Say hello to Geospatial Energy Mapper

Click the link to go to the GEM website:

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.

Save public lands: Put #solar on Walmart! — @HighCountryNews #ActOnClimate

Click the link to read the article on the High Country News website (Jonathan P. Thompson):

On a sunny day in 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. 

Crews install solar panels on top of Denver Water’s administration building in 2019. Photo credit: Denver Water

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.

Infographic by Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands. 

Stacy Standley: 15 steps #Aspen needs to take to preserve the #ColoradoRiver Basin — Aspen Times #COriver #aridification

Waterfalls along Yule Creek. CREDIT: COURTESY PHOTO BY JOHN ARMSTRONG

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.

Want to solve #ClimateChange? This #California farm kingdom holds a key — The Los Angeles Times #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Southern California’s Imperial Valley. Ted Wood/The Water Desk

Click the link to read the article on The Los Angeles Times website (Sammy Roth). Here’s an excerpt:

…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?

A solar farm off CO 17 in Alamosa County. The San Luis Valley produces 10 percent more power per solar panel than anywhere else in the state due to its base elevation of 7,500 feet and more days of sun than the Front Range and anywhere else in Colorado. Photo by Owen Woods via The Alamosa Citizen

The “energy gap” nobody wants to tussle with — Writers on the Range

Click the link to read the article on the Writers on the Range website (David Marston):

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?

A schematic of TerraPower’s proposed Natrium nuclear power plant. Credit: TerraPower

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.”

Kemmerer, Wyoming. By Daniel Mayer – Daniel Mayer, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6038359

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.

CRES history Part 7: Next steps? #Colorado is briskly decarbonizing electricity, but huge challenges remain. What is the role for a grassroots group like CRES? — @BigPivots

Click the link to read the article on the the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

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.

John Avenson took a house with strong fundamentals, most prominently southern exposure, and tweaked it until he was confident that he could stub the natural gas line. Photo/Allen Best

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.

Graphic credit: The Nature Conservancy

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:

Part 1: A coming together of minds in Colorado.

Part 2: Why note wind?

Part 3: Why note wind?

Part 4: The path to the governor’s mansion

And also: How Bill Ritter rode wind

Part 5: Growth, a stumble, then new chapters

Part 6: Influence in the Polis years

Or download the whole series in one e-magazine of Big Pivots 64.

Growth, a stumble, then new chapters: CRES history Part 5 — @BigPivots

Patty Limerick. Photo credit Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado.

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

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.

Amory Lovins has harvested bananas 61 times from his solar-passive house near Aspen since the early 1980s. Amory Lovins spoke at the 2002 CRES annual conference held at Colorado College in Colordo Springs. He also spoke at the annual gathering in 2010 held in Montrose Photo used with permission, ©Judy Hill Lovins via The Mountain Town News.

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.

The difference?

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.

Bill McKibben, right, conferring with Land Institute founder Wes Jackson at the 2019 Prairie Festival, has strongly motivated many, including some CRES members. Photo/Allen Best

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.

Other installments in this series:

Part 1: A coming together of minds in Colorado.

Part 2: Why note wind?

Part 3: Why note wind?

Part 4: The path to the governor’s mansion

And also: How Bill Ritter rode wind

Or download the whole series in one e-magazine of Big Pivots 64.

If you want to start 2023 with eyes wide open then I recommend this packed & pithy paper by @NJHagens on economics for the future — @KateRaworth #ActOnClimate

Humanity + energy + debt + growth addiction + planetary boundaries: guess what’s coming. Can we learn to bend not break? https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921800919310067

Here’s the abstract:

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 classic image of the Doughnut; the extent to which boundaries are transgressed and social foundations are met are not visible on this diagram. Graphic via Wikipedia.com: https://www.kateraworth.com/doughnut/

Voters have their say: CRES history Part 3: Failing at the #Colorado Capitol, advocates took their case directly to voters: The outcome — the first voter-initiated renewables mandate — was national news — @BigPivots

Contracted workers clean mirrors at the Ivanpah Solar Project in Nipton, California. In 2017, the facility employed over 65 workers and created 2,600 jobs during it’s three year construction period. Dennis Schroeder/National Renewable Energy Laboratory via The High Country News

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

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..

What you may have missed in this series:

Part 1: A coming together of minds in Colorado.

Part 2: Why note wind?

Or download the whole series in one e-magazine of Big Pivots 64.

Why not #wind? CRES history Part 2 — @BigPivots #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

Colorado Green, located between Springfield and Lamar, was Colorado’s first, large wind farm. Photo/Allen Best

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

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.

Governor Hickenlooper, John Salazar and John Stulp at the 2012 Drought Conference

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.

What you may have missed in this series:

Part 1: A coming together of minds in Colorado.

Or download the whole series in one e-magazine of Big Pivots 64.

A History of the #Colorado #Renewable Energy Society (CRES) Part 1: A coming together of minds — @BigPivots #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

Community solar garden in Arvada. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

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.

Irrigation in the San Luis Valley in August 2022. Photo/Allen Best

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.

Or download Big Pivots 64 with the full story.

Denver Water’s administration building is powered by solar panels. Photo credit: Denver Water.

Carbon Removal Is Coming to #FossilFuel Country. Can It Bring Jobs and #Climate Action? — Inside Climate News #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

Lou Ann Varley looks out across the pond that holds water for the cooling towers at the Jim Bridger coal plant, where she worked for 37 years before retiring in 2020. Credit: Nicholas Kusnetz

Click the link to read the article on the Inside Climate News website (Nicholas Kusnetz):

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.

The Jim Bridger coal plant, one of the nation’s largest, has faced forced retirement and is slated for closure within 15 years. The impending loss of jobs has brought anxiety to the coal-reliant community of Rock Springs, Wyoming. Credit: Nicholas Kusnetz

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.

Coal trains await loading in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming. Photo/Allen Best

Wyoming produces about 40 percent of the nation’s coal, so the fuel’s plummeting share in the nation’s electricity—from half in 2005 to about 20 percent this year—has brought acute anxiety to towns like Rock Springs.

“It makes it kind of tough when you know that they’re talking towards phasing out coal,” Varley said. Many people who work at the plant, which employs more than 300, get angry about the prospect, she said. “Especially some of the younger ones, because they hired in believing like me that they would be able to retire from that facility.”

Wyoming officials have spent years trying everything to promote carbon capture technology, which removes carbon dioxide from power plant or industrial emissions, in the hope it could save coal. The state university has mapped its geology for places to store CO2. Regulators won federal approval to oversee the underground injection of carbon dioxide, one of only two states to do so, along with North Dakota. (The EPA oversees the practice everywhere else.) In 2020, Wyoming lawmakers passed a law that tried to force utilities to install carbon capture equipment at their coal plants.

These efforts have not yielded a single commercial carbon capture operation at a power plant, but they do seem to have attracted CarbonCapture Inc., to the delight of state economic development officials.

A California-based start-up, CarbonCapture said it has secured enough private investment to begin work next year on the Wyoming plant, although it still needs to receive state and local permits. Rather than attaching to a coal plant, this project would pull carbon dioxide out of ambient air by passing it through giant fans fitted with a chemical sorbent, which traps the CO2. The sorbent is then heated to release the gas for compression before being reused.

Project Bison would initially capture 10,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, but the company said it plans to expand to reach a capacity of 5 million metric tons by 2030. That higher figure would be orders of magnitude above what any company has achieved so far, yet roughly equal to the emissions of one coal power plant, or less than 0.1 percent of total U.S. emissions of nearly 6 billion metric tons in 2020. 

The operations would be financed by selling carbon credits to corporations seeking to offset their own emissions. The company said it has already sold credits at $800 per ton to Cloverly, a carbon-offset marketer, and to CO2.com, a new carbon offset venture of TIME, the magazine owned by the billionaire Marc Benioff.

Varley had gone into the town hall meeting feeling optimistic that the project could potentially provide high-quality jobs while also helping the environment. While she wants the coal plant to continue operating for as long as possible, she knows its days are numbered, and when it closes, it could take more than 300 jobs with it.

Southwest Wyoming is hard country to live in: Varley has spent her entire life here and said “it grows on you like a fungus.” The state has the highest suicide rate in the country, and the decline of fossil fuels, it feels to many, will only make life harder.

“People are looking for ways to maintain our ability to live here,” Varley said.

Birth of the Carbon-Removal Dream 

The summer of 2022 was yet another season of climate extremes. Drought and severe heat covered large parts of ChinaEuropeAfrica and North America. The United Kingdom recorded its hottest temperature ever. In Pakistan, heavy rains submerged up to one-third of the country, killing more than 1,000, destroying crops and spreading vector-borne diseases like dengue fever.

These disasters have driven many people toward desperate acts of civil disobedience, like a scientist who chained himself to the doors of a private jet terminal. They’ve also pushed many to conclude that carbon removal technologies, however unlikely their deployment, will now be necessary to avoid the worst impacts of warming.

When the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report this year on how to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius, it determined that at least some degree of carbon removal was needed but that the amount could vary drastically, depending on how quickly fossil fuel consumption declined and whether nations adopt more sustainable practices. 

A future of carbon removal? Credit: Inside Climate News

The only scenarios that did not include meaningful levels of carbon removal generally required global energy use to decline, which seemed unlikely, especially if there was any hope of supplying electricity to the nearly 800 million people who currently lack it. 

“It’s critical to have this tool,” said Jennifer Wilcox, the principal deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management at the Department of Energy, “and we need to have it on the order of gigatons,” or billions of tons.

The last year has brought an explosion of funding to try to make that happen. In addition to the $3.5 billion that Congress allocated to the Energy Department for direct air capture hubs, lawmakers earmarked another $1 billion for research and development this year and, as part of the Inflation Reduction Act, more than tripled the value of a federal tax credit for direct air capture.

United Airlines, Airbus, Microsoft, Alphabet, Meta, Stripe and other corporations have collectively pledged billions more. The billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk has funded a $100 million prize for carbon removal startups. The field is also one of the fastest growing areas of climate philanthropy.

So far, however, hardly any carbon dioxide has been pulled from the atmosphere. The largest direct air capture plant in operation, opened by a company called Climeworks in Iceland, pulls in about 4,000 metric tons of CO2 per year. By contrast, the Jim Bridger plant outside Rock Springs spewed out 10.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2021 alone.

Skeptics have noted how far carbon removal is from making a dent in global emissions. Supporters, however, argue that the rates of growth the industry must achieve to make a difference, while high, are comparable to what solar energy generation has seen since the 1990s.

The rush of funding and attention has prompted a new set of questions about carbon removal technologies. The concerns of many skeptics have moved beyond whether carbon removal can possibly work, to wondering what it would look like if it somehow did. 

Displacing Herds of Native Pronghorn

Pearson’s route to town takes her past Wyoming’s first utility-scale solar farm, which was built in 2018. The 700-acre site was cleared of vegetation before the panels were installed and surrounded with a chain-link fence. Now it marks a shiny, incongruous break in the high desert, though it is hardly the only disturbance around, with trona mines in each direction.

The sight of it was bad enough for Pearson and other residents, but soon after the project’s completion, residents noticed herds of pronghorn, a fleet-footed antelope-like animal indigenous to the region, tramping onto the highway. The area that the solar farm had enclosed, it turned out, had been used by resident pronghorn, and the fences shut them out. The companies behind the project sponsored a study, published last spring in a scientific journal, that determined that the animals lost nearly a square mile of high-use habitat, about 10 percent of their core range. Today, the pronghorn’s trails and droppings line the perimeter of the fence that locked the animals out of lands they once called home.

A carbon dioxide pipeline runs from an ExxonMobil gas processing plant under Wyoming’s first utility-scale solar farm. The state has tried to attract carbon capture operations to help its ailing coal industry, as well as renewable energy development. The solar farm upstate many locals after it displaced wildlife. Credit: Nicholas Kusnetz

CarbonCapture plans to build its new facility about 20 miles west of the solar farm, a rough and barren landscape of greasewood and sagebrush, and it could eventually need much more solar development to run its operations.

The company has said it will try to minimize the impacts, by choosing lands already disturbed by oil development, for example. But some will be unavoidable. State maps show that the sage grouse, a protected game bird, has core habitats surrounding the area where the plant would be built. Closer to the site, cattle roam on rangeland that is dotted with oil wells and a creek trickles south on its way to the Green River, a tributary of the Colorado.

CarbonCapture said it would initially use natural gas to power its operations while capturing the resulting carbon dioxide emissions, but aims to eventually rely on renewable energy. At full scale, that would require 1,000 acres to house the energy supply, and 100 acres more for the project itself.

The World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank, has estimated that if direct air capture technology reaches the scale envisioned by the Biden administration, about 500 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year by mid-century, the industry would consume more than 4 percent of the nation’s current total energy supply. If all that energy were generated by wind and solar power, that could mean covering an area equal to a small state with turbines and panels.

The prospect alarms Pearson, who said her family has been offered money to allow solar panels on their land, but that they declined. “We would have been set for life, and we said no way. Because we knew what it would do to the wildlife, to our way of life, to Wyoming’s way of life.”

Adrian Corless, CarbonCapture’s chief executive, said that because the project will connect to the electric grid, the new renewable energy development could be located in other parts of the state, or even out of state.

“There’s a lot of opportunity to find the right situations for land use that are aligned with community expectations and needs,” Corless said.

Justin Loyka, energy program manager in the Wyoming office of the Nature Conservancy, said CarbonCapture asked his organization for help in reducing its impacts, and that there were opportunities to do so. But he added that as renewable energy development spreads, some impacts are inevitable.

“The vast majority of Wyoming is some of the most intact ecosystem in the lower 48,” Loyka said. “Wyoming has these wildlife migration corridors that are hundreds of miles long, and that really doesn’t exist in many other places.”

The global energy crisis has triggered unprecedented momentum behind renewables, with the world set to add as much #renewable power in the next 5 years as it did in the past 20 — IEA

Click here to read the report. Click the link to read the release on the IEA website:

The global energy crisis is driving a sharp acceleration in installations of renewable power, with total capacity growth worldwide set to almost double in the next five years, overtaking coal as the largest source of electricity generation along the way and helping keep alive the possibility of limiting global warming to 1.5 °C, the IEA says in a new report.

Energy security concerns caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have motivated countries to increasingly turn to renewables such as solar and wind to reduce reliance on imported fossil fuels, whose prices have spiked dramatically. Global renewable power capacity is now expected to grow by 2 400 gigawatts (GW) over the 2022-2027 period, an amount equal to the entire power capacity of China today, according to Renewables 2022, the latest edition of the IEA’s annual report on the sector.

This massive expected increase is 30% higher than the amount of growth that was forecast just a year ago, highlighting how quickly governments have thrown additional policy weight behind renewables. The report finds that renewables are set to account for over 90% of global electricity expansion over the next five years, overtaking coal to become the largest source of global electricity by early 2025.

“Renewables were already expanding quickly, but the global energy crisis has kicked them into an extraordinary new phase of even faster growth as countries seek to capitalise on their energy security benefits. The world is set to add as much renewable power in the next 5 years as it did in the previous 20 years,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol. “This is a clear example of how the current energy crisis can be a historic turning point towards a cleaner and more secure energy system. Renewables’ continued acceleration is critical to help keep the door open to limiting global warming to 1.5 °C.”

The war in Ukraine is a decisive moment for renewables in Europe where governments and businesses are looking to rapidly replace Russian gas with alternatives. The amount of renewable power capacity added in Europe in the 2022-27 period is forecast to be twice as high as in the previous five-year period, driven by a combination of energy security concerns and climate ambitions. An even faster deployment of wind and solar PV could be achieved if EU member states were to rapidly implement a number of policies, including streamlining and reducing permitting timelines, improving auction designs and providing better visibility on auction schedules, as well as improving incentive schemes to support rooftop solar.

Beyond Europe, the upward revision in renewable power growth for the next five years is also driven by China, the United States and India, which are all implementing policies and introducing regulatory and market reforms more quickly than previously planned to combat the energy crisis. As a result of its recent 14th Five-Year Plan, China is expected to account for almost half of new global renewable power capacity additions over the 2022-2027 period. Meanwhile, the US Inflation Reduction Act has provided new support and long-term visibility for the expansion of renewables in the United States.

Crews install solar panels on top of Denver Water’s administration building in 2019. Photo credit: Denver Water

Utility-scale solar PV and onshore wind are the cheapest options for new electricity generation in a significant majority of countries worldwide. Global solar PV capacity is set to almost triple over the 2022-2027 period, surpassing coal and becoming the largest source of power capacity in the world. The report also forecasts an acceleration of installations of solar panels on residential and commercial rooftops, which help consumers reduce energy bills. Global wind capacity almost doubles in the forecast period, with offshore projects accounting for one-fifth of the growth. Together, wind and solar will account for over 90% of the renewable power capacity that is added over the next five years.

Cheyenne Ridge, located between Burlington and Cheyenne Wells, near the Kansas border, is one of many wind projects on Colorado’s eastern plains. Soon, new transmission will enable far more wind and solar projects. Photos/Allen Best Photo credit: Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

The report sees emerging signs of diversification in global PV supply chains, with new policies in the United States and India expected to boost investment in solar manufacturing by as much as USD 25 billion over the 2022-2027 period. While China remains the dominant player, its share in global manufacturing capacity could decrease from 90% today to 75% by 2027.

Total global biofuel demand is set to expand by 22% over the 2022-2027 period. The United States, Canada, Brazil, Indonesia and India make up 80% of the expected global expansion in biofuel use, with all five countries having comprehensive policies to support growth.

The report also lays out an accelerated case in which renewable power capacity grows a further 25% on top of the main forecast. In advanced economies, this faster growth would require various regulatory and permitting challenges to be tackled and a more rapid penetration of renewable electricity in the heating and transport sectors. In emerging and developing economies, it would mean addressing policy and regulatory uncertainties, weak grid infrastructure and a lack of access to affordable financing that are hampering new projects.

Worldwide, the accelerated case requires efforts to resolve supply chain issues, expand grids and deploy more flexibility resources to securely manage larger shares of variable renewables. The accelerated case’s faster renewables growth would move the world closer to a pathway consistent with reaching net zero emissions by 2050, which offers an even chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 °C.

#SanLuisValley poised to become a hub of renewable #solar generation — @AlamosaCitizen #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

A solar farm off CO 17 in Alamosa County. Photo by Owen Woods via The Alamosa Citizen

Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

WHEN you drive across the expansive high mountain desert that is the San Luis Valley, you see acreage once irrigated through groundwater pumping wells now lying fallow. It’s a sight particularly evident in the central and western end of the Valley through Alamosa, Rio Grande and Saguache Counties, where the unconfined aquifer of the Upper Rio Grande Basin struggles from depletion due to overpumping of groundwater and decades of drought.

It’s one reality of the changing landscape that is on the minds of county officials and state leaders who represent the Valley and are trying to address ways the six-county region can at least partially replace some of its lost agricultural economy.

Another reality on the minds of local leaders is the fact that the San Luis Valley remains vulnerable to natural disasters and large-scale emergencies because there is no redundant power source to keep the Valley moving.

The vulnerabilities were demonstrated most recently both during the Spring Creek Fire in 2018 and the Boulder County fire of last December. In both situations the Valley lost critical power transmission and had no redundant system for backup power generation.

These realities are pushing local leaders to step before the Colorado Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) this month to say the San Luis Valley is interested in joining efforts of utility companies and the state to generate more renewable energy.

The clock to get involved is running, with the CPUC setting a Dec. 30 deadline to hear from interested parties on renewable energy and transmission development. Alamosa County, for one, is planning to step forward and raise its hand to let the Colorado Public Utilities Commission know that it has an interest in renewable solar generation and transmission development in the San Luis Valley.

“If we miss this and don’t act now, we will no longer be in the discussion and that’s actually what’s happened in the past,” said Alamosa County Commissioner Lori Laske.

“My concern is the redundancy and the safety of our Valley,” Laske said. “Second is with a larger (transmission) line to export our solar because right now we are maxed out with what we have.”

State Sen. Cleave Simpson and the local office of U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet have been convening local leaders this fall to work through initial conversations and to understand the opportunity the CPUC has created through what is known in the bureaucracy as a miscellaneous docket proceeding.

“The PUC is saying there’s value in evaluating the potential for solar generation and transmission in the Valley,” Simpson said.

The business case to be made is that from a solar perspective, the San Luis Valley produces 10 percent more power per solar panel than anywhere else in the state due to its base elevation of 7,500 feet and more days of sun than the Front Range and anywhere else in Colorado.

That’s according to Mike Krueger, president and CEO of the Colorado Solar and Storage Association, a nonprofit that is working with Valley leaders to get in front of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission.

“The Valley is the single best place in the state to produce those electrons,” Krueger said. 

“If you had the ability to export the generation from the Valley, you’d see I would suggest thousands of acres across the six counties that would be able to support solar down there. Literally the only thing stopping people is you can’t get the power out.”

A solar farm off CO 17 in Alamosa County. The San Luis Valley produces 10 percent more power per solar panel than anywhere else in the state due to its base elevation of 7,500 feet and more days of sun than the Front Range and anywhere else in Colorado. Photo by Owen Woods via The Alamosa Citizen

KRUEGER figures landowners could command lease payments anywhere from $500 to $1,000 per acre for solar development. Simpson said at that price, there would be a market in the Valley to generate more solar power.

In the Valley there is plenty of nonproductive ag land as a result of groundwater wells being permanently shut down in recent years, and more on the way.

The Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board of Directors is working through a set of criteria to help local farmers and ranchers apply for money to permanently retire more groundwater wells through the Groundwater Compliance Fund established through state legislation sponsored by Simpson.

Valley irrigators are expecting to tap into $30 million set aside through the state Groundwater Compliance Fund that could retire another 10,000 to 20,000 acres of irrigated farm land. It’s the need to permanently retire groundwater wells and continue to reduce the amount of crops produced in the San Luis Valley that has Simpson and others searching for alternatives.

“This community should come together and say to the PUC ‘This is a huge resource, we want this resource to be developed, you decide where it should go. Where’s the most benefit to the state of Colorado and the (power) system?’” Simpson said.

It’s a consensus that he and the local staff to Sen. Bennet have been working to build. Alamosa County is expected to formally get involved and take the Valley’s case to the CPUC.

“The cards are all lined up to go ‘Colorado has this expectation of being carbon-free, so does Tri-State, so does Xcel, and you have this resource here, we just don’t have any place to go with it,” Simpson said. “I think this is a window of opportunity that isn’t going to be here forever.”

Once you generate and store the solar, and you’ve established a redundant system of power for the San Luis Valley itself, it’s then transmitting the renewable solar energy for Xcel and Tri-State to use that makes the proposition tricky and challenging.

That’s a battle for down the road. For now it’s signaling to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission that the San Luis Valley wants to be involved in generating renewable energy and new transmission routes out of the Valley.

Krueger calls it YIMBY: A move to say “Yes In My Back Yard.”

San Luis Valley. Photo credit: The Alamosa Citizen

The Cold War Legacy Lurking in U.S. #Groundwater — ProPublica

Uranium and vanadium radioactive warning sign. Photo credit: Jonathan P Thompson

Click the link to read the article on the PropPublica website Mark Olalde, Mollie Simon and Alex Mierjeski, video by Gerardo del Valle, Liz Moughon and Mauricio Rodríguez Pons

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

In America’s rush to build the nuclear arsenal that won the Cold War, safety was sacrificed for speed.

Uranium mills that helped fuel the weapons also dumped radioactive and toxic waste into rivers like the Cheyenne in South Dakota and the Animas in Colorado. Thousands of sheep turned blue and died after foraging on land tainted by processing sites in North Dakota. And cancer wards across the West swelled with sick uranium workers.

The U.S. government bankrolled the industry, and mining companies rushed to profit, building more than 50 mills and processing sites to refine uranium ore.

But the government didn’t have a plan for the toxic byproducts of this nuclear assembly line. Some of the more than 250 million tons of toxic and radioactive detritus, known as tailings, scattered into nearby communities, some spilled into streams and some leaked into aquifers.

Congress finally created the agency that now oversees uranium mill waste cleanup in 1974 and enacted the law governing that process in 1978, but the industry would soon collapse due to falling uranium prices and rising safety concerns. Most mills closed by the mid-1980s.

When cleanup began, federal regulators first focused on the most immediate public health threat, radiation exposure. Agencies or companies completely covered waste at most mills to halt leaks of the carcinogenic gas radon and moved some waste by truck and train to impoundments specially designed to encapsulate it.

But the government has fallen down in addressing another lingering threat from the industry’s byproducts: widespread water pollution.

Creating a balance of water that’s taken from aquifers and water that replenishes aquifers is an important aspect of making sure water will be available when it’s needed. Image from “Getting down to facts: A Visual Guide to Water in the Pinal Active Management Area,” courtesy of Ashley Hullinger and the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center

Regulators haven’t made a full accounting of whether they properly addressed groundwater contamination. So, for the first time, ProPublica cataloged cleanup efforts at the country’s 48 uranium mills, seven related processing sites and numerous tailings piles.

At least 84% of the sites have polluted groundwater. And nearly 75% still have either no liner or only a partial liner between mill waste and the ground, leaving them susceptible to leaking pollution into groundwater. In the arid West, where most of the sites are located, climate change is drying up surface water, making underground reserves increasingly important.

ProPublica’s review of thousands of pages of government and corporate documents, accompanied by interviews with 100 people, also found that cleanup has been hampered by infighting among regulatory agencies and the frequency with which regulators grant exemptions to their own water quality standards.

The result: a long history of water pollution and sickness.

Reports by government agencies found high concentrations of cancer near a mill in Utah and elevated cancer risks from mill waste in New Mexico that can persist until cleanup is complete. Residents near those sites and others have seen so many cases of cancer and thyroid disease that they believe the mills and waste piles are to blame, although epidemiological studies to prove such a link have rarely been done.

“The government didn’t pay attention up front and make sure it was done right. They just said, ‘Go get uranium,’” said Bill Dixon, who spent decades cleaning up uranium and nuclear sites with the state of Oregon and in the private sector.

Tom Hanrahan grew up near uranium mills in Colorado and New Mexico and watched three of his three brothers contract cancer. He believes his siblings were “casualties” of the war effort.

“Somebody knew that this was a ticking atomic bomb,” Hanrahan said. “But, in military terms, this was the cost of fighting a war.”

A Flawed System

When a uranium mill shuts down, here is what’s supposed to happen: The company demolishes the buildings, decontaminates the surrounding soil and water, and encases the waste to stop it from leaking cancer-causing pollution. The company then asks the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the lead agency monitoring America’s radioactive infrastructure, to approve the handoff of the property and its associated liability to the Department of Energy’s Office of Legacy Management for monitoring and maintenance.

ProPublica’s analysis found that half of the country’s former mills haven’t made it through this process and even many that did have never fully addressed pollution concerns. This is despite the federal government spending billions of dollars on cleanup, in addition to the several hundred million dollars that have been spent by companies.

Often, companies or agencies tasked with cleanup are unable to meet water quality standards, so they request exemptions to bypass them. The NRC or state agencies almost always approve these requests, allowing contaminants like uranium and selenium to be left in the groundwater. When ingested in high quantities, those elements can cause cancer and damage the nervous system, respectively.

The DOE estimates that some sites have individually polluted more than a billion gallons of water.

Bill Dam, who spent decades regulating and researching uranium mill cleanup with the NRC, at the DOE and in the private sector, said water pollution won’t be controlled until all the waste and contaminated material is moved. “The federal government’s taken a Band-Aid approach to groundwater contamination,” he said.

White Mesa Mill. Photo credit: Energy Fuels

The pollution has disproportionately harmed Indian Country.

Six of the mills were built on reservations, and another eight mills are within 5 miles of one, some polluting aquifers used by tribes. And the country’s last conventional uranium mill still in operation — the White Mesa Mill in Utah — sits adjacent to a Ute Mountain Ute community.

So many uranium mines, mills and waste piles pockmark the Navajo Nation that the Environmental Protection Agency created a comic book superhero, Gamma Goat, to warn Diné children away from the sites.

NRC staff acknowledged that the process of cleaning up America’s uranium mills can be slow but said that the agency prioritizes thoroughness over speed, that each site’s groundwater conditions are complex and unique, and that cleanup exemptions are granted only after gathering input from regulators and the public.

“The NRC’s actions provide reasonable assurance of adequate protection of public health and safety and the environment,” David McIntyre, an NRC spokesperson, said in a statement to ProPublica.

“Cleanup Standards Might Suddenly Change”

For all the government’s success in demolishing mills and isolating waste aboveground, regulators failed to protect groundwater.

Between 1958 and 1962, a mill near Gunnison, Colorado, churned through 540,000 tons of ore. The process, one step in concentrating the ore into weapons-grade uranium, leaked uranium and manganese into groundwater, and in 1990, regulators found that residents had been drawing that contaminated water from 22 wells.

The DOE moved the waste and connected residents to clean water. But pollution lingered in the aquifer beneath the growing town where some residents still get their water from private wells. The DOE finally devised a plan in 2000, which the NRC later approved, settling on a strategy called “natural flushing,” essentially waiting for groundwater to dilute the contamination until it reached safe levels.

In 2015, the agency acknowledged that the plan had failed. Sediments absorb and release uranium, so waiting for contamination to be diluted doesn’t solve the problem, said Dam, the former NRC and DOE regulator.

In Wyoming, state regulators wrote to the NRC in 2006 to lambast the agency’s “inadequate” analysis of natural flushing compared to other cleanup options. “Unfortunately, the citizens of Wyoming may likely have to deal with both the consequences and the indirect costs of the NRC’s decisions for generations to come,” the state’s letter said.

ProPublica identified mills in six states — including eight former mill sites in Colorado — where regulators greenlit the strategy as part of a cleanup plan.

When neither water treatment nor nature solves the problem, federal and state regulators can simply relax their water quality standards, allowing harmful levels of pollutants to be left in aquifers.

County officials made a small area near the Gunnison mill off-limits to new wells, and the DOE suggested changing water quality standards to allow uranium concentrations as much as 475 times what naturally occurred in the area. It wouldn’t endanger human health, the agency said, because people wouldn’t come into contact with the water.

ProPublica found that regulators granted groundwater cleanup exemptions at 18 of the 28 sites where cleanup has been deemed complete and liability has been handed over to the DOE’s Office of Legacy Management. Across all former uranium mills, the NRC or state agencies granted at least 34 requests for water quality exemptions while denying as few as three.

“They’re cutting standards, so we’re getting weak cleanup that future generations may not find acceptable,” said Paul Robinson, who spent four decades researching the cleanup of the uranium industry with the Southwest Research and Information Center, an Albuquerque-based nonprofit. “These great mining companies of the world, they got away cheap.”

NRC staffers examine studies that are submitted by companies’ consultants and other agencies to show how cleanup plans will adequately address water contamination. Some companies change their approach in response to feedback from regulators, and the public can view parts of the process in open meetings. Still, the data and groundwater modeling that underpin these requests for water cleanup exemptions are often wrong.

One reason: When mining companies built the mills, they rarely sampled groundwater to determine how much contamination occurred naturally, leaving it open to debate how clean groundwater should be when the companies leave, according to Roberta Hoy, a former uranium program specialist with the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality. She said federal regulators also haven’t done enough to understand certain contaminants at uranium mills.

In one recent case, the NRC fined a mining company $14,500 for incomplete and inaccurate groundwater modeling data. Companies use such data to prove that pollution won’t spread in the future. Freeport-McMoRan, the corporation that owns the fined mining company, did not respond to a request for comment.

At a 2013 conference co-hosted by the NRC and a mining trade group, a presentation from two consultants compared groundwater modeling to a sorcerer peering at a crystal ball.

ProPublica identified at least seven sites where regulators granted cleanup exemptions based on incorrect groundwater modeling. At these sites, uranium, lead, nitrates, radium and other substances were found at levels higher than models had predicted and regulators had allowed.

McIntyre, the NRC spokesperson, said that groundwater models “inherently include uncertainty,” and the government typically requires sites to be monitored. “The NRC requires conservatism in the review process and groundwater monitoring to verify a model’s accuracy,” he said.

Water quality standards impose specific limits on the allowable concentration of contaminants — for example, the number of micrograms of uranium per liter of water. But ProPublica found that the NRC granted exemptions in at least five states that were so vague they didn’t even include numbers and were instead labeled as “narrative.” The agency justified this by saying the groundwater was not near towns or was naturally unfit for human consumption.

Lincoln Park/Cotter Mill superfund site

This system worries residents of Cañon City, Colorado. Emily Tracy, who serves on the City Council, has lived a few miles from the area’s now-demolished uranium mill since the late 1970s and remembers floods and winds carrying mill waste into neighborhoods from the 15.3-million-ton pile, which is now partially covered.

Uranium and other contaminants had for decades tainted private wells that some residents used for drinking water and agriculture, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. The company that operated the mill, Cotter Corp., finally connected residents to clean water by the early 1990s and completed cleanup work such as decontaminating soil after the EPA got involved. But the site remains without a final cleanup plan — which the company that now owns the site is drafting — and the state has eased water quality standards for molybdenum, a metal that uranium mining and milling releases into the environment.

“We have great concerns about what it might look like or whether cleanup standards might suddenly change before our eyes,” Tracy said.

Jim Harrington, managing director of the site’s current owner, Colorado Legacy Land, said that a final cleanup strategy has not been selected and that any proposal would need to be approved by both the EPA and the state.

Layers of Regulation

It typically takes 35 years from the day a mill shuts down until the NRC approves or estimates it will approve cleanup as being complete, ProPublica found. Two former mills aren’t expected to finish this process until 2047.

Chad Smith, a DOE spokesperson, said mills that were previously transferred to the government have polluted groundwater more than expected, so regulators are more cautious now.

The involvement of so many regulators can also slow cleanup.

Five sites were so contaminated that the EPA stepped in via its Superfund program, which aims to clean up the most polluted places in the country.

Homestake Mill Milan, New Mexico Zeolite cell construction. Photo credit: EPA

At the Homestake mill in New Mexico, where cleanup is jointly overseen by the NRC and the EPA, Larry Camper, a now-retired NRC division director, acknowledged in a 2011 meeting “that having multiple regulators for the site is not good government” and had complicated the cleanup, according to meeting minutes.

Homestake Mining Company of California did not comment on Camper’s view of the process.

Only one site where the EPA is involved in cleanup has been successfully handed off to the DOE, and even there, uranium may still persist above regulatory limits in groundwater and surface water, according to the agency. An EPA spokesperson said the agency has requested additional safety studies at that site.

“A lot of people make money in the bureaucratic system just pontificating over these things,” said William Turner, a geologist who at different times has worked for mining companies, for the U.S. Geological Survey and as the New Mexico Natural Resources Trustee.

If the waste is on tribal land, it adds another layer of government.

The federal government and the Navajo Nation have long argued over the source of some groundwater contamination at the former Navajo Mill built by Kerr-McGee Corp. in Shiprock, New Mexico, with the tribe pointing to the mill as the key source. Smith of the DOE said the department is guided by water monitoring results “to minimize opportunities for disagreement.”

Tronox, which acquired parts of Kerr-McGee, did not respond to requests for comment.

San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.

All the while, 2.5 million tons of waste sit adjacent to the San Juan River in the town of 8,000 people. Monitoring wells situated between the unlined waste pile and the river have shown nitrate levels as high as 80 times the limit set by regulators to protect human health, uranium levels 30 times the limit and selenium levels 20 times the limit.

“I can’t seem to get the federal agencies to acknowledge the positions of the Navajo Nation,” said Dariel Yazzie, who formerly managed the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund Program.

At some sites, overlapping jurisdictions mean even less cleanup gets done.

Such was the case near Griffin, North Dakota, where six cows and 2,500 sheep died in 1973; their bodies emitted a blue glow in the morning light. The animals lay near kilns that once served as rudimentary uranium mills operated by Kerr-McGee. To isolate the element, piles of uranium-laden coal at the kilns were “covered with old tires, doused in diesel fuel, ignited, and left to smolder for a couple of months,” according to the North Dakota Geological Survey.

The flock is believed to have been poisoned by land contaminated with high levels of molybdenum. The danger extended beyond livestock. In a 1989 draft environmental assessment, the DOE found that “fatal cancer from exposure to residual radioactive materials” from the Griffin kilns and another site less than a mile from a town of 1,000 people called Belfield was eight times as high as it would have been if the sites had been decontaminated.

But after agreeing to work with the federal government, North Dakota did an about-face. State officials balked at a requirement to pay 10% of the cleanup cost — the federal government would cover the rest — and in 1995 asked that the sites no longer be regulated under the federal law. The DOE had already issued a report that said doing nothing “would not be consistent” with the law, but the department approved the state’s request and walked away, saying it could only clean a site if the state paid its share.

“North Dakota determined there was minimal risk to public health at that time and disturbing the grounds further would create a potential for increased public health risk,” said David Stradinger, manager of the Radiation Control Program in the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality. Contaminated equipment was removed, and the state is reevaluating one of the sites, he said.

“A Problem for the Better Part of 50 Years”

While the process for cleaning up former mills is lengthy and laid out in regulations, regulators and corporations have made questionable and contradictory decisions in their handling of toxic waste and tainted water.

More than 40 million people rely on drinking water from the Colorado River, but the NRC and DOE allowed companies to leak contamination from mill waste directly into the river, arguing that the waterway quickly dilutes it.

Federal regulators relocated tailings at two former mills that processed uranium and vanadium, another heavy metal, on the banks of the Colorado River in Rifle, Colorado, because radiation levels there were deemed too high. Yet they left some waste at one former processing site in a shallow aquifer connected to the river and granted an exemption that allowed cleanup to end and uranium to continue leaking into the waterway.

For a former mill built by the Anaconda Copper Company in Bluewater, New Mexico, the NRC approved the company’s request to hand the site off to the DOE in 1997. About a decade later, the state raised concerns about uranium that had spread several miles in an aquifer that provides drinking water for more than 15,000 people.

The contamination hasn’t reached the wells used by nearby communities, and Smith, the DOE spokesperson, said the department has no plans to treat the uranium in the aquifer. It’s too late for much more cleanup, since the DOE’s Office of Legacy Management’s mission is to monitor and maintain decommissioned sites, not clean them. Flawed cleanup efforts caused problems at several former mills after they were handed off to the agency, according to a 2020 Government Accountability Office report.

“Uranium has been overplayed as a boom,” said Travis Stills, an environmental attorney in Colorado who has sued over the cleanup of old uranium infrastructure. “The boom was a firecracker, and it left a problem for the better part of 50 years now.”

“No Way in Hell We’re Going to Leave This Stuff Here”

Mining companies can’t remove every atom of uranium from groundwater, experts said, but they can do a better job of decommissioning uranium mills. With the federal government yet to take control of half the country’s former mills, regulators still have time to compel some companies to do more cleanup.

Between 1958 and 1961, the Lakeview Mining Company generated 736,000 tons of tailings at a uranium mill in southern Oregon. Like at most sites, uranium and other pollution leaked into an aquifer.

“There’s no way in hell we’re going to leave this stuff here,” Dixon, the nuclear cleanup specialist, remembered thinking. He represented the state of Oregon at the former mill, which was one of the first sites to relocate its waste to a specially engineered disposal cell.

A local advisory committee at the Lakeview site allowed residents and local politicians to offer input to federal regulators. By the end of the process, the government had paid to connect residents to a clean drinking water system and the waste was moved away from the town, where it was contained by a 2-foot-thick clay liner and covered with 3 feet of rocks, soil and vegetation. Local labor got priority for cleanup contracts, and a 170-acre solar farm now stands on the former mill site.

But relocation isn’t required. At some sites, companies and regulators saw a big price tag and either moved residents away or merely left the waste where it was.

“I recognize Lakeview is easy and it’s a drop in the bucket compared to New Mexico,” Dixon said, referring to the nation’s largest waste piles. “But it’s just so sad to see that this hasn’t been taken care of.”

Methodology

To investigate the cleanup of America’s uranium mills, ProPublica assembled a list of uranium processing and disposal sites from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s most recent “Status of the Decommissioning Program” annual reportthe WISE Uranium Project and several federal agencies’ websites. Reporters reviewed fact sheets from the NRC and the Department of Energy before studying the history of each mill contained in thousands of pages of documents that are archived mainly in the NRC’s Agencywide Documents Access and Management System, known as ADAMS.

We solicited feedback on our findings from 10 experts who worked or work at the NRC, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, the Southwest Research and Information Center, the University of New Mexico and elsewhere. Additionally, we interviewed dozens of current and former regulators, residents of communities adjacent to mills, representatives of tribes, academics, politicians and activists to better understand the positive and negative impacts of the uranium industry and the bureaucracy that oversees uranium mill cleanup.

We also traveled to observe mill sites in New Mexico, Utah and Colorado.

Video: New webinar explores #geothermal heating and cooling systems — Western Governors’ Association #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

In late September, Gov. Polis visited the geo-exchange heating and cooling system at Colorado Mesa University (CMU) with officials from the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and the Bureau of Land Management. Photo credit: Western Governors’ Association

Click the link to read the release on the Western Governors’ Association website:

As part of Colorado Gov. Jared Polis’ WGA Chair Initiative, The Heat Beneath Our Feet, the Western Governors’ Association will be conducting tours of geothermal facilities throughout the region to explore the various market and policy factors that affect the development and deployment of geothermal technologies, and evaluate strategies to scale those technologies across the West.

In late September, Gov. Polis visited the geo-exchange heating and cooling system at Colorado Mesa University (CMU) with officials from the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and the Bureau of Land Management.

In late September, Gov. Polis visited the geo-exchange heating and cooling system at Colorado Mesa University (CMU) with officials from the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and the Bureau of Land Management.

On Oct. 6, Will Toor, the Executive Director of the Colorado Energy Office, and Kent Marsh, the Vice President for Capital Planning Sustainability and Campus Operations at CMU, joined WGA Policy Advisor Steven Emmen for a webinar where they discussed the benefits of the system, and identified opportunities for its expansion throughout the region. 

“One of the things that I think is really appealing about this system from an overall system level,” Toor said, “is as we use more electric heat pumps to heat buildings, those are going to increase the peak demand for electricity on cold days in the winter and that potentially poses challenges that we’re going to need to solve on the electric generation side. But, because these ground source heat pumps are always working with a constant temperature, the peak demand on the coldest days is much, much lower than air source heat pumps.”

Using less than half of the electricity required by a traditional HVAC system, the geo-exchange system at CMU currently heats and cools 70% of the buildings on campus (1.2 million square feet), reducing the University’s carbon footprint by nearly 18 metric tons per year, and saving $1.5 million a year on energy costs – savings that are passed on to the students.

According to CMU President, John Marshall, every student’s tuition was discounted by 2% this year due to the system’s efficiencies. With extremely minimal maintenance required to operate the system and a useful service life of over 60 years, those savings will continue long into the future.

It’s been so successful, the University is not only expanding the system to all of the new construction on campus, but it’s also working with the city of Grand Junction to explore options for expanding the system into the surrounding community.  

“This is an exciting example of community-scale geothermal,” Gov. Polis said. “Once we build this great geothermal heating and cooling system, we can leverage it to help extend the benefits and savings to the community.”  

To aid in the expansion of geothermal energy use, Toor outlined a new $12 million grant program with the Colorado Energy Office that supports individual buildings adding geothermal heat pumps, as well as the planning and implementation of larger district heating geothermal systems similar to the systems at Colorado Mesa University.

“The Inflation Reduction Act,” Toor added, “is, for the first time, treating geothermal on an even basis with other renewables on the electricity side. It’s also creating tax credits that may be very useful for geothermal heat pump deployment.”

Geothermal heating and cooling systems, of course, are just one way to take advantage of the West’s vast geothermal potential. Over the next eight months, several Western Governors will be hosting webinars to showcase the capabilities of different geothermal technologies at:

On September 27th, Western Governors’ Association kicked off Colorado Gov. Jared Polis’ WGA Chair Initiative, Heat Beneath Our Feet, with a tour of Colorado Mesa University’s geo-exchange heating system. This system heats and cools 19 buildings covering more than 1.2 million sq ft and saves Colorado Mesa University $1.2 million each year. On Oct. 6 WGA hosted a webinar with geothermal experts to discuss how the system works, what opportunities exist for replicating this technology throughout the West, and the challenges to implementation.

EVs now across #Colorado — @BigPivots

Leaf charging in Frisco September 30, 2021.

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

Every corner of the state now has EV owners. I am told that one of Colorado’s 64 counties has no registered EVs, but my trolling of the Colorado Energy Office EV Dashboard could fine none.

Not surprisingly, the highest-per-capita rate for EVs were in Boulder County, with almost 36 per 1,000 residents, and Pitkin County – home to Aspen – with 28.75 per thousand. And Douglas County (Castle Rock) comes in third at about 20 per thousand.

After that, it’s a mixture of resort counties like Eagle, Summit, Larimer, and Denver, who all come in at 16 to 17 per thousand.

Cheyenne Wells (top photo), on the state’s eastern tier, too small to have a restaurant with operations aside from a few hours at mid-day, still manages to have 4 EVs on its roads adjacent to Kansas. On the opposite side of the state, Dolores County has 6 on the roads going into Utah.

The dashboard also says that pickup trucks now represent 17% of EV vehicles in Colorado, behind electric SVS at 39% and passenger cars at 19%.

For a deeper dive, go to the Colorado Energy Office EV Dashboard.

After COP27, all signs point to world blowing past the 1.5C degrees #GlobalWarming limit – here’s what we can still do about it — The Conversation #ActOnClimate

Young activists have been pushing to keep a 1.5-Celsius limit, knowing their future is at stake. AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty

Peter Schlosser, Arizona State University

The world could still, theoretically, meet its goal of keeping global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius, a level many scientists consider a dangerous threshold. Realistically, that’s unlikely to happen.

Part of the problem was evident at COP27, the United Nations climate conference in Egypt.

While nations’ climate negotiators were successfully fighting to “keep 1.5 alive” as the global goal in the official agreement, reached Nov. 20, 2022, some of their countries were negotiating new fossil fuel deals, driven in part by the global energy crisis. Any expansion of fossil fuels – the primary driver of climate change – makes keeping warming under 1.5 C (2.7 Fahrenheit) compared to pre-industrial times much harder.

Attempts at the climate talks to get all countries to agree to phase out coal, oil, natural gas and all fossil fuel subsidies failed. And countries have done little to strengthen their commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the past year.

There have been positive moves, including advances in technology, falling prices for renewable energy and countries committing to cut their methane emissions.

But all signs now point toward a scenario in which the world will overshoot the 1.5 C limit, likely by a large amount. The World Meteorological Organization estimates global temperatures have a 50-50 chance of reaching 1.5C of warming, at least temporarily, in the next five years.

That doesn’t mean humanity can just give up.

Why 1.5 degrees?

During the last quarter of the 20th century, climate change due to human activities became an issue of survival for the future of life on the planet. Since at least the 1980s, scientific evidence for global warming has been increasingly firm , and scientists have established limits of global warming that cannot be exceeded to avoid moving from a global climate crisis to a planetary-scale climate catastrophe.

There is consensus among climate scientists, myself included, that 1.5 C of global warming is a threshold beyond which humankind would dangerously interfere with the climate system. https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/temperature-anomaly?time=earliest..latest

We know from the reconstruction of historical climate records that, over the past 12,000 years, life was able to thrive on Earth at a global annual average temperature of around 14 C (57 F). As one would expect from the behavior of a complex system, the temperatures varied, but they never warmed by more than about 1.5 C during this relatively stable climate regime.

Today, with the world 1.2 C warmer than pre-industrial times, people are already experiencing the effects of climate change in more locations, more forms and at higher frequencies and amplitudes.

Climate model projections clearly show that warming beyond 1.5 C will dramatically increase the risk of extreme weather events, more frequent wildfires with higher intensity, sea level rise, and changes in flood and drought patterns with implications for food systems collapse, among other adverse impacts. And there can be abrupt transitions, the impacts of which will result in major challenges on local to global scales. https://www.youtube.com/embed/MR6-sgRqW0k?wmode=transparent&start=0 Tipping points: Warmer ocean water is contributing to the collapse of the Thwaites Glacier, a major contributor to sea level rise with global consequences.

Steep reductions and negative emissions

Meeting the 1.5 goal at this point will require steep reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, but that alone isn’t enough. It will also require “negative emissions” to reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide that human activities have already put into the atmosphere.

Carbon dioxide lingers in the atmosphere for decades to centuries, so just stopping emissions doesn’t stop its warming effect. Technology exists that can pull carbon dioxide out of the air and lock it away. It’s still only operating at a very small scale, but corporate agreements like Microsoft’s 10-year commitment to pay for carbon removed could help scale it up.

A report in 2018 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change determined that meeting the 1.5 C goal would require cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 50% globally by 2030 – plus significant negative emissions from both technology and natural sources by 2050 up to about half of present-day emissions.

A direct air capture project in Iceland stores captured carbon dioxide underground in basalt formations, where chemical reactions mineralize it. Climeworks

Can we still hold warming to 1.5 C?

Since the Paris climate agreement was signed in 2015, countries have made some progress in their pledges to reduce emissions, but at a pace that is way too slow to keep warming below 1.5 C. Carbon dioxide emissions are still rising, as are carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere.

A recent report by the United Nations Environment Program highlights the shortfalls. The world is on track to produce 58 gigatons of carbon dioxide-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 – more than twice where it should be for the path to 1.5 C. The result would be an average global temperature increase of 2.7 C (4.9 F) in this century, nearly double the 1.5 C target.

Given the gap between countries’ actual commitments and the emissions cuts required to keep temperatures to 1.5 C, it appears practically impossible to stay within the 1.5 C goal.

Global emissions aren’t close to plateauing, and with the amount of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere, it is very likely that the world will reach the 1.5 C warming level within the next five to 10 years.

With current policies and pledges, the world will far exceed the 1.5 C goal. Climate Action Tracker

How large the overshoot will be and for how long it will exist critically hinges on accelerating emissions cuts and scaling up negative emissions solutions, including carbon capture technology.

At this point, nothing short of an extraordinary and unprecedented effort to cut emissions will save the 1.5 C goal. We know what can be done – the question is whether people are ready for a radical and immediate change of the actions that lead to climate change, primarily a transformation away from a fossil fuel-based energy system.

Peter Schlosser, Vice President and Vice Provost of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, Arizona State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

#Utah Geological Survey leading new study of critical mineral resource Indium in Utah’s west desert: The only domestically established resource of Indium #ActOnClimate

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Pure indium bars, roughly one pound each. By Nerdtalker – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6622482

Click the link to read the release on the Utah Geological Survey website:

The Utah Geological Survey (UGS) has been awarded a federal grant for critical minerals research on the unique West Desert deposit in western Juab County. West Desert is the only established resource of indium in the United States. Indium, in the form of indium tin oxide (ITO), is an essential material used to create touchscreens on a range of consumer devices, such as smartphones and display panels, and for other industrial applications, such as windshields and solar panels.

No indium was produced in the United States in 2021. The West Desert deposit is the only domestically established resource of indium, currently estimated to contain enough to supply all demand in the United States for nearly 10 years. Resources of zinc, an essential component for many metal alloys and considered a critical mineral, and copper, one of the most essential commodities for electric vehicles and efficient energy grids, are also found at West Desert.

“We are excited for the opportunity to study the unique geology of this deposit and learn more about why so many important critical mineral resources are concentrated here,” said Dr. Stephanie Mills, senior geologist with the UGS and principal investigator of this study.

UGS funding comes from the U.S. Geological Survey Earth Mapping Resource Initiative (Earth MRI) program, which is dedicated to improving geological knowledge about domestic critical mineral resources. The project, which will run over three years, is being conducted in collaboration with American West Metals Ltd., which is currently developing the West Desert deposit. American West is a mining company focused on developing low-footprint resources to support the global energy transition. The collaboration will allow UGS unprecedented access to geological materials and data related to West Desert and support research into how this important deposit formed.

#Nuclear industry eyes expansion despite tenuous start: TerraPower and PacifiCorp will consider adding five more Natrium nuclear power plants, targeting #Wyoming and #Utah — @WyoFile

The Kemmerer coal mine (left) and Naughton coal-fired power plant, pictured Jan. 19, 2022. The power plant will be retired in 2028 when TerraPower commences operations for its proposed Natrium nuclear reactor power plant at the same location. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Click the link to read the article on the WyoFile website (Dustin Bleizeffer):

Having already agreed to take on one nuclear power plant in Wyoming, western utility giant PacifiCorp will now consider adding five more to its electric generation fleet by 2035, by co-locating “small modular reactors” where it plans to retire coal-fired power plants in Wyoming and Utah.

PacifiCorp, which serves customers in six western states and operates as Rocky Mountain Power in Wyoming, will join nuclear energy developer TerraPower to study “the potential for advanced reactors to be located near current fossil-fueled generation sites, enabling the companies to repurpose existing generation and transmission assets for the benefit of [PacifiCorp’s] customers,” the companies announced in a joint statement Oct. 27. 

Before choosing locations, “both companies will engage with local communities.”

“This is just a first step, as advanced nuclear power needs to be evaluated through our resource planning processes as well as receive regulatory approval,” Rocky Mountain Power President and CEO Gary Hoogeveen said in a prepared statement. “But it’s an exciting opportunity that advances us down the path to a net-zero energy future.”

A schematic of TerraPower’s proposed Natrium nuclear power plant. Credit: TerraPower

PacifiCorp entered into a tentative agreement in 2021 to take ownership of TerraPower’s first-of-its-kind Natrium nuclear power facility slated for construction at the Naughton coal-fired plant site outside Kemmerer. The plant is scheduled to begin operations in 2028. PacifiCorp would take ownership sometime thereafter.

Coal-to-nuclear shift

Nuclear power is emerging as a potential strategy to help PacifiCorp meet low-carbon emission standards — particularly in California, Oregon and Washington — while also meeting continuous power reliability and making use of its existing coal-fired power facilities. 

The utility plans to convert fuel sources or retire at least six coal-burning units in Wyoming by 2035, taking offline about 2,691 megawatts of continuous “baseload” power capacity, or more than 36% of the state’s coal-fired power generating capacity, according to PacifiCorp data and WyoFile calculations. It plans to shut down its entire coal-fired power fleet in the state by 2039, according to its 2021 Integrated Resource Plan.

A turbine whirls on a farm east of Burlington, Colo. Colorado’s eastern plains already have many wind farms—but it may look like a pin cushion during the next several years. Photo/Allen Best

Aside from potentially replacing coal plants with nuclear reactors, PacifiCorp plans to add more than 3,700 megawatts of new wind power by 2040 throughout its six-state region, including in Wyoming, while adding commercial-scale solar power and battery storage.

Wyoming lawmakers have passed a suite of bills aimed at delaying coal-plant closures in the state by forcing regulated utilities like PacifiCorp to retrofit coal units with carbon capture utilization and sequestration technologies. But so far, the cost-benefit of CCUS retrofits haven’t penciled out for PacifiCorp or Black Hills Energy, according to the companies. 

Legislators and the state’s top energy officials, however, are also enthusiastic about adding nuclear to the state’s power mix. Not only would it provide replacement jobs for coal-plant workers, but some hope it would also help revive Wyoming’s languishing uranium mining sector.

“Wyoming has been working hard to develop a nuclear industry — from the supply chain via our uranium reserves all the way through the value chain to produce zero-emissions electricity that can then be used as feedstock for other net-negative emission products,” Wyoming Energy Authority Executive Director Glen Murrell wrote WyoFile. “The news that [TerraPower and PacifiCorp are] taking on an additional feasibility study to potentially deploy more reactors in the area will strengthen the industry and create jobs and growth for Wyoming’s benefit.”

TerraPower’s Natrium Project Director Tara Neider visits with Wyoming Rep. Scott Heiner (R-Green River) during a Jan. 19, 2022 meeting with officials from TerraPower and PacifiCorp. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

It makes sense to begin analysis and planning for multiple nuclear power reactors now because TerraPower needs to deploy the technology “at scale” if it’s going to prove the Natrium technology commercially viable, University of Wyoming energy economist Rob Godby said.

“You have to look that far down the road when you’re talking about this sort of technological change if you’re [selling nuclear plants to a utility],” Godby said. “So it makes sense for both TerraPower and PacificCorp.”

Targeting Wyoming

TerraPower, backed by Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, selected PacifiCorp’s Naughton power plant at Kemmerer for its demonstration Natrium nuclear power plant in November 2021. Engineering and geologic sampling work is ongoing at the Kemmerer location. Construction is slated to begin in 2024 and bring 2,000 workers to the tiny community.

The company is looking to the U.S. Department of Energy to cover about half of the estimated $4 billion cost of the Kemmerer plant, contingent on a 2028 in-service date.

That schedule, however, was thrown into question after Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year. TerraPower cut ties with the Russian state-owned Tenex — the only facility in the world with the capacity to supply commercial volumes of high-assay, low-enriched uranium fuel. The company is working with DOE and Congress to speed up the development of a domestic HALEU supply chain, including the potential to “downblend” weapons-grade uranium to meet initial fuel needs at Kemmerer by end of 2025, according to TerraPower.

Yet some doubt the viability of adding new nuclear power to the grid under such a time constraint. The Oregon Public Utility Commission in March declined to formally acknowledge PacifiCorp’s plans for Natrium to be a part of its future electrical generation portfolio.

TerraPower is confident of a speedy federal permitting process and that a domestic HALEU supply will come into play, however, and is moving forward with the project as scheduled, a company official told WyoFile.

Kemmerer and PacifiCorp’s Naughton power plant make an ideal location for TerraPower’s demonstration Natrium plant due to “local community support, the physical characteristics of the site, the ability to obtain a license from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the site, access to existing infrastructure, and the needs of the grid,” the company said.

Those same factors make other locations in Wyoming a prime target for Natrium facilities, according to the company.

In its initial analysis to choose a location for its demonstration plant now slated for Kemmerer, TerraPower had also considered the Jim Bridger plant near Rock Springs, the Dave Johnston plant in Glenrock and the Wyodak plant near Gillette — all owned by PacifiCorp.

“We have been impressed and humbled by our work with the Kemmerer community and PacifiCorp,” TerraPower President and CEO Chris Levesque said in a prepared statement. “We look forward to evaluating new potential sites for Natrium plants that have the same energy expertise and capabilities as our demonstration site.”

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A biggest ever in #Colorado for battery storage — @BigPivots #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

Tiny now, like a pebble, lithium-ion battery storage in Colorado will soon be like a boulder. What else is needed to complete this emissions-free jigsaw puzzle? Photo credit: Allen Best

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

The 13,500 solar modules sandwiched by hillsides of sagebrush, piñon and juniper near Glenwood Springs capture the eyes. It’s the four shipping containers of lithium-ion batteries, capable of five megawatts of storage, that will briefly set a new high mark for Colorado.

Battery storage is coming on in Colorado. This project narrowly eclipses the previous record in Colorado set four years ago. Late next spring, the 275 megawatts of battery capacity planned by Xcel Energy at Pueblo and in Adams County will dwarf this record of 5 megawatts. More yet will be coming after that.

We need storage to complement the intermittency of the renewables but also because this makes economic sense. This transition to an energy system with fewer emissions has so far slowed or stopped increased costs in prices of electricity. If only we could be so lucky with organic food.

Storage capacity within Colorado will rise significantly in the next five years. Imagine driving on Interstate 70 across the Great Plains into Denver. In the city’s western suburbs, the highway rises slightly. In this analogy with battery storage, we’re still in the suburbs. Lying immediately ahead is the sharp rise to Floyd Hill with plenty of uphill beyond.

Mike Kruger, the chief executive of Colorado Solar and Storage Association, a trade organization, rejects this analogy. Instead of uphill struggle, he describes downhill glide. Lithium-ion storage will expand, he explained, because of rapidly declining costs that parallel those of solar panels a decade before.

In his view, we’re about to descend from Loveland Pass.

“Imagine the tiniest thing you can think of,” Kruger said at a Colorado Renewable Energy Society webinar. “That’s storage in Colorado today. Now think of the biggest thing you can think of. That will be energy storage in the future.”

All of Colorado’s larger utilities plan significant storage but in somewhat different ways. Platte River Power Authority recently received 31 bids for various non-carbon generation and storage proposals in and near the four communities it serves in northern Colorado. For example, Estes Park, whose frightened residents had to flee in 2020 as two megafires approached, might need both storage and solar panels if power deliveries get interrupted.

Wildfire threat also figures into the solar and storage at the college campus near Glenwood Springs. Should outside power be cut off, students could shelter in place.

Colorado Springs Utilities, the state’s fourth largest utility, is soliciting bids for batteries with 400 megawatt-hours of storage to become operational in 2024. Utilities spokesman Steve Berry predicts growing importance of battery storage as long as the technology becomes increasingly cost-effective, efficient and reliable.

“Battery storage will help us better manage the intermittent characteristics of renewable energy, but it will also provide greater grid resiliency, help insulate customers from market volatility, and help us modernize our grid for emerging technologies,” he says.

We are also beginning – just beginning – to see batteries in homes and businesses. In a program called Power+, Holy Cross has assisted in placing batteries at 68 homes and businesses. Supply chain issues have 122 still on the waiting list. It is doing this partly to learn how to draw on these batteries to meet peak demands, such as when the snowmaking guns at Aspen and Vail power up as temperatures dive during November evenings.

Now come state and federal programs that Kruger describes as a “really amazing confluence of incentives” via tax rebates. A new Colorado law will award an income tax credit equal to 10% of the purchase price for storage systems purchased in 2023 and 2024. The systems are also exempt from sales tax. The federal Inflation Reduction Act provides an even bigger tax incentive of 30%.

Xcel customers will be eligible for additional incentives next year: $500 per kilowatt of storage up to 50% of the cost of the battery and $800 per kilowatt for Income-qualified (up to 75% of the cost of the battery)

Supplies of batteries remain tight, but manufacturing capacity has been ramping up and prices should fall. Globally, capacity grew by a third last year to reach 600 gigawatt-hour in manufacturing capacity. Wood Mackenzie, a consultant, reports 3,000 gigawatt-hours being planned or under construction.

In “The Big Fix,” Aspen-reared Hal Harvey and co-author Justin Gillis describe how scaling up of industrial process has caused prices of everything from Model T’s to computer chips to tumble. They call it “the learning curve.” The most recent examples were wind and then solar.

Cheaper lithium-ion batteries alone will not alone allow Holy Cross and other utilities to realize their goals of 100% emissions-free electricity by 2030. We also need longer-term storage. Options include molten salt, hydrogen and pumped storage-hydro, the latter a technology use in Colorado since the 1950s that remains the state’s largest “battery.” Nuclear and geothermal are other options. All will take time to deploy. Likely a decade.

For now, it’s time to charge the batteries.

In remote #Nevada valley, race for more lithium comes down to water — The Nevada Independent #ActOnClimate

Albemarle Corporation (Formerly Chemetall Foote) Lithium Operation at Silver Peak. By Doc Searls from Santa Barbara, USA – 2010_08_06_rno-phx-bos_033Uploaded by PDTillman, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11770036

Click the link to read the article on Nevada’s only statewide nonprofit newsroom The Nevada Independent (Daniel Rothberg):

There is an otherworldly feel to the crystalline-blue evaporation ponds that sit in Clayton Valley, an arid area in Nevada’s least populated county, Esmeralda. From above, the ponds look like a grid of pooled water arranged in a gradient that moves from a deep-sea blue to a light-sky tone.

The man-made desert pools contain what is naturally underneath the ground: water.

Pumps, drilled deep into the Earth, pull brine from an underground aquifer, and pipes move the salty water into the expansive holding ponds. This is not just any water. It is rich in lithium, a mineral needed for electric cars and large-scale storage batteries, technologies in high demand as countries and industries seek to decarbonize national economies and electric grids.

In the United States, policymakers see these pools and the valley surrounding them as playing a central role. The ponds are part of the Silver Peak mine, an operation run by Albemarle, a global lithium player based in North Carolina. For many years, this mine was the country’s only active domestic lithium source. As lithium prices have skyrocketed, more mines have looked to come online — and Albemarle is looking to expand its footprint and operations in Clayton Valley. 

During a recent media tour of Silver Peak, Karen Narwold, Albemarle’s executive vice president and chief administrative officer, said the expansion could double output. Currently, Silver Peak can produce about 5,000 metric tons of lithium per year (one metric ton is about 2,205 pounds).

“The current demand for lithium is probably around half a million,” Narwold noted. “So this is a relatively small site, but very important from the standpoint of a U.S. domestic supply chain.”

“Customers,” she added, “are asking for more and more lithium, all the time, as you see [electric vehicle] demand increasing,” and the expansion of Silver Peak could help fill the supply gap. 

A large-scale evaporation pond at the Silver Peak lithium mine on Oct. 6, 2022. The evaporation process can take a year and a half to complete. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)
Heavy equipment is used to manage the Silver Peak lithium mine, an operation that relies on the evaporation ponds. A solid salt is a byproduct of the process. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Yet Albemarle is not the only player in Clayton Valley. SLB, a global oilfield services company formerly known as Schlumberger, holds mining claims for a lithium project next to Albemarle’s existing ponds. The company, eyeing a pivot from fossil fuels to renewable energy, argues that its plant would extract lithium more efficiently and sustainably, all with a smaller water footprint.

Behind the scenes is a contentious and ongoing administrative battle over water rights and the laws that govern mining in the West. At issue is which company has the legal right to extract the lithium concentrated within the valley’s salty waters — and on what terms mining takes place.

Representatives with SLB’s Nevada project have argued that Albemarle has used its large water holdings to actively prevent competition in Clayton Valley, effectively wielding “monopoly” power and shutting out other players with federal claims to mine lithium using new extraction methods. 

The settlement of those water rights and mining claims could have major implications for how the race for lithium in Nevada, and in the United States, unfolds. In total, about 30 companies are involved with mining proposals in Clayton Valley, according to the Nevada Division of Minerals.

The division, which tracks more than 17,000 claims for lithium, has seen a roughly 58 percent annual increase in lithium claims. Lithium companies are exploring areas across Nevada, from Dixie Valley to Railroad Valley. Still, Clayton Valley is an area that continues to capture interest.

“There’s a lot of contention there between the entities in Clayton Valley and who has rights to this, that and the other,” noted Mike Visher, the division’s administrator. “At the end of the day, everyone is trying to determine what assets they have — and what’s the value of that asset.” 

Employees at the Silver Peak mine prepare and stack bags of lithium carbonate, a white powder, on Oct. 6, 2022. Lithium is in high demand as countries seek to decarbonize their economies. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

A water dispute

Here, in Clayton Valley, water rights are everything. Once the brine is pulled from the ground, it is left to sit in the large ponds. Over roughly a year and a half, the brine is transferred to different holding ponds and left to evaporate. With little precipitation and a lot of sunlight, the Silver Peak mine relies on evaporation to get a more concentrated solution. That salty solution is eventually piped to a nearby processing and production facility, where it ends up as a white lithium powder. 

All of this is done at scale, and continuously. Albemarle has about 70 wells operating every day, Narwold said. To expand, the company added 22 wells, and it could bring additional evaporation ponds online. The mine includes about 23 ponds. The company, Narwold said, could build two to five new ponds or bring old ponds online by dredging the salt that amasses as a byproduct.

Those investments are to prepare for more brine coming into the system. By the end of the year, Albemarle plans to use all its water rights to produce more lithium, bolstering a domestic supply chain for a mineral increasingly seen as critical for the global economy. Yet SLB is challenging Albemarle’s plans, and its hold on Clayton Valley. SLB argues it has rights to tap into the water.

Two companies with big backing, effectively competing for the same water: Albemarle supplies Tesla and SLB’s operation is strategic partners with Panasonic Energy of North America.

In much of the West and in Nevada, water is regulated on a “first in time, first in right” basis. In the face of scarcity, those who claimed water rights first — or are “senior” — have the priority to use all their water before those who received water rights more recently. But there are important caveats: Water must be put to use within a certain amount of time, or you could lose your right.

That condition, known as “use it or lose it,” is meant to prevent speculators who might otherwise hoard water rights — for financial gain or competitive advantage — without ever using them. At the end of the day, while water in Nevada can be put to private use, water belongs to the public.

Sign posts show the Silver Peak mine’s proximity to other areas of the state. Mining has taken place in this area of Nevada since the 1860s (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)
As brine is moved between evaporation ponds, it becomes more concentrated in the water. The ponds, at this point in the process, take on a bright blue color October 6, 2022. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

For more than half a decade, the courts and regulators have been grappling with this issue and the question of who is entitled to profit off of Clayton Valley’s water and the lithium concentrated in it.

Albemarle holds the rights to almost all the water rights in all of Clayton Valley — about 20,000 acre-feet in total (an acre foot is the amount of water that can fill an acre to a depth of one foot).

“Our position quite simply has been there is no water to be given to anyone because we have all the water rights,” Narwold said at the Silver Peak tour in October. “And we’ve been operating for many years here and can successfully show that we’re actually making a commercial product.”

There’s a catch to that: Over the years, the Silver Peak mine has only used about 60 percent of its water allotment. That means Albemarle might be running afoul of the “use it or lose it” rule.

SLB’s Nevada project argues that Albemarle has speculatively held onto water rights it never put to use. In a filing this year, a lawyer for Pure Energy Minerals, SLB’s partner, said that “for over three decades, Albemarle has been permitted to hold excess water hostage in Clayton Valley though it has never been able to put that water to use, nor is it permitted to do so.”

“Albemarle is undoubtedly engaging in speculation that is against Nevada water policy and the anti-speculation doctrine adopted by the Nevada Supreme Court,” Pure Energy Minerals wrote. 

Through a subsidiary, Pure Energy Minerals had applied for a series of water rights, water that Albemarle has not used in the past. Those rights, pending approval by state regulators, would help NeoLith Energy — an SLB subsidiary — fully develop its lithium project in Clayton Valley. 

Employees in SLB’s NeoLith Energy on-site mobile laboratory. NeoLith Energy is beginning on-site work for a pilot plant to test an extraction process that would have a smaller water footprint. (Courtesy of NeoLith Energy)

That lithium project would rely on direct lithium extraction, a closed-loop system whereby brine would be pumped from the aquifer, processed and put back in the ground. If successful, some industry observers hope the direct extraction process could speed up lithium processing using a smaller water footprint, with an estimated 80 percent of the water recycled back into the aquifer.

NeoLith Energy has mining claims for its project, and 50 acre-feet of permitted water rights for a pilot plant. The company, operations manager Richard Morrison said, also received a state mine permit, and crews are beginning to work on constructing the facility. But for a full build-out of the project, NeoLith Energy needs more water, water Albemarle now plans to use for its expansion. 

“The issue is not water availability,” Morrison said during an interview. “The issue is maintaining a monopoly through holding water hostage, and it has been. And that’s not just been for us.” 

Pending legal questions

For several years, Pure Energy Minerals has challenged Albemarle’s claims to use most of the water in the valley. Pure Energy Minerals took particular aim at state decisions giving Albemarle “extensions of time,” legal exemptions to the “use it or lose it” condition. In total, Albemarle has received 21 extensions since the 1980s, according to a recent filing from Pure Energy Minerals.

In August 2020, a district court judge sided with Pure Energy Minerals, remanding one of those extensions back to state regulators for further deliberations. That, Morrison observed, was when Albemarle started to get serious about its plans to expand, suggesting water was a key motive.

“Before that, everything’s been very ceremonial,” he said.

Two challenges to state decisions — an extension of time in 2017 and 2018 — are now pending before water regulators, according to Micheline Fairbank, a deputy administrator at the Division of Water Resources. Fairbank said the state agency expects to rule on the issue later this year. 

She said the issue has been fraught since about 2014, when companies began exploration and staking mining claims in Clayton Valley. These claims come with their own set of rights under an 1872 federal mining law, a rulebook written more with panning gold, not pumping brine, in mind.

That began about eight years of litigation involving state regulators and companies active in Clayton Valley, what Fairbank described as “one of the more challenging resource management areas we have in the state.” No matter how regulators rule, their decisions often end up in court. 

The state agency, she said, “is really kind of caught in the middle.”

At the Silver Peak mine, pipelines can be seen. Some of them appear inactive, part of ponds no longer in use. But other pipelines are used to transport water from wells to the ponds. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

As NeoLith Energy has challenged Albemarle’s water holdings, Albemarle has pushed back against their claims to water rights, filing an extensive protest letter with state regulators. The letter expresses concerns with its proposed water use, its process and raises concerns that it might contaminate the groundwater aquifer (these concerns, Morrison said, are unfounded).

“We’ve been very transparent about what’s being used,” Morrison said, noting the company has worked with state regulators. “What goes back into the aquifer is as clean as what comes out.” 

The fight over water is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. Water decisions from the state are subject to judicial appeal, and those with mining claims in Clayton Valley face many unanswered legal questions. Visher, the administrator of the state’s minerals division, said everyone working in the valley has “opinions of what they’re entitled to” when it comes to water and mineral rights.

“The claimant believes that under the mining law, they are entitled to the mineral that’s located under their claim,” he said, referencing the General Mining Act of 1872. “Albemarle contends that ‘No, because we have the water rights, we have the rights to all of the lithium in the basin.” 

“And that’s going to end up in the courts at some point, most likely,” Visher added.

In the meantime, Albemarle is pushing forward, with a goal of expanding by the end of the year. 

When asked about water, Narwold noted the pending issues, but she said that “until someone tells us we don’t have the water, the default is that we have all those water rights and we can pump them. That’s part of the expansion here, making sure we’re using all those water rights.”

#Climate groups urge #Colorado to ‘correct course’ on emissions progress: State officials developing ‘roadmap 2.0’ as projections show state at risk of missing 2025 target — Colorado Newsline

A layer of smog covers the skyline of Denver. (Courtesy of EcoFlight)

Click the link to read the article on the Colorado Newsline website (Chase Woodruff):

Environmental groups on Thursday [October 20, 2022] reiterated their longstanding calls for Colorado to “go further, faster” to combat climate change, as state officials promised to develop an updated plan for emissions reductions.

In a letter to members of the Air Quality Control Commission, representatives of a dozen major conservation and climate-action groups wrote that time is running out for the state to “correct course on our emission reduction goals.”

“All analyses performed both by the state and third parties come to the same conclusion: policies currently in place and regulations on-the-books are failing to drive down climate pollution at the pace and scale required by Colorado law,” said the letter, signed by advocates from the Environmental Defense Fund, Conservation Colorado, 350 Colorado and other organizations.

The letter followed a progress report presented to the AQCC last month that showed Colorado isn’t on pace to meet a 2025 deadline to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26% below 2005 levels. The target was set by House Bill 19-1261, a landmark climate-action bill passed by the state Legislature in 2019.

Two of Colorado’s top climate officials returned to the commission Thursday to lay out the next steps as the state tries to get back on track. Clay Clarke, head of the climate change unit in the state’s Air Pollution Control Division, acknowledged the state is falling short of its goals, especially when it comes to transportation.

“Emissions from the transportation sector, based on actual fuel sales last year, were higher than initially projected, indicating additional strategies necessary to achieve the sector’s 2025 emissions targets,” Clarke said.

In the long run, state officials remain confident that the wide-ranging, flexible approach they laid out in a 2021 emissions “roadmap” will result in the necessary reductions, including a 50% statewide cut by 2030. That’s especially the case following the passage of the federal Inflation Reduction Act and the billions in clean-energy funding the state is expected to reap from the new law over the next decade.

“We’re going to have significantly more resources to further lean in on climate action,” said Will Toor, executive director of the Colorado Energy Office.

Toor’s office has begun development of what it calls “roadmap 2.0,” which will incorporate the projected impacts of the new funding and other changes. The updated roadmap is expected to be completed by the end of 2023.

“None of this means our work is done,” Toor said. “We need to keep going and go faster. But we’re going to need to carry forward in a thoughtful, holistic way.”

Officials will give another update on the new roadmap’s development to the AQCC in January.

That’s unlikely to assuage environmental advocates, who are urging the commission to use the next three months to identify near-term regulatory actions that could close the “glaring gap” between projected emissions and the 2025 goal.

“With Colorado’s 2025 climate goal less than two and a half years away, the commission has limited time to enact regulations to close the emissions gap,” advocates wrote.

But Elise Jones, an AQCC commissioner and director of the Boulder-based Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, said the roadmap update was a positive step.

“I think we have a process to get to a plan,” Jones said. “I am sympathetic to the fact that the 2025 target is still quite in question, and unlikely to be met.”

Leaf charging in Frisco September 30, 2021.

New and updated: my lithium project tracker now covers the entire Western US. 83 projects: 58 in Nevada, 10 in Utah, 9 in California, 2 in AZ, 1 each in CO, NM, SD, OR. 54 brine, 29 clay/hard rock — Patrick Donnelly @bitterwaterblue

United Lithium Corp. Completes Staking of Large Land Position in Historical Lithium Pegmatite Producing Area near Ohio City, #Colorado

Click the link to read the release on the United Lithium website (Michael Dehn):

United Lithium Corp. (CSE: ULTH; OTC: ULTHF; FWB: 0ULA)  (“ULTH” or the “Company”) ispleased to announce that it has established a large land position in a historic lithium-beryllium producing area of Gunnison County of Colorado. The Company has completed staking of over 300 unpatented lode claims covering more than 9 square miles (nearly 25 square kilometers) near Ohio City, Colorado, surrounding the Black Wonder granite. The “Patriot Lithium Project” hosts numerous pegmatite bodies, several of which have been mined for Li-Be. United Lithium’s claim block covers or surround all past LCT (lithium, cesium, tantalum) pegmatite production in the Ohio City area.

A reconnaissance rock chip sampling program was carried out in conjunction with the staking program to identify new areas for detailed field work. Samples have been submitted to the laboratory and assays are awaited.

Michael Dehn, CEO of United Lithium stated, “We are planning an integrated exploration program to evaluate the Ohio City area land holdings. The program will include local area detailed geologic mapping and additional rock chip sampling. With anomalies well-defined, targets with be drilled in the coming year when permits and contracts are in place.”

A general outline of the United Lithium claims is presented below. The area staked covers the public lands administered by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). There are private property holdings within the USFS lands and the claims are positioned and located to recognize the pre-existing, titled ownership rights.

Map 1 Patriot Lithium Project Lode Claims (red), Gunnison County, Colorado, USA. Credit United Lithium

Historic Lithium – Beryllium Pegmatite Mining in the Ohio City Area

The Patriot Lithium project is part of the Quartz Creek pegmatite field. It is located 17 miles due east of City of Gunnison, in Gunnison County. The Patriot Lithium Project comprises three blocks of claims that are located between Parlin and Ohio City, Colorado and illustrated on Map 1. The two northern “Ohio City” claim blocks are separated by privately owned lands and a highway right-of-way. A sequence of younger, Paleozoic rocks separate the Ohio City claims from the southern “Parlin” claimblock. More than 1,800 individual pegmatite bodies were mapped around the Black Wonder granite by the US Geological Survey. The mapped pegmatites demonstrate zonation where the pegmatites closest to the Black Wonder granite are less evolved while the more distalpegmatites are geochemically evolved and commonly enriched in lithophile elements like Li, Be, Sn, Cs, Rb, etc. The more evolved pegmatites hosted lithium and beryllium former mines and occurrences, including the well-known Brown Derby pegmatite mine, as well as the Bazooka, White Spar and Opportunity pegmatites.

Reconnaissance Rock Chip Geochemical Sampling

A geological crew worked in conjunction with the staking crew in the Ohio City – Parlin areas, highlighting areas for coverage, and more importantly, collecting 243 surface rock chip samples from many pegmatite outcrops for geochemical analysis. Lithium minerals were identified in a number of the outcrop samples, including abundant lepidolite, spodumene and tourmaline (elbaite), while beryl was the chief beryllium mineral. Other minerals reported in the pegmatites from this area, but not recognized in hand specimens, include monazite, columbite, tantalite, microlite, rynersonite, gahnite, zircon, allanite, amblygolite, pollucite and stibiotantalite.

The pegmatites of the Ohio City- Parlin area contributed to the economic development of the region and contributed significantly to the war efforts of the 1940s and 1950s. The Brown Derby pegmatite mines were of particular note for their Li and Be production as well as a locale for several collectible mineral species.

Map 2 Location of the major lithium-rich mines and occurrences in the Quartz Creek pegmatite district. : From Hanley et al 1950.
Photo 1 The Brown Derby pegmatite, main gallery in July 1980. From 2015 Conference Paper – Quartz Creek pegmatite field, Gunnison County, Colorado: geology and mineralogy by Mark Ivan Jacobson, Mines Museum of Earth Science, Colorado School of Mines
Map 3 The Bazooka Spodumene Prospect, Quartz Creek Pegmatite District: From Staatz et al, 1955
Large lepidolite crystals in pegmatite near the brown derby deposit unitied lithium.jpg

All claims still require final approvals from the Bureau of Land Management.

Mark Saxon (FAusMM), Technical Advisor to the Company, is a qualified person as defined by National Instrument 43-101 (Standards of Disclosure or Mineral Projects) and has prepared or reviewed the scientific and technical information in this press release.

References

Jacobson, M. A. 2015. Quartz Creek pegmatite field, Gunnison County, Colorado: geology and mineralogy, Conference Paper

Staatz, M. H. and A. F. Trites, Jr. 1955, Geology of the Quartz Creek pegmatite district, Gunnison County, Colorado: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 265, 111 pp.

Hanley, J. B., E. W. Heinrich and L. R. Page. 1950. Pegmatite investigations in Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah, 1942-1944: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 227, 125 pp.

The mining land rush is on: Lithium and uranium claims are staded en masse in southeastern Utah — @Land_Desk

Sign in the Lisbon Valley of southeastern Utah. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

Click the link to read the article on The Land Desk website (Jonathan P. Thompson):

In the spring of 1951, a 31-year-old Texan geologist by the name of Charlie Steen staked 11 mining claims in the Lisbon Valley in southeastern Utah. He was guided to the spot not by a Geiger counter’s reading—he couldn’t afford one of those—but by intuition and his geological knowledge. He was convinced that the Valley, which follows a salt anticline between Moab and Monticello, contained rich uranium ore some 200 feet below the surface.

Steen finally was able to rustle up the funds to explore the claims in July of the following year. And as he drilled into the earth on his Mi Vida claim, he hit a dark gray rock: It turned out to be pitchblende, or high grade uranium ore.

Steen would ultimately become a millionaire, his find would lure prospectors from all over the nation to the Colorado Plateau, and Moab would be transformed from a sleepy Mormon town with a touch of tourism to a boisterous uranium boom town where, according to one account, millionaires were sleeping in Cadillacs and offering hundreds of dollars for lodging in the county jail.

Credit: The Land Desk

As demand for the minerals used in electric vehicles and other clean energy application soars and federal efforts to bolster domestic supply chains intensify, prospectors are again converging on the Western U.S. in search of the next big find. Some are sampling subterranean brines for lithium, others are reviving old copper mines, and still others—banking on geopolitical tensions driving up the price of uranium—are going after their own Mi Vida-like strike.

Passage from a story in the Moab Times-Independent, July 1956, referring to the way the Steen-inspired prospecting frenzy died off within a few years because making millions off uranium mining proved more difficult than it appeared from afar.

To get a sense of if and how this rush might be playing out in the Four Corners region, the Land Desk delved into a year’s worth of new mining claims staked in southeastern Utah and western Colorado. I limited the geographical scope so as not to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of claims, which turned out to be a wise choice: More than 1,200 mining claims were filed with the Bureau of Land Management in Utah’s San Juan and Grand Counties alone over the past 12 months.

My research led me to two conclusions. One is that in a sort of rerun of the 1950s, the Lisbon Valley of southeastern Utah will be a focal point for this 21st century land rush. The other is that Bears Ears National Monument were restored just in the nick of time, as many of the new claims push right up against its boundaries.

While a few individual mining claims were staked, most of the filings were in bulk, where a single claimant located as many as 500 claims at one time. I focused on those for this report. Let’s get into the biggest ones filed between Oct. 13, 2021 and Oct. 13, 2022:

URANIUM

Recoupment Exploration Co. LLC—a wholly owned subsidiary of Atomic Minerals Corporation—filed 324 claims totaling 6,500 acres on Harts Point, which borders Indian Creek outside the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. The tribal nations that originally proposed the establishment of Bears Ears National Monument wanted Harts Point to be included. But the Obama administration ultimately left it out, most likely as a concession to uranium and oil and gas interests. Now it forms a sort of peninsula of un-protected land reaching into the national monument where mining claims and oil and gas leasing can continue. In an Atomic Minerals press release, CEO Clive Massey remarked: “The Harts Point area is an excellent exploration target. We staked the ground based on historical drill data indicating Chinle Formation sandstones with significant gamma ray kicks in three holes … ”

White Canyon Uranium LLC filed 33 lode claims of 20.66 acres each on Wingate Mesa in San Juan County, Utah, just southwest of Fry Canyon. These claims lie just outside Bears Ears National Monument. This is another area that was proposed for national monument protection but did not receive it.

While White Canyon Uranium lists a Salt Lake City law firm’s address on its claim filings, it appears to be a branch of Consolidated Uranium (which in August 2021 registered CUR White Canyon Uranium, LLC with the state of Utah). Canada-based Consolidated Uranium, according to its website, recently “completed a transformational strategic acquisition and alliance with Energy Fuels Inc. … and acquired a portfolio of permitted, past-producing conventional uranium and vanadium mines in Utah and Colorado.”

That acquisition included the Daneros Mine, which is in the same area as the new claims. Energy Fuels runs the White Mesa Mill and lobbied both the Obama and Trump administrations to move or shrink the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument.

Consolidated Uranium Sage Plain LLC filed 84 lode claims at 20.66 acres each in San Juan County. These are mostly on a mesa between Monticello and the Lisbon Valley and seem to be aimed at adding acreage to an existing Sage Plain and Rim Mine projects. Consolidated Uranium, which is allied with Energy Fuels, also owns the Tony M Mine at the foot of the Henry Mountains and the Daneros Mine in the White Canyon area. 

Clean Nuclear Energy Corp stakes 300 lode claims, each 20.66 acres, in San Juan County, for a total of 6,219 acres. The claims are on Wray Mesa, which is on the southern toe of the La Sal Mountains near the community of La Sal. A few months after the claims were filed, Basin Uranium entered into a letter of intent to acquire 100% interest in the Wray Mesa project. In its news release, Basin noted: “The Property is contiguous to and adjoins Energy Fuel’s fully-permitted and production-ready La Sal projects which includes a number of past-producing uranium and vanadium mines.” Energy Fuels owns the White Mesa Mill. The Vancouver-based company announced in September they received permits to begin exploratory drilling at the project.

Kimmerle Mining LLC out of Moab, which gained notoriety for staking uranium mining claims within Bears Ears National Monument after Trump shrunk the boundaries, filed 47 claims in San Juan and Grand Counties. The claims are scattered about, and some seem to be following or anticipating some of the big bulk claims noted here. At least one is on the northeast slope of the La Sal Mountains, others are west of the town of La Sal, and still others are in the Lisbon Valley. Kimmerle has claims all over the area and has leased some out and worked others in the past.

LITHIUM

Boxscore Brands of Las Vegas, Nevada, file 102 placer claims, at 20 acres each (2,040 acres total) in the Lisbon Valley in San Juan County, Utah. Boxscore Brands is “An American Lithium and New Energy Company” that is looking to extract lithium—used in EV and grid-scale batteries—from ancient subterranean brine deposits. They say their method is “environmentally friendly.” They are probably referring to a form of direct lithium extraction, which pulls geothermal brine from deep underground, filters out the lithium, then re-injects the water. The method requires no strip-mining or evaporation ponds.

The claims were staked for its Lisbon Valley Project, which is in the pre-exploration stages. The company’s website notes: “This asset provides access to the targeted brine deposits. Historical data show a substantial commercially viable concentration of lithium brine.” Read the technical report for the project.

The oil and gas industry is also active in the Lisbon Valley and a copper mine is being revived there, too.

Blackstone Resources Corp. of Midvale, Utah, filed 294 lode claims, at 20.66 acres each, between Moab and Green River south of Dead Horse Point in Grand County. We weren’t able to find much reliable information on Blackstone, in part because it’s a very common name for companies. But it shares a Las Vegas address with A1 Lithium, which is the same as Anson Resources, which recently embarked on a lithium exploration project in the same area. These claims appear to add to existing claims owned by A1/Anson that are part of its Paradox Basin Lithium Project. Anson’s plan can be found here. The odd thing is that these lithium projects typically file placer claims, not lode claims.

OTHER/UNKNOWN

American Potash LLC (based in Vancouver BC) filed128 placer claims in Grand County, Utah, between Moab and Green River. These claims are an extension of the company’s Green River Project.

Potash evaporation ponds in the red rock outside Moab, Utah. Source: Google Earth.

Geobrines International filed 18 claims in Grand County, Utah, near the town of Thompson Springs (which is right off of I-70). Geobrines is a Colorado-based company that says it specializes in providing geothermally sourced brines for use for minerals extraction and geothermal energy applications. Plus, they do something with carbon capture and sequestration. I’m guessing they’re looking to do some lithium extraction on these claims.

TAKEAWAYS

By my estimates, this adds up to more than 20,000 acres of public land that has been “claimed” by corporations for potential mining. But it’s not a reason to panic. At least not yet. It’s so easy and cheap ($165 maintenance fee) to stake a mining claim, thanks to the 1872 Mining Law that still applies, that companies or individuals can literally do so just for the heck of it. And they can’t do much without getting permits first.

That said, this apparent land rush on lithium- and uranium-bearing lands is an indicator in where the industry may be headed (more mining) and which regions it may be targeting (the West). It’s a wake-up call, in other words.

But it’s also incomplete. I found very few new claims in western Colorado, even in the Uravan Mineral Belt. That’s not due to a lack of interest. To the contrary, much of the prime mining land there has already been claimed and even patented, so it can’t be claimed again (only bought or sold, which is something that wouldn’t appear in BLM records). Also, uranium-bearing lands have been withdrawn from the public domain and put under the Department of Energy’s leasing program—those lands can’t be “claimed” under the 1872 Mining Law.

The most emphatic conclusion here is that the 1872 Mining Law should be scrapped and replaced with modern regulations. It’s unconscionable that an individual or corporation can simply claim public land without any advance notice, opportunity for public comment, or tribal consultation and that it can be done for a measly $165. It’s illogical and unfair that companies can rip open the land, extract and profit off Americans’ minerals, and not pay a cent in royalties. Even the inadequate 122-year-old Mineral Leasing Act, which governs oil and gas and coal development on public lands, is an improvement.

A modern mining upsurge is already underway. Isn’t it time to bring mining regulations into the 21st century?

The front sign of the White Mesa Mill located south of Blanding, Utah. It is a uranium ore processing facility operated by Energy Fuels Resources. Photograph taken on 2019-01-22T19:36:57Z. Steven Baltakatei Sandoval – Own work

Driving ethically: Understanding the #sustainability of electric cars

Click the link to read the article on the Auto Trader website:

Chapter 1: An introduction to sustainability within the car industry

We hear a lot about sustainability – how to live more sustainably, how to make more sustainable decisions and how to buy sustainable products. But what role does sustainability play in the car industry?

Well, sustainability focuses around the idea that we need to meet our current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same. This means that goods should be produced in a way that causes little (or no) damage to the environment.

We’ve seen a growing focus on sustainability across industries. It’s much easier to buy products made from recycled and/or recyclable materials, find information on where goods are sourced from, and have access to a greater choice of ethical services.

These are all things that we appreciate. An IBM study found that 57% of consumers are willing to change their purchasing habits to help reduce negative environmental impact. While recycling more or shopping locally are smaller decisions than purchasing a car, they are all important steps in the right direction. These changing habits signal a shift in priorities towards increasingly sustainable choices.

Experts predict that value and ease will continue to be the largest factors in buying decisions for some time, but rounding up the top three will be sustainability.

For the automotive industry, it can be a tough balancing act. But one thing is clear: sustainability is a strategic priority that’s here to stay. In a Capgemini Research Institute survey of 500 large automotive organisations, as well as 300 related experts, it was found that:

Continue reading “Driving ethically: Understanding the #sustainability of electric cars”

Worsening hydrology tilts RTO benefits — @BigPivots

Glen Canyon Dam, seen here in May 2022, was a major electrical generation but has produced less as volumes in Lake Powell have declined. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

New study says that as electrical output from Colorado River dams declines benefits with a Southwest Power Pool alignment grow

For water geeks, first a bit of alphabet soup from energy geeks:

RTO stands for regional transmission organization, a way of sharing electricity across a broad region to better match demand with renewable energy supplies.

SPP stands for Southwest Power Pool, which provides some of this energy sharing across several Midwestern states. It is trying to provide something similar in Colorado and adjoining Rocky Mountain states. It began offering the first small step, something called the Western Energy Imbalance Service.

Three of Colorado’s four largest utilities have already joined, as have several others of relevance to Colorado, including the Western Area Power Administration and the Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska. Conspicuously absent is the David of Colorado, i.e. Xcel Energy, which sells more than 50% of electricity consumed in the state.

Now, to the news. A new study by Brattle Group finds the benefits of joining an RTO operated by SPP would yield significantly more benefits, somewhere between $55 million and $73 million per year, depending on hydrologic conditions.

The savings increase to $89 million per year under severe drought conditions. The modeling for reduced hydroelectric production was among several differences from a similar study conducted in 2020. See the report here.

A press release from Tri-State Generation and Transmission, Colorado’s largest electrical supplier after Xcel, also notes potential operational and reliability benefits provided by RTO participants.

Throwing their lot with the Southwest Power Pool, at least in its incipient alignment, are not only Tri-State but also Colorado Springs Utilities and Platte River Power Authority. Not incidentally, all depend upon purchases of hydroelectricity from the Western Area Power Administration which distributes power from Glen Canyon Dam and other federal hydroelectric facilities. As a privately owned utility, Xcel is ineligible to receive what was traditionally extremely low-priced electricity from the federal dams.

This @climate-friendly house for #MarshallFire victims isn’t a luxury home — #Colorado Public Radio #ActOnClimate

A rendering of the RESTORE Passive House designed for Marshall fire victims. Designers hope the new home proves green homes can hit an affordable price point for middle-class families. Courtesy of Passive House: https://www.passivhaus.city/

Click the link to read the article on the Colorado Public Radio website (Sam Brasch). Here’s an excerpt:

Record-high construction prices and low insurance payouts have squeezed Marshall fire victims trying to rebuild in Boulder County. The few local companies offering to build passive homes wouldn’t work within the [Peter and Michelle Ruprecht’s] budget. That all changed with a link posted in an online community group. It directed Peter Ruprecht to a web page for the RESTORE Passive Home, a three-bedroom, three-bathroom house designed for the Marshall fire burn area. The designers promised a $550,000 price tag after government incentives, which fell in line with the construction quotes the family had received from other commercial builders. The couple is now the first to sign up to build the home…

Debates over construction costs and climate-minded building standards have supercharged local politics in the aftermath of the Marshall fire. Earlier this year, Louisville and Superior — the two communities hit hardest by the disaster — faced intense pressure from fire victims worried mandatory green building codes would further boost construction prices. Both local governments ended up allowing those families to rebuild to earlier, less-stringent standards. The RESTORE Passive Home attempts to prove green homes can fit within middle-class budgets. The task could prove critical as governments push to reduce the climate impact of buildings, which account for 13 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and 20 percent of Colorado emissions — largely due to natural gas appliances and an electricity grid dominated by fossil fuels. Passive homes could also help insulate families from climate threats like poor air quality and future fires. Andrew Michler, a passive house designer behind the new project, said the task requires a major shift in his industry. Instead of one-off homes built for committed environmentalists, passive home designers need to start building for the mass market. He said only about 20 homes in Colorado have met international passive home standards.

Ute Mountain Ute Tribe installs hydroelectric generators for farm operation — The #Cortez Journal #ActOnClimate

South of Hesperus August 2019 Sleeping Ute Mountain in the distance. Photo credit: Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

Click the link to read the article on the Cortez Journal website (Jim Mimiaga). Here’s an excerpt:

Technology tied into irrigation pipelines will provide power for 7,600-acre farm and Bow and Arrow Brand corn mill

The kinetic energy that irrigation water produces as it surges through pressurized pipe on the Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch Enterprise is wasted as it is reduced to operate the center-pivot sprinkler system. Now, that precious power can be captured and used. The Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch Enterprise decided to capture the dissipated energy through a series of small hydroelectric power plants placed on irrigation lines that serve center-pivot sprinklers on the 7,700-acre farm southwest of Towaoc.

This summer, the tribe started up its first hydroelectric generator on an irrigation line for a field prepped for winter wheat on the farm, which has 110 center pivots. Two more generators are installed on nearby field irrigation lines and are staged to begin operations. By 2024, the tribe will have 10 hydropower plants capturing the energy from the pressurized pipes, which drop in elevation from the nearby Towaoc Highline Canal…

On the farm, nondescript buildings that house the turbines, piping, generators and electrical panels hum and whistle with the sounds of renewable energy. Water from the irrigation line surges into the turbine at more than 200 pounds per square inch as it drops 220 feet in elevation from the nearby Towaoc Highline Canal, engineers said. The plant captures 18 kilowatts of energy from the flow but leaves enough water pressure to power the center pivot. Once all online, electricity produced from all 10 plants covers electricity costs for the farm and the adjacent Bow and Arrow Brand corn mill.

Ute Mountain Ute Tribe area map via USBR/Ten Tribes Partnership Tribal Water Study

Driving Electric Vehicles — NREL

Electric vehicles (EVs) are an important part of our transition to a clean energy future … and they are fun to drive! In this video, you’ll learn how driving an EV is different than a gasoline vehicle, and how to make the most of your ride. Find out more about electrifying your fleet at https://www.energy.gov/eere/femp/elec….

Opinion: #Colorado is failing on #climate goals. What did you expect? The transportation sector is the state’s biggest greenhouse gas emissions source. And it’s the area in which the state is most falling short — Colorado Newsline

Smoke from the massive Hayman Fire could be seen and smelled across the state. Photo credit to Nathan Bobbin, Flickr Creative Commons.

Click the link to read the article on the Colorado Newsline website (Quentin Young):

A new progress report on Colorado’s greenhouse gas emission reductions shows the state is not on track to meet key goals. And anyone could have seen it coming.

The goals are set by statute, yet state officials haven’t taken climate action with sufficient seriousness to do right by the law, let alone public health and the planet. One hopes the new report inspires urgent action, though state officials have approached the climate emergency with a maddening combination of strong rhetoric and weak action for years.

Colorado residents will pay the price.

State lawmakers three years ago enacted House Bill 19-1261, a landmark achievement that requires the state to reduce greenhouse gas pollution compared to 2005 levels by goals of 26% by 2025, 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050. As part of the effort to meet those targets, the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission in 2020 established a regime to track and ensure progress on emission reductions. It set targets for a handful of sectors that are to blame for the most emissions, including electricity generation, oil and gas production, transportation, and residential and commercial building energy use.

The state has since made some notable strides toward hitting the targets. State law now requires electric utilities to file clean energy plans and work to reduce emissions. While renewable energy is becoming much cheaper to produce, and market forces rather than state action has much to do with the green transition, Colorado’s last coal plant is expected to close by the beginning of 2031, and utilities in the state are expected to see a roughly 80% reduction in emissions by 2030.

In 2019, the state adopted a zero-emission vehicle standard that requires an increased percentage of cars available for sale in Colorado to be electric-powered. The modest measure, which does not require drivers to actually buy electric cars, is expected to boost from 2.6% three years ago to 6.2% in 2030 the proportion of zero-emission vehicles sold in Colorado.

Officials recently enacted standards that require state and local transportation planners to meet a series of greenhouse gas reduction targets. And during the most recent legislative session, the General Assembly enacted a package of climate-friendly measures, the largest climate investment being a $65 million grant program to help school districts buy electric buses.

But for every climate advance in Colorado there’s often a planet-threatening failure.

As Newsline’s Chase Woodruff reported last year, the administration of Gov. Jared Polis abandoned one of its own top climate-action priorities, an initiative called the Employee Traffic Reduction Program, which would have required big Denver-area businesses to reduce the number of their employees commuting in single-occupant vehicles. The initiative was dropped following “intense opposition from business groups and conservatives, many of whom spread misinformation and conspiracy theories,” Woodruff reported.

Earlier this year the administration frustrated environmentalists again when it delayed adoption of an Advanced Clean Trucks rule, which would impose emissions standards on medium- and heavy-duty vehicles.

This is all aligns with the governor’s insistence on a “market-driven transition” to renewable energy and a preference for voluntary industry action.

Is it any surprise then that the transportation sector accounts for Colorado’s most grievous instance of greenhouse gas negligence? What makes this especially troubling is that, with all those internal combustion engines buzzing around Colorado roads, transportation is the state’s single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

“Additional strategies for reducing emissions from the transportation sector will be needed” to meet state targets, the recent progress report concludes.

Emissions from transportation in Colorado have in fact grown in recent years, contributing greatly to the state’s overall off-track status.

The average temperature in Colorado keeps trending up. Denver this year experienced its third-hottest summer on record. The city’s four hottest summers have occurred in the last 10 years, and 3 of 4 of its hottest summers have occurred in the last three years.

Climate change is contributing to the aridification of the Southwest, it’s depleting water resources and it’s fueling more frequent and ferocious wildfires. It’s killing people, and it’s getting worse.

Polis, a Democrat, sits in the governor’s chair, so he shoulders the most responsibility, but Republicans would no doubt exacerbate the crisis were they in his position. Heidi Ganahl, the Republican nominee for Colorado governor, recently released her proposed transportation policy, which is almost entirely about investing in highways and almost exhaustively dismissive of climate change.

State officials, to safeguard the wellbeing of present and future generations of Coloradans, must take urgent steps to meet the 2025 emissions reduction targets. The progress report shows they’re failing to do so.

Credit: Colorado Climate Center

Left Out to Dry: Wildlife Threatened by #ColoradoRiver Basin #Water Crisis — The Revelator #COriver #aridification

The drought’s ‘bathtub ring’ of Lake Mead at the inlet for Hoover Dam, May 2022. Photo: Don Barrett (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Click the link to read the article on The Revelator website (Tara Lohan):

Lost in much of the coverage of the region’s water woes is the ecological crisis caused by prolonged drought, climate warming and development.

In the Colorado River basin, our past has come back to haunt us.

We’re not just talking about the dead bodies emerging from the drying shoreline of Lake Mead. The river’s water crisis has caused the nation’s two biggest reservoirs to sink to historic lows.

It’s a problem of our own making — in more ways than one.

The Colorado River Compact, signed a century ago, overallocated the river’s water. Experts have long warned that nature can’t continue to deliver the water that the government has promised to farms, cities and towns.

A drying West, warmed by climate change, has now made that shortage impossible to ignore.

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck. Credit: Brad Udall via Twitter

For years demand has outstripped natural flows on the river, and some states and Tribes have already taken cuts to their allocations. Additional conservation measures were expected as the seven U.S. states that share the river — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, California and Nevada — have been working on hammering out a new deal. The region’s more than two dozen federally recognized Tribes have also been fighting for a seat at that table and a hand in the river’s management. But the deadline for a revised agreement between all the parties came and went this summer with no resolution in sight.

To say there’s a lot at stake would be an understatement.

Some 40 million people rely on the 1,400-mile-long river in the United States and Mexico, including in many of the West’s biggest cities. It also greens 5 million acres of irrigated agriculture.

But that’s come at a cost. Long before cities and industrial farms emerged, the river supported diverse mountain and desert ecosystems, providing refuge and resources for countless animals and plants.

Many of those species now struggle to survive the cumulative pressures from drought, climate warming and human developments. And they remain an overlooked part of the region’s water crisis…

Hot Drought

A lot can happen in two decades.

In 2000 Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which help manage water supplies along the Colorado, were nearly full. Today they’re both hovering just above one-quarter capacity — the lowest ever since being filled.

Echo Bay Marina in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, 2014. Photo: James Marvin Phelps (CC BY-NC 2.0)

In the intervening 20 years the Colorado River basin has seen a prolonged drought that’s now believed to be the driest period in the region in the last 1,200 years. River flows have fallen 20% compared to the last century’s average.

And it’s not just from a lack of precipitation. Researchers attributed one-third of that reduced river flow to climate change. Warming temperatures increase evaporation, as well as evapotranspiration by plants. So even when the Rocky Mountains do receive snow or rain, less of that runoff makes it to the Colorado River and its tributaries.

CO2 trend: This graph shows the monthly mean abundance of carbon dioxide globally averaged over marine surface sites since 1980. (NOAA Global Monitoring Laboratory)

Experts say we’ll see more of these so-called “hot droughts” as the climate continues to warm. The basin is expected to see a five degree-Fahrenheit jump by 2050. That will make things not just hotter but drier. If we don’t dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions, the Colorado’s flow could drop 35% to 55% by the end of the century.

Years ago the region’s prolonged drought was dubbed a “megadrought,” but some of the region’s top scientists say “aridity” may be a better term. That means that the combination of warming and drying will be much more permanent.

Aridity and Animals

The region’s ecosystems — and those who live in them — are feeling the heat.

“Climate warming is just hammering this basin, and part of what we see in addition to the water disappearing is this protracted wildfire season,” says Jennifer Pitt, the Colorado River program director for Audubon, the bird-conservation organization. “The fires are more intense and cover ever-larger landscapes, that in turn has the possibility to severely impact the health of the watershed.”

Millions of trees have also been lost to insects and disease exacerbated by drought, including along riverbanks, where less shade is warming streams. Many desert plants, like ocotillos, Washington fan palms and Joshua trees, are also declining from warming temperatures, less precipitation and thirstier animals.

Across the region streams and springs are drying up, too, leading to declines in populations of aquatic amphibians, fish and insects that make up the base of the food chain.

“We haven’t seen any entire species go extinct yet,” says Michael Bogan, an assistant professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment at the University of Arizona. “But if you project this into the future, that’s certainly something we’re worried about.”

His concern includes the fate of endangered desert pupfish and Gila topminnows.

“They used to be present in large river systems, but the changes in the habitat and the introduction of non-native fishes have basically excluded them from all of those large historic habitats,” he says. “Now the only refuge where they can survive is these smaller habitats — these headwater streams and springs — and those are the exact types of places that are disappearing now.”

Birds are at risk, too, a recent study found. The researchers visited areas of the Mojave Desert that had been studied in the previous century and found that, on average, the sites lost 43% of their species. The main driver, they believe, is decreased precipitation from climate change.

Birds who live in the desert already endure harsh conditions, but climate change could push them past tolerable limits, causing lethal hyperthermia or dehydration. A lack of water can also cause reduced fitness and or force birds to skip a breeding cycle.

We already see this happening with burrowing owls. A study by researchers from the University of New Mexico looked at how increasing air temperature and aridity affected the species.

Burrowing owls. Photo: Wendy Miller (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Between 1998 and 2013 the birds at their study area in New Mexico experienced a decline in the number of young that left the nest and a precipitous 98.1% drop — from 52 breeding pairs to just one.

The researchers associated the declines with the effects of decreased precipitation and increased temperature. “An increasingly warm and dry climate may contribute to this species’ decline and may already be a driving force of their apparent decline in the desert Southwest,” they concluded.

Mammals aren’t immune to the changes, either. Another recent study found grave threats to pronghorn across the region. Their models predicted that half of the 18 populations they studied would disappear by 2090.

A decrease in water supply affects animals’ health but can also cause behavioral changes that could put them in harm’s way. If animals need to move outside their normal range in search of declining food or water, it could lead to more interactions with predators or more human-wildlife conflicts, especially if animals look for resources in more urbanized areas.

Fewer sources of water also force a greater number of animals to congregate at the remaining watering holes. Experts say this increases the risk of disease outbreaks like the one that happened in 2020 along the Pacific flyway in California and Oregon, when 60,000 birds crowded into sparse wetlands perished from avian botulism.

An Altered River

Many of the most severe ecosystem impacts currently affecting the Colorado basin predate the 20-year drought.

Hoover Dam’s construction in 1936, followed by the building of Glen Canyon Dam 30 years later, dramatically altered river’s flow, blocked sediment that creates riparian habitat, and changed the temperature of the river…

Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. Photo: Simon Morris (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Today the 360 miles between the two dams, which include the Grand Canyon, have become “a river that’s managed to pool-to-pool,” says Pitt. “There’s not much flowing river once you get below Hoover Dam.” That’s caused a loss of riparian forest, which supported birds and other wildlife, and pushed four native fish — humpback chub, bonytail chub, Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker — to the brink of extinction.

“There’s concern for quite a number of species because of the historically altered river flow,” says Pitt.

Colorado River Delta via 2012 State of the Rockies Report

It also decimated 1.5 million acres of wetlands downstream at the Colorado River Delta in Mexico.

“For most of the last 50 years, the river has not flowed to the sea,” says Pitt. “An untold wealth of wildlife disappeared off the map because of the desiccation of that landscape.”

Compounding Problems

Development, dams and water diversions along the Colorado, along with today’s drought and climate warming, have pushed many species to the razor’s edge. Some are barely hanging on.

Humpback chub

Of particular concern right now are humpback chub, which suffered after Glen Canyon Dam’s construction. Managers have spent decades trying to recover the fish — with some recent success.

But now the species faces a new threat: non-native largemouth bass — a voracious predator of humpback chub — who thrive in the warmer water that’s being released from the diminished reservoir.

In June researchers detected the fish downstream of Glen Canyon Dam, in the same habitat where humpback chub numbers were finally improving.

“The National Park Service is really worried that if those populations of non-native fish get established in the Colorado River downstream from Glen Canyon Dam, that could be catastrophic for the humpback chub,” says Pitt.

Echo Bay Marina in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, 2014. Photo: James Marvin Phelps (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The situation is emblematic of the larger ecological consequences stemming from our river management.

“How we manage the dams and the water levels is directly affecting the ecology of the Colorado River itself,” says Bogan.

And while that imperiled ecology may not be the headline news regarding the Colorado River crisis, its significance shouldn’t be understated.

Millions of people visit the Grand Canyon each year to peer over the canyon’s lip and glimpse the Colorado’s path through the ancient towering walls. They come, too, to see California condors, bald eagles and southwestern willow flycatchers — all of whom could disappear if the river does.

The loss of plants and animals across the basin is also a loss of cultural resources for the region’s Tribes.

And as the river declines, so does everything around it…

Worse Before It Gets Better

As states work to deal with shortages of water from the Colorado River, there’s a chance that things could get worse before they get better.

One concern is an overdrafting of groundwater, particularly in Arizona, which legally bears the brunt of shortages on the Colorado and has many areas where groundwater pumping is not regulated.

That can leave groundwater-dependent springs and streams at risk of drying.

Another area of concern is California’s Salton Sea — the famously saline lake in the desert fed now only through agricultural runoff from the neighboring irrigation districts. One of those is the Imperial Irrigation District, which gets the biggest chunk of California’s Colorado River allotment. As the region attempts to work out a new plan to decrease water use, there’s pressure on the agency to fallow some of its 475,000 acres, but that would also mean less runoff making it to the Salton Sea.

Burrowing owls. Photo: Wendy Miller (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“The Salton Sea is some of the only remaining habitat for migrating water birds and shorebirds in interior California,” says Pitt. “The Central Valley was that habitat once upon a time, but has been completely developed. So it’s a critical habitat for many species.”

It’s also a public health threat. As winds sweep across the drying lake, particles of dust and pollution are swept into neighboring communities where residents suffer from high rates of asthma and respiratory problems.

“The answer is not that we can’t reduce any water use from the Imperial Irrigation District,” she says. “As uses of water are reduced in irrigated agriculture that drains to the sea, there needs to be mitigation.”

A plan, that includes habitat restoration and dust mitigation suppression projects, created decades ago to do just that has been slow to get off the ground. It needs to “ramp up quickly to protect wildlife and to protect public health,” she says.

The Path Forward

There is some good news.

Minute 323 environmental section signing. Photo credit: Colorado River Water Users Association

Agreements between Mexico and the United States in the past decade have enabled “pulse flows” of water to flow downstream to repair a small amount of the lost wetland habitat in Mexico’s California River Delta. And in the desert, fortunately, a little can go a long way.

“We’re seeing improvements in both the number of bird species detected there and the populations of those species,” says Pitt. She’s optimistic that the two governments will continue to support that environmental program in the future.

It’s an idea that could help upstream habitat as well.

“I think really the most important thing that’s being done at both the state level and at the local level is trying to get dedicated flows in streams that are explicitly for the conservation of aquatic species,” says Bogan. Although right now, because of the complexities of water rights, that work is limited and usually local in scope.

“But it’s something that at least has given me a little bit of hope,” he says.

Another strategy, says Pitt, is “natural distributed storage,” which means restoring wetlands and high-elevation meadows to slow water down as it runs across the landscape. That can help recharge groundwater and provide moisture to soil and plants.

“The more moisture we’re keeping around the less vulnerable these areas are to fire,” she says. “It will have an incredible wildlife benefit because those meadows are rich habitat.”

It’s akin to the work that beavers do naturally, but people can replicate.

“It sounds small if you look at it on one little creek,” she says, “but if we can start to see it implemented across the upper basin, I think it could really scale up to make a difference.”

With the cumulative impacts of human development and climate change adding up, Pitt says we should look to the federal government and states to make sure that Endangered Species Act programs are supported to help protect and restore habitat for the dozens of already at-risk species in the basin. This means going beyond supplementing the number of endangered wild fish with hatchery-raised fish, which is the current management strategy.

And of course, the region still needs to grapple with how it allocates and manages the Colorado River’s water. Pitts says she’d like to see a greater role for Tribes in that process and the inclusion of adequate water to maintain healthy ecosystems.

“Environmental water needs to be recognized as part of our objectives for water management,” says Pitt.

“It’s both extremely challenging at this moment because there’s so much less water available to carve up between users,” she says. “But it’s a moment to really rethink how we do things.”