absent from Xcel’s plans in 1999 was new wind generation.
Colorado from its earliest days of homesteading had windmills to pump water. Some were configured to generate small amounts of electricity. Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, wind developers began assessing the state’s wind resources. They found much to exploit.
By the late 1990s, Xcel had also dabbled in wind via a new program called Windsource. Customers had the opportunity, if they chose, to pay extra for “clean” wind energy. Their demand was met in the late 1990s first by Ponnequin Wind Farm, a project located along the Wyoming border north of Greeley, the state’s first commercial-scale wind farm. It had a capacity of 25.3 megawatts. It was followed by the 25-megawatt wind farm on the Peetz Table north of Sterling in 2001.
The program had been instigated as a result of prodding by CRES and other groups that included Environment Colorado, the Sierra Club, and the Roaring Fork Valley’s Community Office for Resource Efficiency, known as CORE.
Plenty more wind was available for development. Colorado’s steadiest, most reliable winds blow in the state’s southeastern corner, near the center of the Dust Bowl havoc of the 1930s. The “quality” of the wind—a word used with the prejudice of electrical production in mind – ranks very high. The state energy office had used U.S. Department of Energy funds and help from NREL to place a meteorology tower near Lamar, atop Signal Hill, to record wind velocities.
With those data in hand, a California-based wind company called Zond Systems created a proposal for a wind farm 22 miles south of Lamar. The company was later sold and became Enron Wind.
Xcel would have nothing to do with the proposal. Too costly, the company said in response to three repeated applications from Enron. The third time, renewable advocates discovered that Xcel had added $61 million to the bid price on the presumption of added costs for transmission and for integrating wind into the company’s electric operations. Those padded costs aside, the bid that Xcel had rejected was for electricity costing 3.2 cents per kilowatt-hour. That was lower in cost than all other of Xcel’s generating sources in Colorado aside from the small hydro plant along Interstate 70 at Georgetown Lake.
Lehr had taken note. Working pro bono on behalf of CRES, he set out to demonstrate why the PUC should order Xcel to properly consider the bid from southeastern Colorado.
One of the experts he tapped was Andrews, the former SERI contractor who had by then been studying energy for more than two decades. Andrews warned the PUC commissioners to be skeptical of Xcel’s predicted low prices for natural gas. Although he did much research before putting on his coat and tie to testify before the PUC commissioners, Andrews remembers being on shaky ground in his projections. In the short term, he was proven correct, though. Natural gas prices skyrocketed to $14.50 per million Btu in 2008. Xcel had predicted $3 or less. Xcel was correct for the longer term as fracking and other advanced drilling techniques produced a flood of cheap natural gas.
The second part of the case against Xcel came from Law and Water Fund of the Rockies, now called Western Resource Advocates. John Nielsen identified flaws in Xcel’s modeling of benefits of wind to Xcel’s generating fleet.
NREL researcher Michael Milligan provided the final evidence for the wind proposal. He testified to the improved skill in predicting wind capacity. That enhanced ability to predict wind made it easier to integrate it into electrical supplies.
The PUC commissioners were persuaded. They ordered Xcel to contract for power from the 108-turbine Colorado Green proposal.
When completed in 2004, Colorado Green was the fifth largest wind farm in the United States, capable of generating 162 megawatts. It was a huge victory for CRES and other clean energy advocates.
Since then it has been repowered with updated technology, enabling it to produce even more electricity. Even so, its production has been dwarfed by that of other, much larger wind projects that have become common in Colorado, including the 600-megawatt Rush Creek Wind Project between Limon and Colorado Springs.
Those wind farms have augmented tax revenues and added some long-term, well-paying jobs to struggling farm communities on Colorado’s eastern plains. Colorado Green, for example, paid $2 million a year in local property taxes upon its completion, and it has since been expanded and joined by other wind farms. In addition, the Emick family, on whose land Colorado Green sits, has been reported to have created a foundation to endow local improvements.
Among the boosters of Colorado Green in Prowers County was John Stulp, then a county commissioner who also grew wheat on a nearby farm. Colorado Green has been what he says he expected.
“It’s been good for the tax base. It’s not a huge employer, but it’s good employment for the 10 or 12 who are on the operations and maintenance crews. They pay their bills. The county has gotten along with them reasonably well. They’re good corporate neighbors, so to speak, and it’s clean energy,” says Stulp, who led the Colorado Department of Agriculture for four years in the administration of Gov. Bill Ritter, then was a special water advisor to Gov. John Hickenlooper for eight years.
Colorado Green, the first major advocacy case for CRES, also opened the door to Amendment 37. It put Colorado on the national renewable map.
Next: Rejected at the Legislature, renewable advocates take their case directly to voters.
Colorado in the late 1970s had a convergence of people who thought there had to be another way to power a civilization. Among them were the founders of the Colorado Renewable Energy Society.
Cleve Simpson was one of two state legislators who attended the Colorado Renewable Energy Society’s annual conference in 2022. The reason was not immediately obvious.
The second legislator was scheduled to receive an award that afternoon at the sunshine-dappled Unitarian Church between Golden and Wheat Ridge. But why was Simpson, a Republican who represents the San Luis Valley as well as southwestern Colorado, there to hear about microgrids, agrivoltaics, and other presentations?
Since its founding in 1996, the Colorado Renewable Energy Society has been a fount of educational programming about solar, wind, and other subjects related to energy.
The organization has often provided grassroots and sometimes grasstops—some members are unusually well connected—advocacy for taking steps to achieve this deepening penetration.
Simpson, a graduate of the Colorado School of Mines, is listed on the General Assembly website as being a “farmer/rancher.” That description falls short of his resume. He was a mining engineer who worked 20 years in the lignite coal fields of Texas as well as in Australia before returning to his roots. He’s a fourth-generation farmer in the San Luis Valley.
And farming in the San Luis Valley has a very fundamental challenge. Current levels of water extraction cannot be sustained. Land must necessarily be trimmed from production. Simpson attended the CRES conference, he confided later, because he was interested in how renewable energy–solar, in particular–can leave his farming-based communities economically whole. He was at the meeting to inform himself for his work as a state legislator but also as director of the Rio Grande Water Conservancy District, the agency that must oversee those cuts in water.
Just how the CRES conference may influence Simpson in his duties as a state legislator cannot be said. Only occasionally can dots be directly connected. But he was there, listening intently.
That has been the role of CRES from its founding in Golden during a time when solar was still expensive and the near-term risks of climate change not as clearly defined. It has been, first and foremost, an educational forum, but also a place for people focused on renewable energy to connect and sometimes take direct action, as in advocacy on behalf of the nation’s first voter-initiated renewable energy mandate. At times, CRES has also articulated visions that have resulted in the bills considered and then passed by state legislators.
Many of the challenges that 25 years ago seemed so imposing have now been surmounted. Renewable energy has become the first, not the last, option in electrical generation.
Has CRES outlived its purpose? Certainly not. If old arguments against renewables about cost and integration have been dismantled, renewables must still be scaled even more rapidly than has now occurred if the worst of climate change impacts are to be avoided. There are questions about the impediments to transmission and the proper role of large and central renewables vs. local renewable resources such as rooftop solar. There are questions about the role of storage and its formats, the role of nuclear—if any, and how agriculture can be integrated into decarbonization.
Too, the atmospheric situation has deteriorated so rapidly that the question of mechanisms to draw carbon dioxide from the sky has become legitimate.
Colorado is well on its way to achieving penetration of renewables that was unimaginable even a decade ago. That summit is within sight. But beyond lie many other mountains yet to be climbed. No, CRES has not outlived its purpose.
Coming together of minds
Colorado was a logical place for solar supporters to gather. The state’s 300 days of sunshine is a cliché that happens to be true. It ranks sixth among the 50 states in average annual sunlight.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory also played a major role ithe creation of CRES. The laboratory was established in 1977 as the Solar Energy Research Institute, or SERI, whose second director was Denis Hayes. As president of the student body at Stanford University in 1970, Hayes helped organize the first Earth Day.
Creation of SERI brought others to Colorado who then figure into the creation of CRES and, more broadly, Colorado’s emergence as a national leader. One of them was Ron Larson, a figure with deep and continuous presence in CRES since its founding in 1996.
In 1972, though, Larson was a young professor of electrical engineering in Atlanta at Georgia Tech who focused on a narrow component of electromagnetics with implications for capabilities of the U.S. military.
Larson wanted more, to scratch a career itch. He applied and was then chosen to represent IEEE, the professional engineering and technology association, as a Congressional fellow. He planned to return to Georgia after a year in Washington. He did not. Something happened during his first week in Washington that profoundly altered his career path—and that of the nation. Arab oil producing states in the Mideast announced an embargo of exports to the United States.
Priorities in Washington shifted dramatically. Larson went to work for the House Science Committee, where he was assigned to work on two solar bills.
Solar photovoltaics, which now has capacity to generate electricity for less than $1 a watt, with prices still descending, then cost 100 times as much. That expense limited its use primarily to exploration of space. The federal budget for research was small, just $4 million to $5 million, but there was strong, bipartisan enthusiasm to pursue solar research. The oil embargo fueled even greater interest, mostly in solar heating for space and water.
“Barry Goldwater wanted solar energy,” says Larson, referring to the U.S. senator from Arizona who was also the 1964 Republican presidential candidate. “Renewable energy then was bipartisan. Everybody was for it.”
A law quickly passed in 1974 authorized creation of SERI. Golden, Colorado was chosen for the site. With a position secured at the laboratory, Larson and his wife, Gretchen, arrived July 5, 1977.
When the Larsons arrived, another young man in Colorado was already devoted to advancing use of solar energy. Morey Wolfson had been a graduate student at the University of Colorado in 1970 when he organized the nation’s third-largest Earth Day celebration. Soon after he set out to learn what was known about solar energy. The Denver Public Library had 35 books on squirrels, he discovered, but just one book on solar. That book had been checked out just once in the six years after being published in 1964.
The takeaway conclusion of that book, “Direct Use of the Sun’s Energy,” by Farrington Daniels, was that there “was no technical reason why direct use of the sun’s energy cannot be the basis for the energy needs of an advanced economy.” [ed. emphasis mine]
From 1973 to 1983, Wolfson operated the Solar Bookstore in Denver at Colfax Avenue and York Street. The store was devoted to renewable energy, and the mail-order business patronized by architects and others kept it afloat, if barely. Wolfson also helped found various environmental groups in Denver before closing the bookstore and joining the staff of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission in 1985. At the PUC, among other assignments, Wolfson was executive assistant to the three commissioners.
Among the commissioners was Ron Lehr, an important figure in Colorado’s energy transition. Lehr’s first glimpse of the issues with which he has been engaged occurred in 1965 when his sister and a friend rafted down the soon-to-be submerged Glen Canyon in southern Utah. She was outraged at the imminent sacrifice of such a beautiful canyon, which the Sierra Club had been working to preserve. The club’s position included the argument that the hydroelectric production from Glen Canyon Dam was unneeded because coal was plentiful on the nearby Kaiparowits Plateau. “It’s important to be humble over time,” Lehr observes wryly.
In 1976, the writings of Amory Lovins, a MacArthur Genius Award prize-winner, captivated Lehr. Reacting to the oil embargo had inspired Lovins to fundamentally rethink the energy equation to include demand as well as supply. His 1976 essay in Foreign Affairs, “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken,” changed energy debates permanently.
The path Lovins advocated “combines a prompt and serious commitment to efficient use of energy, rapid development of renewable energy sources matched in scale and in energy quality to end-use needs, and special transitional fossil-fuel technologies. This path, a whole greater than the sum of its parts, diverges radically from incremental past practices to pursue long-term goals.”
The message from Lovins, then revolutionary, today remains profound in its implications. “You read it and the world shifts,” says Lehr of Lovins’s essay. “Thinking about energy could never be the same.”
Lehr downplays his contributions since then. Others say he has been a pivotal figure.“I just happened to be standing there,” he says. “My life has been like that. I have been close to those insights and have been able to pick them up and repeat them and help to make change happen.”
The Colorado in which Denver natives Lehr and Wolfson came of age and to which Larson arrived in the 1970s was blessed– some would say cursed–with fossil fuels of all kinds. It had hydrocarbons in various chemical forms and geological settings, along with methane and coal. Too, it was proximate to the vast inland sea of hydrocarbons in Wyoming and Montana called the Powder River Basin. But it also had outstanding wind and solar resources and intellectual capital.
As Colorado’s population between 1960 and 1980 expanded from 1.8 million to 2.9 million, demand for electricity grew even more robustly. Utilities responded with ever-larger coal-burning plants, the last (until Comanche 3 in 2010) completed in 1984. Coal was cheap, the pollution it produced accepted as a cost of progress as it had been since the start of the Industrial Revolution.
As for solar – well, it was the stuff for space missions, not for earthly tasks. Or so went the conventional logic.
Telling was the fate of the institute that had drawn Larson to Colorado. After Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, he dismantled the solar panels on the White House that his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, had erected. Carter had also traveled to Colorado in 1978 to dedicate the new solar energy research institute. Reagan’s administration three years later slashed the budget from $130 million to $50 million.
The solar research didn’t cease, but it slowed through the Reagan years.
Hayes, the director, told Rolling Stone magazine’s Jeff Goodell in a 2020 interview that the day he got that news was the most horrible day of his life. “It was harder than the days my parents died,” he said. “I spent much of the next year writing letters of recommendation for people, many of whom I had lured out to this thing, and then they suddenly had their lives shattered.”
Steve Andrews was among the contractors who was let go. He remembers well the remarks of Hayes in announcing the news. Hayes called the Department of Energy administrators “dull gray men in dull gray suits thinking dull, gray thoughts.” Instead of taking a scalpel to the skin, he added, the Department of Energy had taken a meat-ax to the muscle of the SERI staff.
“My recollection is that after those remarks, he was required to leave the building a few hours sooner than had been planned,” say Andrews. “The DOE dudes didn’t want more scorched earth salvos delivered by Denis.”
Larson also left. His next career move was to Khartoum, in the African country of Sudan, on an assignment by Georgia Tech as part of a U.S. Administration for International Development mission. Later, he returned to Golden but never to Georgia.
The birth of CRES
CRES was preceded by several grassroots organizations in the Denver area with the same general mission.
The Denver Solar Energy Society, which was later reorganized as the Denver Energy Resource Center, was similar to CRES in that it had monthly educational meetings. It even had paid staff for a time as interest surged in solar during the early 1980s because of federal tax credits adopted in 1977. As many as 400 people attended meetings. Tours of solar homes were conducted, aided by 40-page brochures.
Then, in 1985, federal tax credits expired. Solar enthusiasm vanished.
A national advocacy group, the American Solar Energy Society, or ASES, obviously saw a more prominent role for solar, as did those working at the laboratory in Golden that had been defunded. By 1991, the tide had turned again. President George H.W. Bush visited Golden that year to mark the designation of the solar laboratory as a national laboratory with a broader mission. It became NREL.
Larson says CRES was launched at the instigation of ASES, using funds inherited from the then-defunct Denver solar organization. In its very earliest years, it had a huge crossover in membership with NREL employees. It still has crossover, if not quite as much.
That interplay with NREL was reflected in the initial leadership of H.M. “Hub” Hubbard. He had arrived in Colorado to lead SERI after Hayes was fired.
“Hubbard was a very well-known solar expert in the mid-1990s,” says Larson. “I was behind him in line for dinner and asked him if he would be willing to be chair of CRES, and he said yes. We could not have had a more important person for the first year. In my mind, we might not have been a success without Hubbard.”
Hubbard gave CRES instant credibility and facilitated NREL as the meeting place for several years. Wolfson—who left the PUC in 1999—helped coordinate some of that CRES programming in his new job at NREL. Many of those presenting informational sessions then—and continuing today—were researchers from NREL. Meetings were attended by 20 to 50 people.
Volunteerism was at the core of CRES. Notable was the effort by CRES co-founder Paul Notari, who had been head of the Technical Information Branch at SERI and then NREL. For 14 years he was the publisher and editor of CRES News, a lively newsletter for members from the founding until 2010. Notari was instrumental in early CRES outreach. He identified and contacted almost 500 people in the Denver area who were interested in solar. He wrote news releases and proposed story ideas to local media. In this and other ways, Notari helped knit together disparate individuals and topics into a fluid but somewhat cohesive whole.
Doug Seiter remembers getting involved with the new organization soon after arriving in Colorado in 1997 as an employee of the Department of Energy. Later, he served two terms as president of the board of directors.
“It was the choir, for the most part, people already engaged in the industry or very much interested in doing something in renewable energy,” he says. This collection of like-minded people helped build enthusiasm and coalesce motivation.
Larry Sherwood, the executive director of ASES from 1988 to 2001, concurs that Colorado’s solar conversation in the 1990s revolved around NREL. CRES provided an outlet “for some brilliant minds at NREL to engage in policy or educational types of activities that they were interested in but weren’t part of their research at NREL,” says Sherwood, who would later become a member of the board of directors for several terms. “I think CRES definitely benefitted from those people.”
CRES also has advocacy in its DNA. That was manifested relatively soon after CRES was organized in a case before state utility regulators about a potential wind project in southeastern Colorado. It was likely the first time that the costs of integrating wind into utility operations were decided in a public record.
Coming next:: A team approach by advocates of renewable energy yields a victory when a compelling case is made for a major wind farm in southeastern Colorado.
In early fall, residents of this desolate corner of southwestern Wyoming opened their mailboxes to find a glossy flyer. On the front, a truck barreled down a four-lane desert highway with a solar farm on one side and what looked like rows of shipping containers on the other. On the back was an invitation.
“CarbonCapture Inc. is launching Project Bison,” it read, announcing a “direct air capture facility” set to begin operations here next year. “Join us at our town hall event to learn more.”
Few had heard about the proposal before receiving the flyer, let alone had any idea what a direct air capture facility was. So the following week, about 150 people packed into a large classroom at Western Wyoming Community College in Rock Springs to find out.
“We are a company that takes CO2 out of the air and stores it underground,” said Patricia Loria, CarbonCapture’s vice president of business development, in opening the meeting.
Loria described a plan to deploy a series of units—the shipping container-like boxes pictured on the flyer—that would filter carbon dioxide from the air and then compress the greenhouse gas for injection underground, where it would remain permanently.
As carbon dioxide levels continue to climb, scientists, entrepreneurs and governments are increasingly determining that cutting emissions is no longer enough. In addition, they say, people will need to pull the greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere, and an emerging field of carbon removal, also called carbon dioxide removal or CDR, is attempting to do just that.
There are companies like Loria’s looking to use machines and others trying to accelerate natural carbon cycles by altering the chemistry of seawater, for example, or mixing crushed minerals into agricultural soils. These efforts remain wildly speculative and have removed hardly any of the greenhouse gas so far.
Some environmental advocates warn that carbon removal will be too expensive or too difficult and is a dangerous diversion of money and attention from the more urgent task of eliminating fossil fuels. Perhaps more troubling, they say, the various approaches could carry profound environmental impacts of their own, disrupting fragile ocean ecosystems or swallowing vast swaths of agricultural fields and open lands for the energy production needed to power the operations.
Yet even as those potential impacts remain poorly understood, the Biden administration is making a multi-billion dollar bet on carbon removal. The administration’s long-term climate strategy assumes that such approaches will account for 6 to 8 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas reductions by 2050, equal to hundreds of millions of tons per year, and it has pushed through a series of laws to subsidize the technology.
The first investments will come from the Energy Department, which is expected to open applications within weeks for $3.5 billion in federal grants to help build “direct air capture hubs” around the country, with a particular focus on fossil fuel-dependent communities like Rock Springs, where mineral extraction is by far the largest private employer. The goal is to pair climate action with job creation.
The money has prompted a rush of carbon-removal-focused companies to fossil fuel communities, from Rock Springs to West Texas to California’s San Joaquin Valley, seeding hope from supporters that a concept long relegated to pilot plants and academic literature is on the cusp of arriving as an industry.
As Loria made her pitch, Lou Ann Varley was listening intently. Varley sits on a local labor union council and spent a 37-year career working at the Jim Bridger coal plant outside town before retiring in 2020. She knows that young workers starting at the plant today won’t be able to match her longevity there, with its four units slated to close over the next 15 years, and hoped Project Bison might offer some of them a new opportunity.
Others weren’t having it. Throughout the presentation, residents listened quietly, sitting in pairs at folding tables in the classroom. Some munched on sandwiches and cookies the company had provided. Others leaned back, arms crossed. But when it came time for questions, they launched a volley of concerns about the potential risks and unknowns.
Who was going to pay for this? Would it use hazardous chemicals? What about earthquakes from the underground injections of carbon dioxide? What would happen if the company went bankrupt, and who would be liable in the event of an accident? Wyomingites are deeply protective of their open landscapes, and many wondered about the impacts of all of the renewable energy that would be required for power.
Direct air capture machines consume tremendous amounts of energy. Project Bison, according to CarbonCapture’s figures, could eventually require anywhere from 5 to 15 terawatt hours of power per year, equal to 30 percent to 90 percent of Wyoming’s current electricity consumption, depending on whether the company can increase its efficiency.
Laura Pearson, a sheep rancher who wore heavy work clothes, was sitting in the back row that night feeling deeply skeptical of the entire premise. Pearson’s family has worked the same land for generations, and she sees the wind farms and solar panels that have started covering parts of her state as a threat to its open range.
“If you don’t think those affect wildlife and livestock grazing and everything else in this state,” she told Loria from across the room, “you’re crazy.”
Loria said the company was working with wildlife scientists and officials to minimize impacts, but Pearson was unswayed.
“I love Wyoming and I don’t want to see it change,” Pearson said after the meeting ended. She said she doubted the company’s intentions, didn’t think carbon dioxide posed such a threat to the planet and didn’t like seeing out-of-state interests, whose demands for cleaner energy have sent Wyoming’s coal sector into decline and are threatening to do the same for its oil and gas, coming to peddle something new. “It’s all about the money,” she said.
A Town With a Storied Coal History
Rock Springs was built on coal. In 1850, an Army expedition found coal seams cropping out of the valley bluffs. Less than 20 years later the Union Pacific Railroad routed the nation’s first transcontinental line through here so its locomotives could refuel as they crossed the Rockies. The mines soon snaked right under the center of town, where the outlaw Butch Cassidy once worked at a butcher shop and earned his nickname.
The rail line still bisects the town, although the old station has been converted into the Coal Train Coffee Depot cafe. A large sign arcs above the tracks outside: “Home of Rock Springs Coal, Welcome.” A stone monument next to the depot lists everyone who died in the mines each year, coming by the dozen in the early 1900s, with names like Fogliatti, Mihajlovic and Papas reflecting all the countries from which men flocked to find work.
Varley started at Jim Bridger, one of the country’s largest coal plants, in 1983 after getting laid off from mining trona, a mineral used in the manufacturing of glass, detergents, chemicals and other products. All but one of the eight largest private employers in Sweetwater County either mine or use the minerals and fossil fuels that underlie this part of Wyoming. As oil, gas and coal operations have shed jobs in recent years, the trona mines have absorbed many of the losses.
Varley began as a laborer, sweeping and shoveling coal or ash, before working her way up through operations and maintenance. Eventually, she helped operate the computer systems that ran the plant. “I loved the job,” she said.
Two years after retiring, Varley still refers to Bridger as “my plant.”
Until recently, her plant was facing the forced shutdown of some of its units for failing to meet federal pollution rules set by the Environmental Protection Agency. But in February, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon struck a deal to forestall any retirements by converting two of Bridger’s four units to burn natural gas instead. Still, all of its units are expected to close within 15 years.