And the “coaches,” websites and dealers need to emphasize how much consumers’ annual operating costs will drop when they’re not paying $3 a gallon for gas, changing the oil every six months, and handling thousand-dollar repairs of combustion engines.
Reliability and performance. Some of the EV-curious still seem to think, advocates say, that storage batteries spontaneously combust, or that the complex electronics are always going haywire, or that their relatively small vehicle will drive like a low-powered sewing machine. That’s where the marketing and education side need to double down on the lower costs of long-term maintenance in EVs, which have far-fewer moving engine parts than their gas cousins.
Moravcsik and others like to emphasize the drivability of EVs — and not just the sportier Teslas. Even the smallest EV sedans and hatchbacks on the market have far-faster and more-responsive acceleration than a comparable gas engine. Electric cars have no lag when you step on the accelerator, making highway entrances a sport instead of a nightmare.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Two local irrigation districts are looking to replace the aging Grand Valley Power hydroelectric plant by the Colorado River near Palisade with a new, adjacent plant after deciding against trying to keep the old plant running.
The Orchard Mesa Irrigation District and Grand Valley Water Users Association expect to spend some $10 million, not counting cash spending and in-kind contributions to date, on what is to be called the Vinelands Power Plant. It will replace a plant that dates to the early 1930s.
The existing plant is owned by the federal Bureau of Reclamation but administered by the two local irrigation entities, with Orchard Mesa Irrigation overseeing day-to-day operations and Grand Valley Water Users diverting water for it. The local entities hold a lease of power privilege contract granted by Bureau of Reclamation to operate and maintain the existing plant, and will be negotiating a new lease with the agency for the new plant.
Those negotiations take place in public, and are scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m. on Monday in a virtual meeting on a Microsoft Teams platform. Information on joining the meeting may be obtained by contacting Justyn Liff at email@example.com or 970-248-0625.
A 30-minute public comment session will follow a scheduled two hours of negotiations, and negotiations will continue on another day if needed, said Ryan Christianson, water management chief for the Bureau of Reclamation’s Western Colorado Area Office.
Mark Harris, general manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association, said the hope is to begin construction on the new plant this fall and to have it operating within a year or so afterward.
The irrigation entities had been proceeding on parallel tracks, both pursuing continued operation of the existing plant and considering the possibility of replacing it…
Only one of the current plant’s two turbines is being used now. Harris said if the plant were rehabilitated, it could produce up to about 3.5 megawatts of power, compared to close to 5 megawatts for the new one.
Power from the plant had been sold to Xcel Energy, but starting this year, it is being sold to Holy Cross Energy, based in Glenwood Springs.
Harris said the new plant will be owned 51% by irrigators and 49% by Idaho-based Sorenson Engineering, which will build it. Harris said the company has built several power plants for the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association.
The Palisade plant will be built on land owned by the Bureau of Reclamation and by Orchard Mesa Irrigation. The project also makes use of fairly senior federal water rights and a federal canal to supply the plant, which are also reasons why the lease with the Bureau of Reclamation is required.
For the plant’s owners, the project will produce revenues from selling power to Holy Cross. Harris said irrigators also benefit because water that supplies the plant also improves the ability to get irrigation water into a canal at the upstream “roller dam” diversion point at times when the Colorado River is running low.
However, the dam has broader benefits as well. Harris said the Bureau of Reclamation holds a water right for the plant of 400 cubic feet per second in the summer and 800 cfs in the winter. That water helps bolster flows immediately downstream in what’s known as the 15-mile reach, an area of critical importance for four endangered fish because water levels can fall so low between where irrigation diversions occur for Grand Valley uses and the Gunnison River meets the Colorado River downstream.
Keeping a power plant operating protects the federal water rights and helps in ensuring compliance with Endangered Species Act requirements to protect the fish, which Harris said benefits not just local irrigators but numerous other water diverters on the Colorado River in the state, including diverters of water to the Eastern Slope.
The plant’s benefit to the fish has helped in securing a lot of partner funding for the new plant, from sources such as the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, Bureau of Reclamation, Colorado Water Conservation Board and Colorado Water Trust.
Details of a proposed solar farm in western Pueblo County were discussed during a virtual public meeting Thursday. The Turkey Creek Solar Farm, if approved by Pueblo County Commissioners during the permitting process, will be built by 174 Power Global of Irvine, California, to supply solar power for Black Hills Energy. It will be located just north of U.S. Highway 50 one mile east of the Fremont/Pueblo County line. Approximately 1,200 to 1,400 acres will be used for the project, according to Ed Maddox, project development lead for 174 Power Global. The land will be leased from Gary Walker of Walker Ranches.
“We do consider both lease agreements and purchase options with land owners,” on projects like Turkey Creek, Maddox said. “In this particular case the land owner is a large local land owner who wants to continue to own and operate the ranch as it is, and leasing provides the best solution.” The permitting process is expected to take the remainder of the year with construction starting in 2022. “Over the 12- to 14-month construction period for Turkey Creek, we will have an average of about 300 workers during construction and that will vary from a minimum of about 150 to 450 or more workers during peak construction,” said Stephanie Lauer, environmental permitting manager for 174 Power Global. Once the solar farm begins operations in 2023, “We will have about three to five full-time workers who are responsible for daily maintenance of the facility and monitoring of all the systems,” Lauer said.
Additional local labor will be needed several times a year for vegetation mowing and washing of the panels. The solar panels will be aligned in rows running north to south and will be attached to a tracking system which allows the panels to track the sun from east to west as it moves. “They will be 10- to 14-feet high when they are tilted to their highest position,” Maddox said. When motorists are driving on U.S. 50 they will see portions of the solar farm, but the panels will not obstruct the view of the mountains, Maddox said.
Travelers will not be affected by glint or glare from the panels because of their dark grey color which will absorb light, not reflect it. Wildlife fencing will ensure pronghorn, elk and cattle will be able to access the underpass that allows animals to move under the highway.
The solar farm will generate enough electricity to power 46,000 homes each year, said Taylor Henderson, project developer for Out- shine Energy. Only a handful of questions came from the audience. One local landowner asked how the construction will impact traffic on Stone City Road. Lauer said she did not think the road will be used as workers will get to the site at two access points along U.S. 50.
As the national climate advisor, Gina McCarthy has the ear of President of Joe Biden in all matters climate.
But in the opening session of the 21st Century Energy Transition Symposium on Tuesday, she barely mentioned climate except to vaguely affirm “the science” and to describe the Biden response to climate change as a “very different framing than we’ve had before.”
The framing she described is that of opportunity in the clean energy economy—including the potential for Colorado to be part of the solutions needed in the energy shift.
“We have to look at the opportunities (in a clean energy economy) and get people excited about the benefits it brings to them,” she said before describing cleaner air and jobs.
“(Biden) embraced this not as a wonky science problem but fundamentally a people problem,” she said.
McCarthy described her job as sitting at the table with the cabinet secretaries, making sure that there’s a climate change overlay in all matters, whether housing or transportation, and helping knit together the response. It isn’t to be just an Environmental Protection Agency problem or a Department of Energy problem.
“It has to be a whole government approach because without that we would lose these synergies and these momentums,” she said.
Biden, she said, saw the response to climate change delivering answers to how we get out of the pandemic and restart the economy. Economic strategies that result in investment of “tremendous resources in a way that wins the clean energy future” will also fuel economic growth. As for covid and climate, addressing their challenges both require acceptance of science.
Another major driver of Biden’s view of domestic policy was the new lens of equity, including that of environmental or energy justice. The pandemic showed that impacts did not hit all communities equally, and by extension, energy systems of the past had more deleterious impacts to some groups than others. This understanding should be seen less as a challenge than a reckoning, said McCarthy.
Not all answers to reducing greenhouse gas pollution are yet evident, even if there are strong winds in the sails of renewable generation of electricity. That’s OK, she said.
“We don’t always need the answer,” she said. “We need to be leaning forward and looking at where we want to go.”
That was a theme in the two-day conference. In session after session, speakers described both clear direction going forward in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from energy, but uncertainties that they hope will be resolved in the next 5 to 10 years.
“That we don’t have all the answers shouldn’t be a barrier to action in the short term,” said Bryan Willson, executive director of the Energy Institute at Colorado State University.
“We don’t need to let the perfect get in the way of the good,” said Steven Hamburg, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund. If uncertainties should not delay forward movement of the broad strokes of action, he counseled caution to avoid “big and expensive mistakes.”
Executives at Colorado’s two largest electrical utilities, Xcel Energy and Tri-State Generation & Transmission, described a similar mix of bold actions and uncertainty.
In 2020, coal-fired generation delivered 26% and natural gas 38% of electricity distributed by Xcel. The company projects coal generation will fall to 4% and natural gas 16% by 2030.
That remaining coal-fired power will come from Comanche 3, the only coal-fired plant in Colorado that Xcel plans to continue operating, but at a reduced rate. Why not also close Comanche 3?
Alice Jackson, chief executive of Xcel’s Colorado division, explained that continuing operation of Comanche 3 will ensure a softer financial transition for Pueblo County, where the plant is located. The plant will also be needed to ensure reliability, as storage needs technological advancement and lower prices. “It’s really a broad evaluation and not just one factor,” she said.
Tri-State also awaits some technological innovation. It plans to close its three units at Craig in 2025, 2028 and 2029. Duane Highley, the chief executive, said Tri-State has closely been monitoring technological innovation in hopes of technology that can store energy for days, not just hours. “We’re looking hard at hydrogen and also looking at ammonia,” he said. QUESTION
Transmission also figures prominently into the thinking about the energy systems of the next decade. One Colorado energy official calls it the “secret sauce” necessary for deep decarbonization.
In Colorado, electrical demand is projected to grow 50% in the next 30 years as we electrify transportation and, a little more slowly, replace fossil fuels in heating our homes and water. Xcel has proposed investment of $1.7 billion in new transmission lines in eastern Colorado. Other utilities have not yet played their cards.
But some energy analysts see need for even more ambitious investment in a grid that better links different parts of the country so that renewable energy can be matched with demands.
The Texas disaster in February helps illustrate why. Texas was ill-equipped for the deep freeze. It lost natural gas generation because of lack of winterization. But it almost completely lost wind generation, which plummeted from 68,000 megawatts to 2,000 megawatts as the storm began dropping a rare three-inch snowfall on Houston. Had Texas been connected with regions of the country where the sun was shining or the wind blowing, it might have imported enough power to keep on the lights.
It wasn’t just Texas, though. The same loss of wind generation that accompanied the deep freeze posed worrisome problems to Fort Collins-based Platte River Power Authority, which issued a precautionary warning. Tri-State also noted the loss of wind generation in the still atmosphere that accompanied the cold.
More transmission can allow utilities to draw on a broader menu of renewables in such situations, even on a daily basis. The Great Plains boast great winds, the Southwest blazes with solar.
How is this knitting together to be done? Transmission in western states must inevitable cross the vast public lands. In Colorado, 36.2% of the state is administered by federal land agencies, principally the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. New Mexico is close behind at 35%. Wyoming is 48%. In Utah, it’s 70%.
“On public lands, as important as they are, a balance has to be struck,” said McCarthy, “but the balance cannot get in the way of effectively addressing climate change, which is an existential threat to all of us.” And, she added, hewing to the sales pitch of the Biden administration, “to take advantage of the economic benefits that a clean energy jobs provide.”
McCarthy, a live wire herself in her public appearances, also pointed to the joint announcement by the federal transportation and energy departments of a plan to expand use of rights of way for highway and railroads for transmission. This will help more expeditious investment in transmission, she said.
“There are probably 20 areas where we would be able to immediately make investments in transmission in ways to utilize those rights of ways to open up new transmission and opportunities for renewable energy,” she said.
Colorado has a goal of 80% decarbonization of the electrical grid by 2030 and 50% decarbonization of its economy altogether. Biden had offered a far more aggressive target, 100% decarbonization of the electrical grid by 2035 and a 50% to 52% economy wide target.
To push this decarbonization of electricity, McCarthy said she leans toward a clean energy standard, as advocated by Holy Cross Energy, an electrical cooperative, and 12 other utilities from New York to California, in a letter sent to Biden in April. The letter called for a federal requirement that electrical utilities be able to supply 80% of their power from non-carbon sources by 2030 as compared to 2005 levels.
“If you nationalize, you get some terrific opportunities,” said McCarthy. “Most of us are shifting from cap and trade, because of the complexity, but looking more at direct investments and things like the clean electricity standard.”
Carbon pricing, she added, “is not something that is going away. I just find it less satisfying.”
In all this, the Biden administration sees need for more research. McCarthy mentioned technological innovations that have occurred in the last 50 years since the United States put Neil Armstrong’s footprint on the moon. The federal government has often played a role in instigating technological innovation, she said, using federal funds to spur innovation and investment in the private sector.
McCarthy said the Department of Energy has billions of dollars of loans and an accelerator that uses the green bank model.
Colorado State University has already played a role in the Biden administration’s view of innovation, Ritter told McCarthy in what he described as a “shameless plug.”
A group of researchers and academics at CSU was the source of an idea contained in the Biden campaign Energy and Environment Platform. That idea, to create an advanced research project agency for climate, also called an ARPA-C, within the Department of Energy, has become part of the Biden budget proposal.
It would stand alongside the existing ARPA-E, which is devoted to technical solutions. For example, it recently announced a $35 million grant program for ideas to reduce emission of methane from oil and gas supply chains, coal mines and other sources.
CSU’s idea, Ritter explained, is to offer a multi-disciplinary—and not purely technical approach—to climate solutions. Those in the social sciences would be included.
“When you are making a shameless plug, it’s good to be telling the truth,” McCarthy replied. “It’s well deserved.”
At Nucla and Naturita, two small communities in Western Colorado, the transition from a coal economy has begun. As for a just transition?
No, not yet says Sarah Backman, a local attorney who, like many others in these towns an hour west of Telluride, wears a lot of hats.
Backman and others hope that the proposed Just Transition appropriation bill being heard in the Colorado Legislature for the first time on May 6 will deliver money for their communities, to continue the work already underway.
“I don’t feel like we have a just transition, but hopefully if this bill passes, (the money) can be allocated quickly so that we can continue our efforts to transition our community,” she says.
Nucla Station was a 100-megawatt plant that was closed by Tri-State Generation and Transmission in September 2019 in response to anti-haze enforcement by the federal government. The plant faced more stringent regulation of emissions of nitrous oxide, a component in haze, also called smog, and upgrades to the aging plant would have been expensive.
The first unit at Craig Station will also be closed by the end of 2025 as a result of the same settlement.
Nucla Station had 76 employees and the accompanying mine 35 at one time. At closing in November 2019, they had 35 and 23, according to Tri-State. Ten remain at work on reclamation of the sites.
As for the roughly $2 million in property taxes paid annually by Tri-State, that is mostly gone, too. The plant and mine represented about 43% of property tax valuation in the west end of Montrose County, where the communities are located.
This is from the April 30, 2021, issue of Big Pivots, an e-journal covering the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Sign up at http://Big Pivots.com.
In small communities, a few people tend to wear a lot of hats. It’s often the same faces on the water districts, chamber, historical society – you name it.
Backman is one of those in addition to being a young mother. She says that the prevailing vision in the communities is of developing an economy more strongly reliant on tourism. Tourism has its weaknesses, she says, but it’s not boom or bust. And, if far off the beaten paths of Colorado, Nucla and Naturita have much to work with.
Telluride lies an hour to the east, and some in the community work there or have businesses catering to the Telluride economy. Moab lies 90 minutes to the west, and Grand Junction a little longer to the north.
There are slickrock canyons of the San Miguel River, the eye-pleasing forests of the Uncompahgre Plateau. In the west end of Montrose County, a place with 2,500 residents in the 2010 census, there is a place called Bedrock, located in the Paradox Valley, so-named for its queer geology. It is bisected by the Dolores River.
There’s also a place called Uravan, from which the uranium used by Madame Curie in her experiments during the 1920s was mined.
The Manhattan Project of World War II spurred a boom in uranium mining. That boom petered out in the 1960s and 1970s, leaving widows who, as Peter Hessler documented in his 2010 piece in the New Yorker (and this writer learned in a 2006 visit), pined for the good old days and a return to uranium mining. It hasn’t happened yet. See: “The Uranium Widows”
With this focus on tourism, not uranium, the effort is on drawing visitors for events such as the dark skies festival, scheduled for June. In this, the community will be in the company of Idaho’s Sun Valley and Canada’s Banff resort communities in celebrating dark skies.
Another multi-hatted community doer is Aimee Tooker, the president of the West End Economic Development Corporation since its founding in 2014.
“We have been working on economic development ever since then,” she says. In 2017, the group got a $836,000 economic development grant to pay for programming funding., but that grant will be exhausted within the next year. She hopes that Colorado funding will continue to put wind into the sails of this effort.
The coal plant’s closing was done two years earlier than expected. Tri-State was paying $2 million in property taxes to local jurisdictions. That’s not a huge sum in many places, but these are small places. The population of Nucla is 644, and that of Naturita is 486.
“This is 67% of the tax base of our emergency services district,” says Tooker.
Tri-State is providing a $500,000 grant to the communities over the course of five years to West End Pay It Forward Trust. It’s welcome but not enough, say those in the Nucla-Naturita community trying to build a bridge to a new, more diversified economy.
How will state funding help these two communities? “By keeping our boots on the ground,” replies Tooker. She cites a plan to beautify the main street in Nucla.
Paul Major has worked with the Nucla-Naturita community. Until recently, he operated the Telluride Foundation, a philanthropy. He remains on Colorado’s Just Transition advisory committee.
He credits Tooker, Backman, and others for their drive and ambition. Instead of whining about the closing of the plant, he says, they’re working hard to make their community a great place to live. “It’s a cliché, but they are really leaning into it,” he says.
A bill proposing to allocate $15 million toward just transition of Colorado’s coal-dependent communities and associated workers has been introduced in the Colorado General Assembly.
This should be understood as just the beginning of what will be needed, as Colorado begins laying down its giant fleet of coal-powered power plants in the next decade, says Dennis Dougherty, executive director of the Colorado AFL-CIO.
Dougherty co-chairs the just transition advisory committee created by legislators in 2019 when they set up the Office of Just Transition. The office is charged with identifying or estimating the timing and location of facility closures and job layoffs in coal-related industries and their impact on affected workers, businesses, and coal transition communities. It is also to help coal-dependent communities such as Craig, Hayden, Pueblo, and Brush create transition plans.
“This is a good step forward,” Dougherty told Big Pivots. “When we get closer to coal closures, we are going to see a magnitude of 10 to 15 times that amount annually.” He expects about $100 million a year will be needed as the coal plant closures accelerate in around 2025 and 2026.Best of all, he said, would be if the federal government steps up to shoulder most of the financial burden of the transition from coal to other fuel sources, mostly renewables. The stimulus package provides one opportunity.
In Nucla and Naturita, where a coal plant and mine closed in 2019, local leaders hope state aid will allow them to continue efforts to fill the void created by the loss of coal jobs. See story, “No Just Transition yet.”
The bill, HB21-1290 (Additional Funding For Just Transition), has bi-partisan sponsorship, including Rep. Daneya Esgar, of Pueblo, and Sen. Steve Fenberg, of Boulder the Democratic majority leaders in the two chambers of the Colorado Legislature. Other sponsors are Rep. Perry Will, of New Castle, and Sen. Bob Rankin, of Carbondale. Both are Republicans whose districts include the state’s coal plants and mines in the Yampa River Valley.
Of that proposed allocation, $8 million would go to a fund for assistance in development of rural economic diversification and transition roadmaps as was set forth in the final Just Transition Action Plan issued in December by the state’s embryonic Office of Just Transition.
Dougherty emphasized that the goal will be to assist communities such as Craig in defining their futures, not impose plans from Denver.
“Our top priorities are equipping community leaders with the resources and staff they need to do impactful economic development work,” he wrote in an op-ed with Beth Melton, a Routt County Commissioner, who is co-chair of the advisory committee.
Craig and Moffat County have had active transition planning for several years, although the urgency picked up after Tri-State announced in January 2019 its plans to get out of coal in Colorado by 2030. A transition committee has accelerated its work in the Nucla-Naturita area.
Pueblo recently has begun forming a just transition team, with representation from the city, the county, its two colleges, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, among others.
Another $7 million of state funds would be earmarked for a coal transition worker assistance program. The money could be used to expand existing apprentice programs, the training capacity of such programs, and the placement of coal transition workers into such programs.
This is from the April 30,2021, issue of Big Pivots, an e-magazine tracking the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Subscribe at http://bigpivots.com.
The bill further stipulates that the money could be used to provide tuition reimbursement and provide for job search assistance and individualized financial transition. This would include job search assistance but also family assistance.
The proposed law specifies that a “coal-transition worker” can include not just miners but also those working at power plants and in transportation, including railroads. Eligible workers would include those laid off after Jan. 1, 2017.
Colorado had several relatively small coal-plant closures prior to 2017 and one plant, the Cherokee power plant north of downtown Denver, whose fuel was switched from coal to natural gas.
Since then, Tri-State Generation & Transmission’s small coal plant near Nucla, in southwestern Colorado, was closed in September 2019. Xcel plans to close Comanche 1 and 2, its plants near Pueblo, in 2022 and 2025. From 2025 to 2030, coal plants at Craig and Hayden will also be closed. Xcel plans to retain its Pawnee coal-fired power plant at Brush but switch the fuel to natural gas in 2028.
By decade’s end, Colorado could just have one coal-fired power unit remaining, the Comanche 3, which was completed in 2010. But its status is uncertain, as it has been a lemon so far, with many costly repairs paid for by Xcel ratepayers. Minority owners of the plant are Intermountain Rural Electric Association and Holy Cross Energy.
Wyoming’s Integrated Test Center will host one of two projects selected by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for Phase III funding of a large-scale pilot carbon capture project.
DOE announced today it has awarded $99 million to two projects for Phase III of their Demonstration of Large-Scale Pilot Carbon Capture Technologies funding opportunity. Membrane Technology and Research (MTR) was awarded $51,699,939 from DOE, and with additional non-federal funding, this project will bring over $64 million in research dollars into Wyoming.
“I am delighted that Membrane Technology and Research (MTR) has been selected to move forward in this process, and that Wyoming has been chosen to host this important demonstration of cutting edge carbon capture technology,” Governor Mark Gordon said. “This is exactly the type of research that was envisioned when the ITC was developed and Wyoming will continue to support these efforts.”
“Membrane technology is a most promising version of carbon capture, and now it can move forward to the pilot project phase,” the Governor added. “This is also an example of technology that, if commercially successful, can be exported for carbon capture projects at home or abroad. The more carbon capture technologies that are available, the more likely it is that Wyoming coal will be an important part of our future electricity supply.”
The Integrated Test Center and MTR have been working together since 2018 when MTR selected the ITC as its testing location as part of the Phase II tasks related to this funding opportunity.
“We could not be more thrilled for MTR and we are excited to welcome them onsite as they start working on this next phase of testing,” said Jason Begger, Managing Director of the ITC. “At this scale, we will be able to demonstrate carbon capture technology at a sufficient level to demonstrate to utilities the next step can be a commercial version.”
MTR will be operating in the large test bay at the ITC and utilizing approximately 10MWe of flue gas from Dry Fork Station.
More information on this project is available on the DOE website. Learn more about the Wyoming Integrated Test Center here.
How Colorado legislators propose to begin crimping methane emissions in the built environment
If methane were a guest at a dinner party in Colorado, it’d be noticing that the hosts have started checking their watches and begun to make comments about a busy schedule the next day.
SB 21-246 (Electric Utility Promote Beneficial Electrification), introduced last week by Senator Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, is the latest evidence from legislators that they want methane, the primary constituent of natural gas, to begin thinking about moving on. The bill is scheduled to get its first hearing Thursday afternoon at the Colorado Capitol.
Instead of burning natural gas and other fossil fuels in buildings to provide heat, warm water and for cooking, Fenberg’s bill would encourage use of electricity for those purposes. The process is being called beneficial electrification.
“Fossil gas and petroleum products will contribute to supplying Colorado’s energy needs for many years to come,” says the bill, submitted by Fenberg, a Democrat from Boulder. “Nonetheless, transitioning to clean electric homes and businesses is a critical strategy for improving public health and safety, saving energy, creating family-sustaining jobs, and helping the state meet its greenhouse gas emission-reduction targets.”
The bill is premised on the expectation of a complete reversal during the next decade in how Colorado’s utilities generate electricity. In 2020, coal and natural gas were responsible for 78% of electrical production in Colorado, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. By 2030, utilities responsible for nearly all of electrical sales expect to be at 80% renewables. Some aspire to even higher levels. Holy Cross Energy has adopted a 100% goal.
That language echoes the Colorado Decarbonization Roadmap that was issued in January by the state’s energy office. Buildings lag electrical generation and transportation among the leading sectors for greenhouse gas emissions, but they’re not far behind. Importantly, we don’t replace buildings every 10 or 15 years, the way we do cars. That’s why those working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions see need to begin work now on fuel switching in homes and other buildings.
The roadmap envisions electricity denting use of natural gas in the next 30 years. Coupled with electrification of transportation and population growth, the increased demand will cause demand for electricity to double, according to a study by the consulting firm E3 that was commissioned by the Colorado Energy Office.
Colorado’s attention to methane comes after a decade of growing concern about methane, both nationally and internationally. The New York Times on Sunday previewed what it called a “landmark United Nations report” that reflects a “growing recognition that the world needs to start reining in planet-warming emissions more rapidly, and that abating methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas, will be critical in the short term.
While cutting back on carbon dioxide emissions will remain urgent, “it’s going to be next to impossible to remove enough carbon dioxide to get any real benefits for the climate in the first half of the century,” Drew Shindell, the study’s lead author and a professor of earth science at Duke University (and a consultant on efforts to abate methane from coal mines in Colorado’s North Fork Valley), told the newspaper.
“But if we can make a big enough cut in methane in the next decade, we’ll see public health benefits within the decade, and climate benefits within two decades,” Shindell said.
This is from Big Pivots, an e-journal covering the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. To get copies, sign up at https://bigpivots.com
Fenberg’s bill is not nearly as ambitious as the coming UN report might suggest is needed. However, it’s bold in that it seeks to shift the direction by nudging gas utilities to offer more carrots to customers to nudge the shift along.
The primary lever for this shift would be adoption of a relatively new metric for evaluating the cost-effectiveness of demand-management programs, something called the social cost of methane. The new metric seeks to apply the real, long-term costs of greenhouse gas pollution to deliberations about utility programs.
In this it’s similar to the social cost of carbon, an attempt to evaluate the real costs of carbon dioxide pollution.
Methane pollution, though, has a much higher price that reflects its short-term heat-trapping properties, about 80 times as powerful over the course of the first two decades, after which it has mostly dissipated. The cost assigned is $1,746 per short ton. The social cost of carbon was set by statute in Colorado at $46. Both, however, are subject to inflation.
Fenberg’s bill falls short of mandating fuel switching. The bill explicitly prohibits the PUC from requiring the removal of gas-fueled appliances or equipment from existing structures or banning the installation of gas service lines to new structures.
Instead, the bill intends for the PUC to push the utilities to offer attractive programs to customers such that they will voluntarily use electricity in new construction or replace gas fixtures such as furnaces and water heaters in existing homes and other buildings.
Several other bills also seek to tamp down emissions of methane and the combustion of natural gas.
Hansen, a Democrat from Denver, has a bill—now being reformulated—that calls for a renewable natural gas standard, somewhat similar to that adopted by Colorado voters in 2004 for electrical generation. The intent of SB21-161 (Voluntary Reduce Greenhouse Gas Natural Gas Utility) is to encourage natural gas utilities with 250,000 customers or more to capture methane from dairies, landfills, and existing and abandoned coal mines in order to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets.
HB 18-1286 (Energy Performance For Buildings) would require owners and managers of buildings larger than 50,000 square feet to benchmark energy use and comply with performance standards, tamping down greenhouse gas emissions.
Separately from the legislative agenda, both the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission have adopted regulations in the last year that seek to crimp emissions of methane during extraction and transmission.
Another small but important piece of the giant puzzle that Holy Cross Energy has set out to solve was revealed Tuesday.
The electrical cooperative serving members in the Vail-Aspen-Rifle area has agreed to purchase electricity from a solar and battery storage project being built by Ameresco Inc. Near Glenwood Springs, on the Spring Valley Campus of Colorado Mountain College, the company will install solar panels capable of generating a maximum of 4.5 megawatts of electricity.
Adjacent to the solar panels it will operate battery storage with a capacity of 5 megawatts (or 15 megawatt hours). Batteries will be charged with electricity generated by the solar panels.
The batteries can be tapped to supply electricity during times of peak demand on a daily basis. In the Vail-Aspen area, peak demand typically occurs in evening hours, with the strongest demand during winter months.
The lithium-iron-phosphate batteries can also augment Holy Cross’s electrical generation during times of disruption, such as caused by wildfires or storms.
“That battery and local generation is an important part of the infrastructure that is real important to creating a resilient energy system for the future,” said Steve Buening, the vice president for power supply and programs at Holy Cross.
The battery storage will be able to have 5 megawatts of power vs. 15 megawatt-hour of capacity. Beuning compares the 5 megawatts to what happens when you press on the gas pedal of an internal-combustion car, while the mega-watt hour is how much the gas tank can hold.
With 45,000 members, Holy Cross is among the larger of Colorado’s 22 electrical cooperatives. As of 2018 it was responsible for 2.2% of electrical sales in the state.
Holy Cross has been assembling disparate pieces of infrastructure, some in and among the communities it services, others hundreds of miles away, as it pursues a goal of completely decarbonizing its electrical supply by 2030.
In addition to the new solar-plus-storage complex near Glenwood Springs, Holy Cross plans a 5-megawatt solar farm on McCain Flats, near the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport. Construction is scheduled to begin this spring.
Complementing this local generation will be electricity generated for Holy Cross at the Arriba wind farm, to be constructed during the next year along Interstate 70 near the eponymously named town 120 miles southeast of Denver. The wind farm will have 100 megawatts of capacity, enough to supply roughly a third of demand by Holy Cross members.
In storage, Holy Cross has something of the same approach, a mixture of local and smaller and elsewhere and larger.
Directors of Holy Cross in 2020 adopted a plan that lays out potential strategies, including pumped-storage hydro. Water in pumped-storage projects is released to generate electricity to meet peak demands, then pumped uphill again when electricity is more abundant and hence cheaper.
It’s not new technology. Colorado has two such projects, the larger and older being near Georgetown. There, the Cabin Creek project uses a 1,200 feet vertical drop between two reservoirs to generate a maximum of 324 megawatts. The system went on-line in 1967 but has been upgraded since then.
Bryan Hannegan, the chief executive of Holy Cross, has spoken about the value of small pumped-storage hydro projects in the Aspen-Vail area, perhaps combined with larger capacity pumped-storage projects elsewhere.
Why the battery storage now for Holy Cross instead of waiting for prices to tumble further. Prices of battery storage have dropped about 80% in the last decade and are projected to decline even more, from $137 per kilowatt-hour to as low as $100 by 2023, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
Holy Cross decided that the prices were already good enough.
“One thing that may be holding back investment in utility-scale energy storage is concerns about being an early adopter at higher prices than in the future if battery prices continue their downward trend,” says Buening.
That being noted, the savings are good enough already to yield lower costs of electricity for Holy Cross members.
“We were ready to go ahead,” he says.
Xcel is also planning 275 megawatts of battery storage as it closes two coal-fired power units at Pueblo in the next several years. In a recent filing with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, the utility plans even more in the years beyond 2024. It’s Colorado’s largest utility with 52.5% of Colorado’s electrical sales for 2018.
Photo at top is rendering of the solar-plus-storage project at the Spring Valley Campus near Glenwood Springs.
A federal judge has thrown out a legal action from multiple environmental organizations seeking to halt the expansion of a key Denver Water storage facility, citing no legal authority to address the challenge.
“This decision is an important step,” said Todd Hartman, a spokesperson for Denver Water. “We will continue working earnestly through Boulder’s land-use process and look forward to beginning work on a project critical to water security for 1½ million people and to our many partners on the West Slope and Front Range.”
The expansion of Gross Reservoir in Boulder County is intended to provide additional water storage and safeguard against future shortfalls during droughts. The utility currently serves customers in Denver, Jefferson, Arapahoe, Douglas and Adams counties. In July 2020, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave its approval for the design and construction of the reservoir’s expansion. The project would add 77,000 acre-feet of water storage and 131 feet to the dam’s height for the utility’s “North System” of water delivery.
FERC’s approval was necessary because Denver Water has a hydropower license through the agency, and it provided the utility with a two-year window to start construction.
A coalition of environmental groups filed a petition in U.S. District Court for Colorado against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, seeking to rescind those agencies’ previous authorizations for the project. They argued the agencies inadequately considered the environmental impact of expansion…
…Denver Water pointed out that under federal law, appellate courts, not district-level trial courts, are responsible for hearing challenges to FERC approvals. By challenging the environmental review process that led to the project’s go-ahead, the government argued, the environmental organizations raised issues “inescapably intertwined with FERC’s licensing process.”
On Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Christine M. Arguello agreed that the groups’ challenge was indeed wrapped up in the FERC approval.
“[W]here a party does not challenge a FERC order itself, but challenges another agency order that is inextricably linked to the FERC order, the FPA’s exclusive-jurisdiction provision applies and precludes this Court from exercising jurisdiction,” she wrote in dismissing the case.
The Daily Camera reports that Boulder County’s approval is the final step for the expansion project.
As the state tries to reform its relationship to drilling, an expensive task awaits.
When an oil or gas well reaches the end of its lifespan, it must be plugged. If it isn’t, the well might leak toxic chemicals into groundwater and spew methane, carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere for years on end.
But plugging a well is no simple task: Cement must be pumped down into it to block the opening, and the tubes connecting it to tanks or pipelines must be removed, along with all the other onsite equipment. Then the top of the well has to be chopped off near the surface and plugged again, and the area around the rig must be cleaned up.
There are nearly 60,000 unplugged wells in Colorado in need of this treatment — each costing $140,000 on average, according to the Carbon Tracker, a climate think tank, in a new report that analyzes oil and gas permitting data. Plugging this many wells will cost a lot —more than $8 billion, the report found.
Companies that drill wells in Colorado are legally required to pay for plugging them. They must also put forward financial assurances in the form of bonds, which the state can call on to pay for the plugging. These bonds are meant to incentivize cleanup and to protect the state, in case a company is unable to pay. But as it stands today, Colorado has only about $185 million in bonds from industry — just 2% of the estimated cleanup bill, according to the new study. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) assumes an average cost of $82,500 per well — lower than the Carbon Tracker’s figure, which factors in issues like well depth. But even using the state’s more conservative number, the overall cleanup would cost nearly $5 billion, of which the money currently available from energy companies would cover less than 5%.
This situation is the product of more than 150 years of energy extraction. Now, with the oil and gas industry looking less robust every year and reeling in the wake of the pandemic, the state of Colorado and its people could be on the hook for billions in cleanup costs. Meanwhile, unplugged wells persist as environmental hazards. This spring, Colorado will try to tackle the problem; state energy regulators have been tasked with reforming the policies governing well cleanup and financial commitments from industry.
“The system has put the state at risk, and it needs to change,” said Josh Joswick, an organizer with the environmental group Earthworks. “Now we have a government that wants to do something about it.”
THE FIRST WESTERN OIL WELL broke ground in Colorado in 1860. Drilling has been an important part of the state’s economy ever since; as of 2019, Colorado ranked in the sixth and seventh in the nation for oil and natural gas production, respectively.
When it comes to cleanup, Colorado uses a tiered system known as blanket bonding. Small operators can pay ahead with bonds on single wells. Drillers with more than 100 wells statewide pay a fixed reclamation fee of $100,000, regardless of the number of wells. A similar system also applies to wells on federal public land in the state. Large companies pay a single $150,000 bond, which covers unlimited federal public land wells throughout the country. There are about 7,400 public-land wells capable of producing oil or gas in Colorado, according to the Bureau of Land Management.
When a driller walks away or cannot pay for cleanup, the well enters the state’s Orphan Well Program, which works to identify and plug these wells. There are about 200 wells in the program right now, according to the state. But a closer look at state data reveals a large number of wells at risk. Nearly half of the state’s unplugged wells are stripper wells — low-producing operations with small profit margins often at the end of their lifespans. These wells are particularly vulnerable to shifts in oil prices. That means they change hands often. “This is a common tactic in the oil and gas industry: Spinning off liabilities to progressively weaker companies, until the final owner goes bankrupt and none of the previous owners are on the hook for cleanup,” said Clark Williams-Derry, a finance analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.
There are also inactive wells: Nearly 10% of the state’s wells have not produced oil or gas in at least two years, according to a Carbon Tracker analysis of state permitting data. Unlike some of the neighboring oil states, Colorado requires that companies pay a single bond on each inactive well of this sort. This costs either $10,000 or $20,000, depending on the depth of the well. In theory, these payments protect the state, in case the well owner goes bankrupt. But in Colorado, it’s still far cheaper for energy companies to pay the cost of that single, unused well — and the small annual premium payments on the bond — than to actually plug it. “Colorado clearly makes it cheaper to idle a well than to clean it up,” Williams-Derry said.
In Colorado, just two companies are responsible for nearly 70% of the bonds for currently inactive wells. One is Noble Energy Inc., which was purchased by the global oil giant Chevron in October 2020. The other is Kerr-McGee, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum. Kerr-McGee was responsible for the 2017 home explosion in Firestone, Colorado, that killed two people. Last year, the COGCC fined the company more than $18 million for the accident, by far the largest fine in state history. Both companies still own large numbers of wells in the Denver-Julesburg Basin, the prolific oil and gas formation beneath central and eastern Colorado. And the mass desertion of wells is not hypothetical: In fall of 2019, a small company called Petroshare Corporation went bankrupt and left about 90 wells for the state to cleanup. That alone will cost Colorado millions of dollars. Last summer, when California’s largest oil driller filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, it left billions in debt and more than 17,000 unplugged wells.
The oil and gas industry is already mired in a years-long decline that raises doubts about its ability to meet cleanup costs. In six out of the past seven years, energy has been either the worst- or second-worst-performing sector on the S&P 500. And the economic fallout from COVID-19 has only accelerated the decline. Oil prices hit record lows in 2020. The industry’s debt approached record levels, and thousands of oilfield workers lost their jobs, Colorado Public Radio reported. Many companies went bankrupt, including 12 drilling companies and six oilfield service companies in Colorado, according to Haynes and Boone LLP, a law firm that tracks industry trends.
IN 2019, A NEW LAW completely overhauled the state’s relationship to oil and gas. This spring, Colorado oil and gas regulators are tasked with reforming the financial requirements for well plugging. It’s a big deal, especially in an oil state like Colorado: The law gives local governments more control over oil and gas development, and it rewrote the mission of the COGCC, the state’s energy regulator. The COGCC has subsequently banned the burning off or releasing of natural gas, a routine drilling practice, and instituted a broad range of wildlife and public health protection policies. Recently, it voted for the nation’s largest setback rule, which requires oil and gas operations to stay at least 2,000 feet from homes and schools.
The deep divide between the true cost of cleanup and what industry has so far ponied up is not news to Colorado regulators. In a 2017 letter to lawmakers, the COGCC estimated that the average costs of plugging wells and cleaning up the drilling site “exceed available financial assurance by a factor of fourteen.” With this new rulemaking process, Colorado has a chance to make up this gap.
How to handle this looming liability remains an open question, said John Messner, a COGCC Commissioner. The rulemaking process is still in its early stages and will take months. The commission is asking stakeholders of all kinds — industry, local governments, environmental groups and more — to submit suggestions and opinions to the commission. There are several different methods for how best to reform the process, Messner said. That might involve leaving the current structure in place, while increasing the bond amounts, including on individual well bonds. It might mean a revamped tiered system, where more prolific producers pay more, or a different fee structure based on the number of drilled wells. Messner mentioned the option of a bond pool, where companies pay into a communal cleanup fund and, at least in theory, provide industry-wide insurance to guard against companies defaulting on cleanup obligations. Messner stressed that no formal decisions have been made and that the final rule could involve some combination of these and other tools.
I asked Messner about balancing the pressing need to increase cleanup requirements with the possibility of companies walking away from their wells if the cost to operate in Colorado spikes. “It’s a real risk,” Messner said. The Colorado Oil and Gas Association expressed a similar concern in an email to HCN.
“When it comes to financial assurance for current or future wells, we need to ensure that the potential solution doesn’t create an even bigger problem by raising the cost of doing business in Colorado for small businesses,” said COGA President Dan Haley in a statement. “Regulatory changes in the past two years alone are costing oil and gas businesses an extra $200 million a year. For our state to stay competitive, regulators and lawmakers need to be cognizant of that growing tally and the rising cost of doing business.”
But as it stands today, oil and gas companies aren’t realistically paying anywhere near the true cost of cleaning up their drilling sites. And with the industry’s murky financial future, experts predict more and more sales of risky wells to less-wealthy operators, until the state could end stuck with the final cost.
“It’s like a game of hot potato,” Williams-Derry said, “except that when the potato goes off, it’s the public who loses.”
Nick Bowlin is a contributing editor at High Country News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
In 2009, Wyoming was riding high on coal. It supplied the coal that provided roughly half the nation’s power generation. The trains out of the Powder River Basin were almost non-stop, delivering the sub-bituminous low-sulphur coal from Wyoming’s subterranean to plants as far as Florida.
The Sierra Club had mounted a campaign in which it made fun of coal as a “dirty fuel.” One striking video had a lively young couple in the upper bunk delighting in the company of one another, and in the lower bunk a more pudgy young man fondling lumps of coal.
Still, when I visited Gillette, the center of the Powder River Basin, in April 2009 for a story that was published in Planning magazine, I heard no evidence of great worry.
Renewables? Nice, but …
Since 2008, coal production in Wyoming has declined by about half. Employment in the mines fell 40% over the decade ending in 2020.
The Casper Star-Tribune reports more disturbing news yet for Wyoming’s coal economy. Coal production in last year’s final quarter dropped by over 20% across the Powder River Basin. And recently, in a span of less than three months, two mines in the basin announced plans to close.
A trio of bills introduced into the Wyoming Legislature seeks to stem this decline. The argument underlying the proposed laws is that coal-fired generation must remain to ensure grid reliability.
One bill soon to be given to Gov. Mark Gordon for his signing before becoming law takes sharp aim at Colorado legislators 100 miles to the south along Interstate 25. House Bill 207 earmarks $1.2 million for use by Wyoming’s governor and attorney general to potentially sue other states restricting the import or use of Wyoming coal.
The central nexus for this not-so-friendly fire is Laramie River Station, a coal-fired power plant located near Wheatland, which is 70 miles north of Cheyenne. Basin Electric Power Cooperative operates the 3-unit plant and had 42.27% ownership in 2018. Metro Denver-based Tri-State Generation & Transmission had 27.1% ownership.
One unit sends power eastward, and power from the other two units is distributed in the Western grid—some of this to the 8 electrical cooperatives in Wyoming who are members of Tri-State, but more of it south into Colorado.
This was published in the March 31, 2021, issue of Big Pivots, an e-magazine, and updated to reflect news from this morning. For a free subscription, go to http://BigPivots.com
The bill was approved by the Wyoming House last week and by the Wyoming Senate on Wednesday afternoon. The Wyoming House Thursday morning concurred with the $1.2 million allocation by the Senate in a 36-24 vote.
The authorization is described by a University of Chicago Law School professor who specializes in electricity and the grid as a “waste of money.”
Two other bills appear to be directed at PacifCorp, the largest utility in Wyoming. Last year PacifCorp announced plans to close 2 of its coal-burning units at the Jim Bridger Power Plant near Rock Springs and the two remaining units of the Naughton plant near Kemmerer. It also operates the giant but aging Dave Johnston plant near Glenrock.
House Bill 166 would require utilities to take additional steps before they can receive approval from state regulators to retire aging coal or natural gas plants. That includes proving evidence that closing of the coal or natural gas plant would not threaten power reliability and would deliver “significant cost savings.”
House Bill 155 would task state regulators with analyzing how closing a coal or natural gas plant could affect grid reliability in Wyoming and nationwide before permission can be granted for retirement.
Wyoming State Rep. Jeremy Haroldson, a freshman legislator from Wheatland and a sponsor of H.B. 207, explained his reasoning for why Wyoming needs more money allocated for lawsuits. In a recent legislative hearing, he cited Colorado’s 2019 legislation, although he didn’t get the details quite right. He said that Colorado requires Tri-State to meet 80% renewables by 2034. (Tri-State wasn’t required, but it has agreed to reduce its emissions 80% by 2030 as compared to 2005 levels).
“We can’t hold an 80% renewable portfolio with current technology,” he said, according to a transcript of the meeting provided to Big Pivots. “And this isn’t a wind or solar battle we’re talking about. This is a power technology issue that we are having a problem with, where if we don’t have a way to produce reliable energy, then we are finding ourselves in a place where we’re going to see lives potentially lost. And so out of that came House Bill 207.”
The legal argument described by Haroldson is that Colorado’s decision about its power generation mix within Colorado constitutes a violation of the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution when it has repercussions on power providers outside Colorado. He cited the precedent of North Dakota suing Minnesota over Minnesota’s requirements governing electrical power that extended to imported power.
A U.S. District Court in 2016 struck down Minnesota’s Next Generation Energy Act limiting electricity from coal-fired sources from North Dakota because of violation of the dormant Commerce Clause provision of the U.S. Constitution. The case is somewhat complicated but was dissected in this review by a law school professor in this 2018 posting on Energy Central.
Joshua Macey, an assistant professor at the Chicago Law School who specializes in energy law, is skeptical that Wyoming is spending its money wisely.
“I don’t see any possible way that Wyoming is going to recover the money, that (a lawsuit) will succeed,” he told Big Pivots. “It is a waste of money.”
Macey says he is intimately familiar about the court case in which North Dakota prevailed against Minnesota. An article that he co-authored called “The Federal Power Act’s Bright Line,” which was published in February by the Harvard Law Review, discusses that case at length.
In the Minnesota case, the law was written sloppily and there was the additional complication that Minnesota and North Dakota are both within the Midwest Independent System Operator system. Neither is the case with Wyoming vs. Colorado, if it comes to that.
Under the Commerce Clause, Colorado cannot say it will use only that electricity that is produced in Colorado. It can, however, say that it has environmental goals and that how the electricity is created must conform with Colorado’s laws.
Grid reliability is another tenet of the Wyoming bill.
In the Wyoming legislative committee, Haroldson said the technology capable of protecting the grid’s reliability has not been delivered and removing coal plants will impair that reliability.
Wyoming’s message to Colorado, he said, should be: “Hold on, let’s get some technology in place. Let’s do, let’s figure out carbon capture and those types of things, so we can produce clean, effective power that’s going to bring generation to the Front Range, that’s going to help make sure that we have a reliable power grid and do it in a way that’s intelligent.”
For Tri-State to meet its voluntary commitment to achieve an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 in Colorado, it must reduce imports from Wyoming. But the market for energy generation is already pushing Tri-State that way.
On Tuesday, Tri-State said that it was taking no position on HB-207.
“As an interstate power supplier operating across four states, we recognize and respect that each state has its own values on, approaches to and concerns about energy and environmental policy, and its own jurisdiction over utility facilities and resources,” said Mark Stutz, public relations specialist for Tri-State in an e-mailed statement.
The Colorado Attorney General’s office declined to comment.
In Wyoming, Shannon Anderson of the Powder River Basin Resource Council described the allocation as a wrong-headed move for Wyoming. “It’s a chunk of change in a state strapped for cash and with limited opportunity for creating the change that bill sponsors want.
“$1.2 million may not seem like a lot of money in some places, but in Wyoming it is. It’s more than some agencies have for a whole year,” said Anderson, the staff attorney.
Wyoming’s government already is well staffed with attorneys versed in coal issues. This money will go to private sector legal firms, who tend to be costly, she said. “And what does it give Wyoming, if anything, in return?” she asked.
The bill passed on third reading in the Wyoming Senate on a 26-4 vote on Wednesday afternoon.
Tri-State’s opportunities, challenges
Duane Highley, chief executive of Tri-State, said at a February forum organized by the Sierra Club that Tri-State plans to cease taking power from Laramie River by 2033 and a coal plant in Arizona called Springerville by 2038.
“Those aren’t commitments,” he hastened to add, but the outcome of a single snapshot under a certain set of assumptions. Cost of power is at the bottom of it.
“The economics dictate that you can’t continue to operate some of the lowest-priced coal plants in the country,” he said.
In 2018, the Rocky Mountain Institute studied Tri-State’s coal-burning fleet and found that only Laramie River was delivering power at a rate better than what could be had from renewables.
In his Sierra Club-Zoomed presentation, Highley also emphasized the relatively low cost of coal from Laramie River, likely a consequence of its relative proximity to the strip mines of the Powder River Basin two hours to the north.
It’s a coal plant with one of the lowest operating costs in the nation, he said.
Laramie River delivers coal-fired power at 1.1 cents per kilowatt-hour. This compares with an average 1.7 cents per kilowatt-hour for both wind and solar in the 1,000 megawatts of wind and solar projects that Tri-State plans in the next few years. But wind itself sometimes approaches 1 cent per kilowatt-hour, and solar is routinely less than 2 cents, he added.
Tri-State supplies customers in Nebraska via the power lines from Laramie River connected directly to the Eastern Interconnection Grid. That grid, in the Great Plains, is laden heavily with cheap wind.
“Laramie River on that side sometimes has trouble running because there is so much wind available and it’s at such a good price that even one of the lowest priced coal plants in the nation has trouble competing,” he said, referring to Laramie River.
Reliability—the core argument in the Wyoming bills—is another matter.
First, a note about the reliability of coal plants. The fuel is consistent, but they have their problems, as can be seen at Comanche 3, the relatively new coal plant at Pueblo, which was down for repairs during much of 2020.
Highley addressed reliability in his Sierra Club appearance.
“I cannot leave this subject without talking about reliability, because we can only move as fast as we can reliably make power. It’s job one for us. If we fall down on that job, literally public health and safety and lives that could be lost are on the line. We have to keep that our first and foremost priority.”
Coal, he said, does have reliability.
“What does a coal project have? it has a 30-day supply of coal on the ground at the plant site.”
As for battery storage – the lithium-ion technology hasn’t arrived yet to meet the needs of a very-low-carbon future.
“The battery that a utility can buy today lasts somewhere from 2 to 4 hours. A 6-hour battery is pretty much of a stretch,” Highley said.
He cited an example from this winter. “We had a period in Colorado when we had about 3 days of gray skies and no wind,” he said. “Those would be very difficult days for us if we didn’t have fossil fuels in the mix today.”
Batteries can help, but they need to provide storage for 24 to 48 hours, he went on to say. Too, while costs have declined, they need to continue to decrease.
“We are looking for the storage technology that is better than lithium-ion batteries and has a scalability that would be suitable for—finally— a former coal plant such as the Craig site. We think this is one of the best (sites) in the Western grid for mass storage at utility scale,” he said.
Tri-State has been working with the Electric Power Research Institute on a $100 million low-carbon research initiative in the hope of securing energy storage technology needed to fill in the gaps of renewables. Leading contenders, said Highley, are hydrogen and ammonia. Tri-State hopes to have that technology in place by 2030, when it takes the last of the Craig units off line.
Can natural gas fill the void? Perhaps. That is what Colorado Springs Utilities sees as it closes its coal plants. Highley said Tri-State is considering it—and he doesn’t see a concern about creating infrastructure that becomes an expensive stranded asset.
“When we retire Craig Unit 3, we need something that can run for those 3 or 4 days a winter—primarily winter—when we’re not getting wind and solar input. That gas plant is the plan. It runs a very small percentage of the time, and we still achieve 80% even when burning natural gas for reliability.”
Highley said Tri-State is looking at an internal-combustion type of natural gas plant introduced by General Electric. That’s the same plant that Colorado Springs plans to use.
But the plant may not necessarily have to burn natural gas. If hydrogen technology can be developed, renewable energy can be created to produce hydrogen, which can be stored and then burned as needed to fill in the gaps of storage.
New legislation could help states and tribes clean up decades-old mining liabilities and restore the environment while creating needed jobs.
Mined lands reclaimed for biking trails, office parks — even a winery. Efforts like these are already underway in Appalachia to reclaim the region’s toxic history, restore blighted lands, and create economic opportunities in areas where decades-old mines haven’t been properly cleaned up.
The projects are sorely needed. And so are many more. But the money to fund and enable them remains elusive.
Mining production is falling, which is good news for tackling climate change and air pollution, but Appalachia and other coal states are also feeling the economic pain that comes with it. And that loss is more acute on top of pandemic-related revenue shortfalls and the mounting bills from the industry’s environmental degradation.
Local leaders and organizations working in coal communities see a way to flip the script, though. The Revelator spoke with Rebecca Shelton, the director of policy and organizing for Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Kentucky, about efforts focusing on one particular area that’s plagued coal communities for more than 50 years: cleaning up abandoned mine lands.
Shelton explains the history behind these lands, the big legislative opportunities developing in Washington, and what coal communities need to prepare for a low-carbon future.
What are abandoned mine lands?
Technically an abandoned mine land is land where no reclamation was done after mining. Prior to the passage of Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act in 1977, coal-mining companies weren’t required to reclaim — or clean up — the land they mined.
What SMCRA did, in addition to creating requirements for companies to do reclamation into the future, was create an abandoned mine land fund to distribute money to states and tribes with historic mining so that they could clean up those old sites. The revenue for that fund comes from a small tax on current coal production.
The program has accomplished a lot. It has closed 46,000 open mine portals, reclaimed more than 1,000 miles of high walls, stabilized slopes, and restored a lot of water supplies.
t’s been a successful program, but the work is far from done. A conservative estimate is that there’s still more than $11 billion needed to clean up existing identified liability across the U.S. [for sites mined before 1977].
What are the risks if we don’t do this?
There are safety, health and environmental issues.
Just this spring we’ve already gotten calls from folks living adjacent to abandoned mine lands that are experiencing slides [from wet weather causing slopes destabilized by mining to give way]. People’s homes can be completely destabilized, and if they don’t get out in time, it can be really dangerous.
There’s also a lot of existing acid mine drainage across coal-mining communities, which is water that’s leaking iron oxides and other heavy metals from these abandoned mine lands. This is bad for the ecology of the streams, but heavy metals are also not safe for humans to be exposed to.
There’s legislation in Congress now that could help deal with this issue. What are those bills?
One bill is the reauthorization of the abandoned mine land fund. That bill is absolutely critical because the fee on coal production, which is the only source of revenue for the fund, will expire at the end of September if Congress doesn’t take action.
If Congress fails to extend that, we may not see any more funding for the $11 billion needed to clean up abandoned mine lands. If passed, the bill would reauthorize the fee at its current level for 15 more years.
The challenge is that even if the fee is reauthorized, it’ll likely generate only around $1.6 billion — based on current coal-production projections — and that’s vastly inadequate to cover all of the liabilities that exist.
Also, when the abandoned mine land fund was first started, there were some funds that were not redistributed to states and tribes and have just remained in the fund — [about] $2.5 billion that’s not being dispersed on an annual basis.
So another bill, the RECLAIM Act, would authorize [an initial] $1 billion to be dispersed out of that fund that would go to approximately 20 states and tribes over the next five years. This money would be distributed differently than the regular funds in that any kind of project would have to have a plan in place for community and economic development.
So though the funds can only be used for reclamation, they need to be reclamation with a plan. There are so many high-priority and dangerous abandoned mine land sites that exist, and the RECLAIM Act funds would prioritize supporting community and economic development for communities adjacent to these lands.
How much support are you seeing for these bills?
We see momentum in this Congress, and there’s a lot of conversation around investing in our nation’s infrastructure. We see abandoned mine lands and their remediation as natural infrastructure that we need to invest in to keep our communities safe and prepare them for the future.
But we also see these bills as important pieces of an economic recovery package. COVID-19 has really exacerbated so many of the existing health and economic crises already in coal communities.
When we talk about economic stimulus and job creation, we also see reauthorizing the abandoned mine land fund as contributing to that because it takes a lot of work and creates a lot of jobs to do land reclamation.
We’ve talked about the legacy issues from lands mined before 1977, but what concerns are there from current or recent mining? Is that reclamation being done adequately?
That’s an area that also needs a closer look.
As the industry declines, we’ve seen coal companies file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy or reorganization. And when they do this, oftentimes they’re granted permission to get rid of liabilities that would affect their solvency. Sometimes those liabilities are reclamation obligations, pension funds or black lung disability funds.
And then what you see is smaller companies taking on these permits that the reorganizing company no longer wants. But many are under-capitalized and they sometimes don’t have the ability to even produce coal, or if they do they can’t keep up with the reclamation. And it’s dangerous for communities if there’s environmental violations that aren’t getting addressed.
I’ll give you a recent example. Blackjewel [the sixth-largest U.S. coal producer] went bankrupt in the summer of 2019. Since then there’s been very little done to address any kind of environmental violations existing on their permits.
Because of SMCRA, companies are required to have bonds in order to obtain their mining permits, but these bonds are not always adequate. The Kentucky Energy and Environment cabinet made a statement in the Blackjewel bankruptcy proceedings that it estimated that reclamation obligations on these permits were going to fall short $20 to $50 million.
What else is needed to help coal communities transition to a low-carbon economy?
That’s a big question. We have to address these legacy issues in order to help transition these communities into the future. And we have to address the problems right now of folks who are losing their jobs and need to be supported through training programs or through education credits.
But we also need to be thinking about the future more broadly. What will be in place 20 years from now for the younger generation?
There’s going to be a lot of gaps in local tax revenues because so much of the tax base has been reliant on the coal industry, which makes it really difficult for communities to continue to provide public services and keep up infrastructure as that industry declines. It’s going to be critical to think about that and invest in that.
I think the best approach is to find solutions that work for [specific] places. And to do that we need to listen to community leaders and folks in these communities that have already been working to build something new for many years. There are solutions that I think can apply to all places, but there also needs to be a targeted intention to create opportunities where communities can develop their own paths forward.
The South Taylor pit is one of Colowyo Mine’s current active coal mining site. Photo by David Tan via CoalZoom.com
Image credit: Dan Winters
Coal plant water consumption in the American West. Graphic credit: The Energy Policy Institute
Coal train loading at Spring Creek mine, Montana. Photo: WildEarth Guardians, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Spring Creek Coal Mine. Photo credit: Cloud Peak Energy
One coal mine remains open in the North Fork Valley. Photo/Allen Best
The U.S. is the second-largest producer of coal in the world, thanks in part to massive surface mines like this one in Wyoming. Photo courtesy BLM.
West Virginia coal mine circa. 1908
December 22, 2008 Kingston Fossil Plant coal ash retention pond failure via the Environmental Protection Agency and the Tennessee Valley Authority
FromThe High Country News [March 18, 2021] (Anna V. Smith):
Four important decisions will impact the forests, lands and waters of tribal nations.
Tribal leaders see President Joe Biden’s administration as an opportunity to increase tribal consultation regarding issues like water management, oil and gas leasing, and land conservation. Here, we look at four major projects — all of them years in the making — that the new administration is tasked with advancing in the next four years. Most fall under the Department of the Interior, now headed by its first Indigenous secretary, Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo).
TONGASS NATIONAL FOREST MANAGEMENT
On his first day in office, Biden issued an executive order to revisit the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Trump-era decision to exempt Alaska’s Tongass National Forest from a federal rule protecting 9.3 million acres of it from logging, mining and roadways. The Trump administration raced through the process despite the pandemic. The Tongass — the largest national forest in the U.S. — serves as a massive carbon sink and is of national importance. It also supports the old-growth red cedar, Sitka black-tailed deer and salmon that the Alaska Native tribes of the region rely on. None of the Southeast Alaska Native tribes who participated in the consultation process supported the exemption, and all withdrew in protest.
In addition to reviewing the Tongass protections, the Biden administration also has to decide on a rule proposed by 11 Southeast Alaska Native tribes in July 2020. The Traditional Homelands Conservation Rule would increase the role of Alaska Native tribes in the management of the forest’s trees, wildlife and waters. The tribes proposed the rule after decades of inadequate tribal consultation on the Tongass, their ancestral and current homeland.
COLORADO RIVER BASIN GUIDELINES BY 2026
Negotiations among federal, tribal and state governments on water flows and allocations in the Colorado River Basin began last year and are set to conclude by 2026. At stake is the water supply for 40 million people.
The current set of interim guidelines was created in 2007 by the seven basin states — Colorado, Arizona, Utah, California, Nevada, Wyoming and New Mexico — and the federal government. None of the 29 federally recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin were consulted, despite having senior water rights that account for 20% of the river’s water.
The negotiations are happening amid some of the most serious drought predictions the region has seen; in January, the river’s drought contingency plan was triggered for the first time. Climate change has brought extreme drought conditions to about 75% of the river’s Upper Basin, and that will no doubt influence the tenor of the negotiations.
KLAMATH RIVER DAM REMOVAL IN 2023
After years of political, social and regulatory barriers, the undamming of the Klamath River is within sight. When — or if — it’s completed, it will be the largest dam removal effort in U.S. history, bringing down four out of six dams on the river in southern Oregon and Northern California , including one that’s 103 years old. For now, the project is on track to begin in 2023, and by 2024 there could be free-flowing water in the river, opening up some 400 miles of habitat in California for salmon, lamprey and trout. The nonprofit charged with the dam removals, the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, still needs the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee, which is headed by political appointees, to approve its current plan.
Last year’s drought created more conflict over water allocations on the Klamath. In, August, the Bureau of Reclamation cancelled promised water flows for the Yurok Tribe’s Ceremonial Boat Dance. In response, the Yurok Tribe sued the agency. The federal government will need to bring stakeholders together for a large-scale agreement to end this cycle of seasonal litigation, something the Obama administration attempted unsuccessfully to do.
OIL AND GAS LEASING PERMIT PAUSE ON FEDERAL LANDS
In late January, when Joe Biden signed multiple executive orders to address the “climate crisis,” he ordered Interior to put a temporary moratorium on new oil and gas leases on public lands and offshore waters. The administration called for a review of the leasing and royalties process, citing climate impacts and their growing cost, and specifically requested a review of leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. President Donald Trump’s outgoing administration had opened ANWR for sale just weeks before Biden took office.
Biden’s executive orders don’t impact existing leases, or oil and gas on tribal lands. But much of the tribal opposition involves activities on ancestral territory that is currently public land, sometimes carried out without adequate tribal consultation. The Arctic Refuge and places like New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon have been flashpoints of conflict over leasing, and many advocates want Biden to extend the pause as a permanent ban. This was a key sticking point for many Republican senators during Haaland’s confirmation hearings, which Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., described as a “proxy fight over the future of fossil fuels.”
Anna V. Smith is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email us at email@example.com.
Rockfall destruction challenges green-power provider and the nonprofit, member-supported ice park as repair costs climb.
Workers arriving early at the Ouray Ice Park on Tuesday found a disaster.
A boulder the size of a pool table had sheared off the canyon wall and destroyed the metal walkway accessing the park’s popular ice climbs. And it ripped out the penstock that ferries water to the oldest operating hydropower plant in the U.S.
“Just water squirting everywhere and the access bridge, laying at the bottom of the canyon,” said Eric Jacobson, who owns the hydroelectric plant and pipeline that runs along the rim of the Uncompahgre River Gorge.
The rock tore through the penstock, its trestle and the decades-old steel walkway in the park’s popular Schoolroom area late Monday. There was no one in the gorge and no injuries.
When the overnight temperatures are cold enough in December, January and February, a team of ice farmers use as much as 200,000 gallons of water a night trickling from the penstock to create internationally renowned ice-climbing routes. More than 15,000 climbers flock to Ouray every winter to scale the 150-foot fangs of ice, supporting the city’s winter economy. And Jacobson generates about 4 million kilowatt hours a year from water flowing into his antiquated but updated Ouray Hydroelectric Power Plant. He sells the power to the San Miguel Power Association.
The plant generates about 5% of the association’s power needs, which has a robust collection of green power sources, including several small hydropower plants and a solar array in Paradox.
The Senate confirmed Ms. Haaland to lead the Interior Department. She’ll be charged with essentially reversing the agency’s course over the past four years.
Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico made history on Monday when the Senate confirmed her as President Biden’s secretary of the Interior, making her the first Native American to lead a cabinet agency.
Ms. Haaland in 2018 became one of the first two Native American women elected to the House. But her new position is particularly redolent of history because the department she now leads has spent much of its history abusing or neglecting America’s Indigenous people.
Beyond the Interior Department’s responsibility for the well-being of the nation’s 1.9 million Native people, it oversees about 500 million acres of public land, federal waters off the United States coastline, a huge system of dams and reservoirs across the Western United States and the protection of thousands of endangered species.
“A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior,” she wrote on Twitter before the vote. “Growing up in my mother’s Pueblo household made me fierce. I’ll be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land.”
Republican opposition to her confirmation centered on Ms. Haaland’s history of fighting against oil and gas exploration, and the deliberations around her nomination highlighted her emerging role in the public debates on climate change, energy policy and racial equity. She was confirmed on a 51-40 vote. Only four Republican senators — Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — voted for Ms. Haaland’s confirmation…
The new interior secretary will be charged with essentially reversing the agency’s mission over the past four years. The Interior Department, led by David Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist, played a central role in the Trump administration’s systematic rollback of environmental regulations and the opening up of the nation’s lands and waters to drilling and mining.
Ms. Haaland is expected to quickly halt new drilling, reinstate wildlife conservation rules, rapidly expand wind and solar power on public lands and waters, and place the Interior Department at the center of Mr. Biden’s climate agenda.
At the same time, Ms. Haaland will quite likely assume a central role in realizing Mr. Biden’s promise to make racial equity a theme in his administration. Ms. Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo who identifies herself as a 35th-generation New Mexican, will assume control of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education, where she can address the needs of a population that has suffered from abuse and dislocation at the hands of the United States government for generations, and that has been disproportionately devastated by the coronavirus…
As the agency takes on a newly muscular role in addressing climate change, she added, the department “will have to deal with new strategies for managing more intense wildfires on public land and chronic drought in the West. It’s hard to overstate the challenges with water.”
Among the first and most contentious items on Ms. Haaland’s to-do list will be enacting Mr. Biden’s campaign pledge to ban new permits for oil and gas projects on public lands…
Ms. Haaland’s ability to implement that ban successfully could have major consequences both for the climate and for the Biden administration. According to one study by Interior Department scientists, the emissions associated with fossil fuel drilling on public lands account for about a quarter of the nation’s greenhouse gases. But the policy will most likely be enacted at a time when gasoline prices are projected to soar — spurring almost-certain political blowback from Republicans ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
For the drilling ban to survive legal challenges, experts say, Ms. Haaland will have to move with care.
“They may attempt a total ban, but that would be more vulnerable to a court challenge,” said Marcella Burke, an energy policy lawyer and former Interior Department official. “Or there’s the ‘death by a thousand cuts’ approach.”
That approach would make oil drilling less feasible by creating such stringent regulations and cleanup rules that exploration would not be worth the cost…
Ms. Haaland is also expected to revisit the Trump administration’s rollback of habitat protections under the Endangered Species Act. Under the Trump rules, it became easier to remove a species from the endangered list, and for the first time, regulators were allowed to conduct economic assessments — for instance, estimating lost revenue from a prohibition on logging in a critical habitat — when deciding whether a species warrants protection.
Such rules led to an exodus of staff, particularly from the Fish and Wildlife Service, Mr. Clement said…
The Interior Department also must submit a detailed new plan by June 2022 that lays out how the federal government will manage the vast outer continental shelf off the American coastline, an area rich in marine wilderness and undersea oil and gas resources.
Given Mr. Biden’s pledge to ban new drilling, the new offshore management plan will quite likely reimpose Obama-era policies that barred oil exploration on the entire East and West Coasts of the United States — while possibly going further, by limiting drilling off the coasts of Alaska and in the Gulf of Mexico. But writing the legal, economic and scientific justifications will be difficult…
As the department moves against offshore drilling, it is expected to help ramp up offshore wind farms. Last week, the agency took a major step toward approving the nation’s first large-scale offshore wind farm, near Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., a project that had been in the works for years.
An Indigenous-led resistance raises the alarm about a tar-sands pipeline that would cut through treaty territory of Anishinaabe people, threatening wild rice, fresh water and the climate.
One of President Joe Biden’s first acts in office put an end to a decade-long fight over the Keystone XL — a pipeline that would have carried climate-polluting tar sands from Alberta, Canada into the United States.
Biden’s Executive Order said the Keystone XL’s approval “would undermine U.S. climate leadership” and that instead he would instead “prioritize the development of a clean energy economy.”
Tara Houska of Couchiching First Nation hopes the Biden administration makes good on that promise — and its implications beyond Keystone.
Houska, an attorney and Indigenous rights advocate, is the founder of the Giniw Collective, an Indigenous-led resistance against another cross-border tar-sands pipeline — Line 3. Construction has already begun on this 340-mile-long Enbridge pipeline, which would carry nearly a million gallons a day of tar-sands crude across northern Minnesota — crossing 200 water bodies — en route from Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin.
Environmental organizations have joined Native groups, including the nonprofit Honor the Earth, as well as the Red Lake Band of Chippewa and White Earth Band of Ojibwe in raising legal challenges and joining on-the-ground resistance efforts.
The Revelator spoke with Houska about what’s at stake with Line 3, how Standing Rock helped grow a movement, and why we should rethink what direct action means.
How did you get involved in being a water protector?
When I was in law school, I started doing tribal law work and ended up in Washington, D.C. representing tribes all over the country. At the same time there were serious environmental issues coming through D.C. My first internship was at the White House when Obama was reviewing Keystone XL and I saw a lot of breakdowns in the efficacy of the federal system and a lack of movement.
When the Cowboy Indian Alliance staged a protest in 2014 against the Keystone XL pipeline, I went. It was my first protest. After that I kept working on environmental justice issues for tribal nations, and then two years later a group of runners from Standing Rock came out to D.C. [to raise awareness about the Dakota Access Pipeline that would carry Bakken crude across the Plains].
I listened to LaDonna Brave Bull Allard [from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe] on Facebook Live ask for help. I could tell she meant everything she said, so I just packed up my stuff, rented a car and drove out to North Dakota.
I planned on being out there [at the Standing Rock protest camp] for a weekend. I ended up staying six months.
Something was different about this Native tribe saying no. There’ve been lots of tribes that have said no for hundreds of years, but these guys weren’t just saying it, they were putting their bodies in front of the machines and refusing to move. The groundswell of youth, the encampment, the legal fight against the federal government — it all came together in this moment.
I think for a lot of tribal people it felt different. We were very united in the struggle.
It was also eye-opening for a lot of other people around the world. Mostly because I don’t think a lot of people are even aware that Native people still exist. And that we’re still very much engaged in an ongoing struggle for our land and water against either the United States or these foreign interests.
And now you’re engaged in a similar struggle against another Canadian energy company — Enbridge. What’s at stake with Line 3?
After the ground fight at Dakota Access ended and they bulldozed our camp, I went back to D.C., but I had a hard time coming back to the world as I understood it, because it’d been changed.
So in 2018 I founded the Giniw Collective. It was in response to the Minnesota Public Utility Commission unanimously approving Line 3 after years of work and tens of thousands of comments and engagement against the project by Minnesotans.
I started building and finding others to build with, to create a strong resistance community that was also engaging in traditional foods and establishing foundational relationships with the land.
Line 3 is much more personal because it goes through my own people’s territory. To me, the critical piece of this is not just the drinking water and the emissions and all those irrevocable harms of expanding the fossil fuel industry — particularly the tar-sands industry — but it’s also specifically about the threats to wild rice.
[Northern] wild rice is at the center of our people’s culture and connection to the world. This is the only place in the world that it grows. This is where the creator told us to come — to where the food grows on water. And to me, Line 3 is an extension of cultural genocide to put something like that at risk.
Construction has already begun. Where do things stand legally with efforts to stop it?
There’s a set of legal opinions due March 23 that are very critical in terms of the feds hearing what we are bringing forward, particularly from the tribal nations that have signed onto these lawsuits and are impacted directly by Line 3.
Then there’s also an ongoing lawsuit by the Minnesota Department of Commerce against the Minnesota Public Utility Commission. The state is actually suing itself for not being able to demonstrate that there’s a need for this project. The tar sands and oil products that will go through the pipeline are for foreign markets. They’re not for Minnesota or the United States.
What about at the federal level?
There’s also this huge push on [President Joe] Biden, who canceled Keystone XL on day one and has centered himself as the climate president. We’re looking to the administration to intervene on something that’s an obvious climate disaster.
How can we say we’ll cancel one pipeline but build another? It’s the same types of violations and the same types of climate impacts coming out of the Alberta tar sands.
Building Line 3 will have the equivalent emissions of building 50 new coal power plants. That’s insane.
We are seeing progress, though. We just secured another meeting with the Council on Environmental Quality. I had a number of meetings with members of the Biden transition team and different agencies. I know [National Climate Advisor] Gina McCarthy was just questioned a couple of weeks ago by Showtime about Dakota Access and Line 3. So the message is getting into their ears. It’s just that we need to hear some response.
Where are you finding inspiration now?
The pieces that inspire me the most and give me the most hope are seeing people engaged in resistance during a pandemic to defend the planet and defend life for someone who’s not even born yet. That’s incredibly powerful to be part of and to see that happen in real time.
To watch someone harvest wild rice for the first time, to watch someone stop destruction of a place in real time for a day — that’s really powerful. To see young people finding their voices and using their bodies to try to protect what’s supposed to be their world. They are literally fighting for life and their right to a future. That’s a really beautiful thing to see, and it’s really inspiring and hopeful.
We’ve trained hundreds of people over the last two and a half years in direct action. I try to push folks to think about direct action not just as being about getting arrested or something like that. To me, it’s about standing with the Earth in a real way, putting something at risk and being uncomfortable. I don’t think that we’re going to solve the climate crisis comfortably. I don’t think we’re going to solar panel or policy-make our way out of this massive existential threat we’re facing.
To take action is to do something in community with the Earth. To think about our own connection to her in everything that we do. I like to remind people that Native people are 5% of the world’s population and we’re holding 80% of the world’s [forest] biodiversity.
That isn’t by accident or happenstance. That is because we have a deep connection to the Earth and an understanding that the Earth is a living being, just like we are.
Local jurisdictions retain authority to restrict extension of natural gas to new buildings. But the debate will almost certainly continue.
Berkeley was first in what is fast shaping up as a national battle about national gas. In January 2019 it passed a law that crimped use of natural gas in new buildings. Since then, 42 municipalities in California have changed their building codes to make natural gas use impossible or difficult in new buildings. Seattle and a few other cities elsewhere in the country have adopted restrictions, too.
Arizona and 3 other states were quick to push back. Last year they adopted prohibitions on local bans. This year similar legislation has been introduced in 12 states, including Colorado.
At least for now, though, Colorado will be more like California than Arizona. A Colorado legislative committee on March 3 killed a proposal that would have prohibited such local actions.
The 7-5 party-line vote—Democrats opposed the proposed restriction on local authority and Republicans favored it—provided a preview of coming debates as Colorado seeks to move forward on economy wide decarbonization goals specified by a 2019 law.
The primary talking points in the Colorado House Energy & Environment Committee were about individual choice vs. local control.
Consumers should have the right to burn natural gas and propane, said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Dan Woog, a Republican from Erie. “I contend this is about choice and giving everyone in Colorado a choice,” he said of his bill, HB21-1034, “Consumer Right To Use Natural Gas Or Propane.”
Woog said the bill was a response to Denver’s consideration of requiring new buildings be all electric. He and supporters see Denver’s efforts as most assuredly the camel’s nose under the tent.
“This is not hypothetical,” said Dianna Orf, representing the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado. She said she had been in meetings where state officials have talked about moving people away from natural gas. “We fear that someday in the future we will see a ban on natural gas for our home use,” she said.
Others described the proposed law as a solution in search of a problem. Rep. Edie Hooton, a Democrat from Boulder, said she works with many environmental groups, and she’s not aware of plans to begin pushing natural gas bans.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Denver remains the lone jurisdiction in Colorado with an active proposal to crimp the expansion of natural gas and propane in new buildings. Despite the fears expressed by Orf and others, not even Denver proposes to force its removal from existing buildings. Instead, the proposal to be reviewed by the Denver City Council later this year would apply to homes in 2024 and other buildings in 2027. It would not apply to existing buildings.
Boulder already has a building code that effectively creates a ban on natural gas in larger homes. The maximum energy use per square foot of new residential construction of 3,000 square feet or larger leaves no room for gas. Boulder County has a similar program.
For Colorado and many of the towns and cities within the state to achieve their climate goals, they must necessarily address the emissions caused by buildings. This includes natural gas that is commonly burned to warm air and water, also in some cases for cooking.
Different than the all-electric past
Colorado’s plans to largely remove emissions from electricity while accelerating electrification of transportation. Removing emissions from the built environment was recognized as the more difficult challenge in the Colorado Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap that was released on Jan. 14.
At the committee hearing, much was made of all-electric heating in the past. “It was a nightmare,” said Rep. Perry Will, a Republican from New Castle, of living in an all-electric house in the 1990s.
The technology has changed completely in the last 25 years. If Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility, remains skeptical that the technology is ready for prime time in Colorado, many others, including Rocky Mountain Institute, argued that houses and water can be warmed in most parts of Colorado without natural gas.
Geos, a multi-family complex in Arvada, has no natural gas connections. Basalt Vista, an affordable housing project in the Roaring Fork Valley, also has no natural gas. They use air-source heat pumps, a fast-improving technology pushed by a company called Mitsubishi. The air-source heat pumps work to -14 Fahrenheit.
Having the technology is one thing. Having technicians familiar with it is another matter. Widespread re-training will be needed for this paradigm shift.
Once a building is built with natural gas, the retrofit is indeed expensive. Colorado had been building about 40,000 houses a year, nearly all of them with natural gas space and hot-water heaters. About three-quarters of Colorado’s 1.5 million houses have natural gas.
Legislation introduced this year will tackle at least some of this. One of the bills supported by the administration of Gov. Jared Polis would institute more rigorous energy efficiency in homes to cut demand for natural gas.
Another piece of legislation would require Xcel Energy and Black Hills Energy, the state’s two investor-owned electrical utilities, to file plans with the PUC to support beneficial electrification in buildings. This would be similar to what was required of Xcel and Black Hills for transportation electrification. The idea is of incentives but softly pressing down the carbon intensity of the building sector.
At the committee hearing, ban-on-ban proponents also talked frequently about loss of jobs if demand for fossil fuels is suppressed. Scott Prestidge, representing the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, talked about Colorado’s front-of-class regulations that seek to minimize emissions during extraction and delivering of natural gas.
The most curious argument at the hearing was that banning new natural gas infrastructure in one jurisdiction would cause higher prices for natural gas in other jurisdictions.
Woog didn’t explain his reasoning, but it does mirror one of the talking points of a paper issued in early November by Xcel. The report examined the difficulty of rapidly electrifying buildings. One of the perceived challenges is that those with higher incomes will be able to afford to electrify and shut off their natural gas, leaving lower-income residents served by the same line to pay the higher costs for upkeep of the infrastructure.
That, however, is a very different circumstance than a ban on natural gas in new buildings in Denver having an effect in, say, Weld County.
Talking climate change—or not
Such local pre-emption legislation has followed a very similar pattern across the country, National Public Radio report in February. Gas utilities, with help from industry trade groups, have successfully lobbied lawmakers over the past year to introduce similar “preemption” legislation in 12 mostly Republican-controlled state legislatures, NRP said, citing work by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The Washington Post also reported on the controversy. “Logically the natural gas industry does not want to see its business end, so it’s doing what it can to keep natural gas in the utility grid mix,” said Marta Schantz, senior vice president of the Urban Land Institute’s Greenprint Center for Building Performance. “But long term, if cities are serious about their climate goals, electric buildings are inevitable.”
In Massachusetts, State Rep. Tommy Vitolo, warned of the costs of delay. “If we install a furnace or burner in a building in 2022, will we have to take it out before the end of its useful life in order to meet emissions?” he told the Post. The important comparison is now gas vs. electric now, but gas now plus the costs of heat pumps 15 years from now. In other words, he wants to get it right the first time.
At the committee hearing at the Colorado Capitol, representatives of many cities testified in opposition to Woog’s bill, all emphasizing local control.
What’s right for Arvada is not necessarily what’s right for Boulder or some other jurisdiction, said Arvada City Councilwoman Lauren Simpson.
This is from Big Pivots, an e-magazine tracking the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Subscribe at http://bigpivots.com
In an effort organized by Colorado Communities for Climate Action, representatives from Fort Collins to Salida also talked about air quality impacts, including inside homes and in communities more generally, as well as atmospheric pollution by greenhouse gases.
“I know what my community needs,” said Katherine Goff, of the Northglenn City Council. The “proposal would hamstring our abilities” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by replacing gas with electricity once electricity has been decarbonized, she said.
“We need every single tool available to us to address our building stock,” said Lafayette Mayor Jamie Harkins, after describing the city’s climate change goals. But there was a secondary reason, that to make buildings healthier. A growing body of research has shown deleterious effects of combustion of natural gas inside buildings.
“We take climate change very, very seriously in our community here in the mountains,” said Salida Mayor P.T. Wood. “We are feeling the effects of climate change at this moment,” going on to describe a “dry, hot winter.”
If Salida isn’t yet ready to follow in the footsteps of Berkeley and other California cities that have crimped the use of natural gas in new buildings, Salida wants to retain that authority. The bill, said Wood, “would cut away at the ability of local communities to make their own decisions. These decisions should be made locally and not in Denver.”
In a sense, the arguments were flip-flopped from the usual, when representatives of fossil fuel counties have traditionally championed local control over state authority and decried decisions made in Denver. Before votes were cast, Hooton, the legislator from Boulder, wryly noted the shift. “We’re for local control until we’re not,” she said.
Hooton went on to say she was discouraged by the “climate change denialism” she heard among fellow committee members in their questioning of bill opponents. That was met with a sharp response from Rep. Andres Pico, a Republican from Colorado Springs. “That is an insult,” he said. “I will not take it.”
Pico had declared that there is “no climate emergency.” Where the Salida mayor saw the forest fire on nearby Methodist Mountain several years ago as the result of a warming climate, Pico described it as a natural phenomenon. Ditto for the 21st century drought.
If the climate is warming, it’s almost entirely natural, Pico declared.
Pico’s assertions regarding drought contradict what is fast becoming established science about Colorado’s largest and most water-plentiful watershed, the Colorado River. Extended droughts have been documented for the last 2,000 years, but the current drought looks different, what one climate scientist calls a “hot drought,” with precipitation declines corresponding closely to rising warmth produced by accumulating greenhouse gas emissions.
The natural gas industry paints itself as the clean-burning fuel, and compared to coal, it is. But there has been sharp debate about whether unintended emissions of methane – the primary constituent of natural gas – in the supply chain actually make natural gas worse than coal in its global warming potential.
A new aerial study that found that gas pipelines represent the second largest source of methane leaks. And a 2020 study by the Environmental Defense Fund found that 3.7% of natural gas produced in the Permian Basin of Texas and New Mexico leaked. Because of the strong heat-trapping proclivity of methane, 27 times as great as carbon dioxide when measured over a century, that loss negated any benefits of natural gas combustion over coal, the study found.
Colorado has been engaged in tightening regulations to preclude such emissions from the Wattenberg and other gas-producing fields.
The sharpest contrast during the hearing came when Christiaan Van Woudenberg, a trustee in Erie, as elected officials in statutory-rule municipalities are called, testified that Woog’s bill represented “another attempt to prop up a dying industry.” Until recently, Woog was also on the Erie Town Board.
In the voting, Rep. Mike Weissman, a Democrat from Aurora, mixed personal experience with broad musings. He said he lives in a house built in the ‘70s where natural gas provides everything: space heat, hot water, and cooking. Building new, he said he’d make different choices based on economics of the rapidly improving technology but also on the moral obligations to change. He cited evidence of accumulating greenhouse gas emissions, now up to 415 parts per million as compared to 280 ppm at the start of the industrial revolution.
And Weissman suggested that towns and cities should be the laboratories of innovation in Colorado, just as states were in the mind of the famed jurist Louis Brandeis.
This local-preemption bill was effectively dead on arrival but it will return. Expect, too, to see sharpened talking points, perhaps even this year as legislators take up more practical measures, including the proposal to require Xcel and Black Hills to undertake beneficial electrification plans.
The Senate on Wednesday confirmed Michael S. Regan, the former top environmental regulator for North Carolina, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency and drive some of the Biden administration’s biggest climate and regulatory policies.
As administrator, Mr. Regan, who began his career at the E.P.A. and worked in environmental and renewable energy advocacy before becoming secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, will be tasked to rebuild an agency that lost thousands of employees under the Trump administration. Political appointees under Donald J. Trump spent the past four years unwinding dozens of clean air and water protections, while rolling back all of the Obama administration’s major climate rules.
Central to Mr. Regan’s mission will be putting forward aggressive new regulations to meet President Biden’s pledge of eliminating fossil fuel emissions from the electric power sector by 2035, significantly reducing emissions from automobiles and preparing the United States to emit no net carbon pollution by the middle of the century. Several proposed regulations are already being prepared, administration officials have said.
His nomination was approved by a vote of 66-34, with all Democrats and 16 Republicans voting in favor..
Mr. Regan will be the first Black man to serve as E.P.A. administrator. At 44, he will also be one of Mr. Biden’s youngest cabinet secretaries and will have to navigate a crowded field of older, more seasoned Washington veterans already installed in key environmental positions — particularly Gina McCarthy, who formerly held Mr. Regan’s job and is the head of a new White House climate policy office…
But most of the opposition centered on Democratic policy. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, called Mr. Biden’s agenda a “left-wing war on American energy.”
“Mr. Regan has plenty of experience,” Senator McConnell said. “The problem is what he’s poised to do with it.”
In his testimony before the Senate last month Mr. Regan assured lawmakers that when it comes to E.P.A. policies, “I will be leading and making those decisions, and I will be accepting accountability for those decisions.”
Mr. Regan has a reputation as a consensus-builder who works well with lawmakers from both parties. North Carolina’s two Republican senators, Thom Tillis and Richard Burr voted to support his nomination. Even Senate Republicans who voted against him had kind words.
As the Biden administration begins the daunting job of rebuilding U.S. climate policy, it has gotten help from an unexpected, and perhaps unlikely, source—the federal courts.
In Biden’s first few weeks in office, federal judges scrapped the Trump administration’s weak power plant pollution regulation, its rule limiting science in environmental decision-making and a decision opening vast areas of the West to new mining.
The rulings show that although President Donald Trump left his mark on the federal courts with his record-breaking pace of judicial appointments, his influence has not been great enough to prevent federal judges from playing a part in dismantling his deregulatory legacy. And the series of decisions also allows the Biden administration to move forward with some confidence about its own ambitious regulatory agenda, as White House National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy explained at a major energy industry conference last week.
“As time goes on, we realize how unsuccessful the prior administration was in actually rolling back good regulations,” McCarthy said in a virtual discussion session at CERAWeek by IHS Markit, an annual conclave of top oil, gas and utility executives. “In the courts, even with the new appointees under the Trump administration as judges, we still won over and over and over again, because there is a law in our country. And when you put on that black robe, you tend to want to do your job.”
Regan, Haaland and the rest of the Biden climate team may get less help from the federal courts as time goes on. Legal scholars expect that Trump-appointed judges will be skeptical of aggressive government action on climate without explicit authority from Congress, and Trump appointees now occupy one-third of the seats on the appellate bench, including three on the Supreme Court.
But for now, a confluence of factors have given the Biden administration some early legal wins—including the savvy of environmental group litigators, the desire of industry to strike a cooperative stance with the new administration and the legal missteps of the Trump administration…
The biggest break for the Biden team thus far came at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, where a three-judge panel issued a decision to vacate the Trump administration’s rollback of President Barack Obama’s signature climate policy, its Clean Power Plan. The day before Inauguration Day, the judges excoriated the Trump administration for designing a toothless regulation on power plant greenhouse gas pollution based on what it said were “a tortured series of misreadings” of the Clean Air Act.
Trump’s EPA argued it had no authority to set standards that encourage steps like switching from coal to natural gas or renewable energy to cut carbon emissions. Instead, the Trump EPA said it could only mandate tweaks like efficiency improvements at individual coal plants (while not addressing natural gas plants at all.) But in reality, such improvements do little to slash carbon; the only commercial technology for achieving large cuts in power plant carbon emissions is to switch to cleaner fuels. As a result, the Trump “Affordable Clean Energy” rule would have curbed greenhouse gas emissions from power plants less than 1 percent.
The three-judge panel ruled that the Trump power plant rule “hinged on a fundamental misconstruction of … the Clean Air Act.” Judge Justin Walker, a Trump appointee on the panel, dissented on the legal reasoning but joined in the judgement with two Obama appointees, Judges Patricia Millett and Cornelia Pillard.
At his Feb. 3 confirmation hearing, Regan deflected a question on the legal issue in that case from a supporter of the Trump rollback—Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Instead, Regan indicated that under his leadership the EPA would not be returning to the Obama approach in the wake of the Trump rule being struck down by the court.
In 2012 Aspen Skiing Company partnered with Oxbow’s Elk Creek Mine, Holy Cross Energy, and Vessels Carbon Solutions to convert waste methane from a coal plant in Somerset, Colorado into usable electricity, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and generating financial return along the way. To demonstrate the success of this project, ASC released a report telling the story of how this came about, and what the results have been. The mine produces 3 megawatts of baseload power, which is as much energy as ASC uses annually at all four of its resorts, including hotels and restaurants. The electricity generated and the carbon offsets flow into the utility grid, not to ASC directly, greening the entire regional grid. Since this project started, it has prevented the emission of 250 billion cubic feet of methane annually into the atmosphere – mitigating a huge problem when it comes to global warming. This is equivalent to removing 517,000 passenger vehicles from the road for a year. On the financial front, this methane-to-electricity project produces between $100,000 and $150,000 in revenue per month from electricity and carbon credit sales to Holy Cross Energy. After nearly ten years, ASC has only about $750,000 remaining to pay off it’s initial investment of $5.34 million.
Skico on track to recoup $5.3 million investment, provide model for climate progress
Aspen Skiing Co. says its plant that converts methane from a coal mine into electricity has proven to be an environmental and economic success since it opened in November 2012.
Skico this week released the first progress report on the plant at the Elk Creek Mine at Somerset, which is in Gunnison County on the west side of McClure Pass. The company invested $5.34 million on the clean-energy technology with an expectation of recouping the funds within 10 to 15 years. The report said Skico has only $750,000 outstanding on its initial investment after the eight full years the facility has operated.
The project generates between $100,000 to $150,000 in revenue per month from electricity and carbon credit sales to Holy Cross Energy, the report said.
The financial success is critical to getting the project replicated. Skico released the report, in part, to help stoke interest in other such efforts as part of the effort to reduce global warming. It’s an example of how a company can make a difference in solving the climate crisis, Skico officials said. The plant captures methane and converts it into electricity.
“Aspen Skiing Company’s methane project passes two tests of meaningful climate action,” the progress report said in its conclusion. “First, it’s at a large, not a token, scale. And second, it is a high profile, replicable model for others. While it is not a comprehensive market or policy solution, it illuminates a path in that direction and is an example of what one company can do to make a difference.”
Xcel Energy-Colorado and other utilities propose to build 560 miles of additional 345-kilovolt transmission lines across eastern Colorado in the coming decade to get the wind and other resources they need as they close coal plants and meet expanding demand to displace fossil fuels in transportation and buildings.
The $1.7 billion investment would access 5,500 megawatts of new wind and solar power and energy storage for Xcel. Xcel is calling it Colorado’s Power Pathway.
Xcel hopes to get the first segment in service by 2025 and other segments complete in 2026 and 2027—a herculean task, given the slow pace customary to getting approval for transmission before construction actually begins.
Partnering with Xcel are Colorado’s other major electrical utilities: Tri-State Generation & Transmission, Colorado Springs Utilities, Platte River Power Authority, and Black Hills Energy. But Holy Cross Energy, another utility, will also be affected, as it relies upon Xcel’s transmission for delivery to the Aspen-Glenwood Springs-Vail areas.
“Investments in our transmission systems increase grid capacity, strengthen reliability, help us continue our clean energy transition and provide the best possible service for our customers and local communities,” said Alice Jackson, president, Xcel Energy-Colorado. “This new transmission line will support our vision to reduce carbon emissions and deliver 100% carbon-free energy by 2050 and will result in much-needed economic and generation development in the region.”
Tri-State’s participation is contingent on completion of an agreement being worked on. But the agreement in strong enough conceptually that Duane Highley, Tri-State’s chief executive, offered a statement that echoed that of Jackson, but with one small difference. The project would drive investment “in rural communities we serve,” he said. Most of the area of eastern Colorado is served by cooperatives who are members of Tri-State.
In his new book, “How to Avoid Climate Disaster,” Bill Gates likens transmission to freeways and distribution lines to local roads and streets.
The plan envisions five segments that collectively sort of create a box in eastern Colorado. One leg would connect from Fort St. Vain, the gas-powered plant near Greeley, eastward to a new substation near Fort Morgan. This would roughly parallel U.S. Highway 34.
From Fort Morgan and Brush and the Pawnee power plant, which Xcel wants to convert from coal generation to natural gas by 2028, another line would continue eastward to Yuma and then veer south to Burlington and Xcel’s new wind farm at Cheyenne Ridge.
A third segment would continue south along the Kansas border to the vicinity of Lamar. From the Lamar area a fourth leg would then continue north of U.S. Highway 50 and the Arkansas River to the Tundra switching station northeast of Pueblo. The final legal would link Tundra with the Harvest Mile Substation, located southeast of Aurora.
Xcel also identifies a potential transmission line from the Lamar area south to Walsh, which may have Colorado’s very best sustained wind resource. See story, “Windy enough in Dust Bowl land.”
This is from Big Pivots, an e-magazine tracking the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Subscribe at http://bigpivots.com
The project would yield three new substations, expansion of four existing substations, including one previously planned but not yet in service.
Xcel has filed an application with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission for a certificate of public convenience and necessity. Local land-use approvals will also be required.
The release from Xcel made no mention of a major transmission bill introduced in the Colorado Legislature Sen. Chris Hansen and Rep. Alex Valdez, both Democrats from Denver.
SB21-72 seeks to enable Colorado to meet its clean energy goals by creating a new agency, the Colorado electric transmission authority, with the authority to issue revenues bonds and responsibility to identify and establish transmission corridors within Colorado and coordinate with other entities to establish transmission corridors that connected to out-of-state transmission. The bill would also allow additional classes of transmission utilities to obtain revenue through the colocation of broadband facilities within their existing rights-of-way.
It’s not clear how this bill, if made into law, will affect Xcel’s plans for transmission.
Navajo Generating Station was the largest coal-fired power plant in the American West, a testament to the political bargaining generations ago that divvied up the region’s land, minerals, and water. But the facility’s time is now up. In November 2019, the power plant stopped producing electricity. In December 2020, the trio of 775-foot smokestacks came tumbling down. Six weeks ago, the precipitators that prevented fine coal particles from being emitted into the air were dynamited, crumbling to the desert floor like felled beasts.
In the end, Navajo Generating Station will be little more than a memory. But it also leaves behind an unsettled legacy. Besides a few scattered buildings, a transmission line, and a rail line, what will remain after the facility is decommissioned is a water rights dispute.
The coal-fired power plant that sat on Navajo Nation land in the northeastern corner of Arizona did not just generate electricity. It also drew water from the Colorado River, an essential input for cooling the plant’s machinery.
What happens to that water now that the plant is being decommissioned? Who gets to decide how it is used? In a drying region in which every drop of water is accounted for and parceled out, the stakes are high and the legal claims are unresolved.
The three players are the Navajo Nation, state of Arizona, and the federal government. The ground rules are established in decades-old interstate compacts and more recent federal laws. On the horizon are unsettled water rights claims and new infrastructure. A pipeline to deliver water to the Navajo Nation in Arizona is under construction today — but due to legal complexities there is no certainty that water will immediately flow through the pipes once the system is completed.
As crews proceed with the demolition of Navajo Generating Station, water in northeastern Arizona amounts to a lingering question mark for a basin dealing with climate stress and inequality in water access for the Navajo people…
The Colorado River was part of the bargain, too. Its water, drawn from nearby Lake Powell, was needed to remove heat created during power generation. In a 1968 resolution, the Navajo Tribal Council approved the consumptive use of 34,100 acre-feet of water from the river for the facility, an agreement that was in place until the end.
Across the West, a generation of coal-fired power plants is reckoning with the same fate as Navajo Generating Station. State mandates combined with cheaper sources of electricity from sun, wind, and natural gas and expensive pollution controls are nudging the owners to retire coal-fired units.
There are benefits to this trend and not just for reducing heat-trapping gases, said Stacy Tellinghuisen of the Boulder, Colorado-based nonprofit group Western Resource Advocates. Closing these facilities brings the possibility of making water available for other industrial, municipal, agricultural, or environmental uses.
Few transfers of water rights from closed power plants have taken place because it is a complex and time-intensive process, Tellinghuisen told Circle of Blue. “Most plants have closed in the last five years,” she said. “The water rights process is slower than that.”
One place where a transfer has taken place is in Colorado. In 2013, Black Hills Energy closed the coal-fired W.N. Clark plant, located in Cañon City. In 2020, the company sold its water rights back to Cañon City Hydraulic and Irrigating Ditch Company for eventual use in irrigated agriculture…
In the case of Navajo Generating Station, water rights are where the accounting becomes tricky. The Colorado River is divided by legal compacts into upper and lower basins. The compacts allocate water between the seven states, while a treaty outlines obligations to Mexico. Most of Arizona is in the lower basin, along with California and Nevada. But not all of Arizona. A sliver of its northeastern corner is located in the upper basin. Nearly all of Arizona’s upper basin land is on the Navajo Nation.
The Upper Colorado River Compact of 1948, negotiated among the states and endorsed by Congress, provides Arizona’s upper basin with 50,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water.
The 1968 tribal council resolution states that the Navajo would not claim the water as long as Navajo Generating Station was operating. If the plant shut down, the resolution directs the Secretary of the Interior to return the water “to the Navajo Tribe for their exclusive use and benefit.”
Pollack, the water lawyer, said that the Navajo Nation’s position is that the 50,000 acre-feet in Arizona’s upper basin allocation “was intended for the benefit of the Navajo Nation.” The Nation also does not believe its water rights are circumscribed by the Upper Colorado River Compact.
How could the Navajo Nation access this water? Pollack presented two hypothetical scenarios. If the Nation, within reservation lands, wanted to dam and draw water from waterways or pump groundwater that is linked to streams, it could do so on its own, Pollack argued. Such a scenario is highly unlikely, he said, given the infrastructure that would be required to store and move water.
A more plausible scenario would be drawing water from Lake Powell, as did the power plant. That option would require a contract with the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the reservoir. Pollack said he believes Reclamation would then consult with the state of Arizona before approving any contract.
How does the state view its role? In response to written questions, the Arizona Department of Water Resources described what it believes is the process for allocating upper basin water.
“An entity wishing to use any of Arizona’s Upper Basin allocation would need to apply to ADWR for a permit to appropriate the water,” according to the statement. “The director of ADWR would make a decision on the application based on criteria in statute, including whether the entity would put the water to a beneficial use. Water from Arizona’s Upper Basin allocation could also be allocated to an Arizona Indian tribe pursuant to a Congressionally approved Indian water rights settlement.”
There are other opinions. Mike Pearce, a partner with the Phoenix law firm Gammage & Burnham, told Circle of Blue that from his perspective the water that was used by Navajo Generating Station “would revert back to the state of Arizona to be allocated under state law.”
The water in question is not a large amount in the big picture — Arizona’s lower basin, after all, is allocated 2.8 million acre-feet from the Colorado River. But in a region that is drying as the planet warms, every drop of water is important. In the face of these hydrological changes, veteran scholars of the basin have questioned the wisdom of allowing additional withdrawals from the river. Plus, there are equity concerns. An estimated 30 percent of Navajo Nation households do not have running water, which requires them to haul water to their homes, often by driving dozens of miles roundtrip…
Some upper basin water is already being put to use in Arizona. Subtracting Navajo Generating Station, the state’s upper basin use amounted to about 11,500 acre-feet in 2018, mostly for municipal purposes in Page and debits for reservoir evaporation.
What about the rest? For now, the unused portion of Arizona’s 50,000 acre-feet is what is known colloquially as “system water.” It stays in Lake Powell and helps the upper basin meet its water delivery obligation to the lower basin.
Though currently there is not much demand in Arizona’s upper basin, there is one potential use in the near term. An act of Congress in 2009 authorized the Navajo-Gallup water supply project, a system intended to deliver water to the eastern half of the Navajo Nation, as well as the Jicarilla Apache Nation and the town of Gallup, New Mexico.
The law sets aside 22,650 acre-feet for the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, and 6,411 acre-feet for the Navajo Nation in Arizona. The water for the Arizona section is supposed to be subtracted from Arizona’s upper basin allocation.
There is a catch, though. The law states that the water can only be delivered to the Navajo Nation in Arizona if the Nation settles its water rights claims to two other Arizona basins: the Little Colorado River and the lower basin of the Colorado. The Little Colorado River adjudication is ongoing in state court.
For Pollack, the addition of that clause is an insult. It ties water access for Navajo communities in the upper basin to negotiations about other water sources…
While the legal conflict simmers, the Bureau of Reclamation is continuing to build out the Navajo-Gallup supply system, a project that includes about 280 miles of pipeline in addition to two treatment plants and several pumping stations.
Patrick Page, area manager of Reclamation’s Four Corners Construction Office, wrote to Circle of Blue in an email that major components are now under construction: two pumping stations and a 30-mile section of mainline pipe.
Congress set a deadline of December 31, 2024 to complete the project. But Reclamation can extend that deadline with the agreement of the Navajo Nation and the state of New Mexico. Page said that an extension might be necessary depending on the design assessment of a key intake structure. The wait for water might grow longer.
Cap-and-trade proposed as market mechanism to slash carbon emissions. Air quality commission says not now.
Curtis Rueter works for Noble Energy, one of Colorado’s major oil and gas producers, and is a Republican. That makes him a political minority among the members of the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission, of which he is chairman.
In his voting, Rueter, who lives in Westminster, tends a bit more conservative than his fellow commission members from Boulder County. But on the issue of whether to move forward with a process that could have yielded carbon pricing in Colorado, he expressed some sympathy.
“I am generally in favor of market-based mechanisms, so it’s a little hard to walk away from that,” he said. at the commission’s meeting on Feb. 19. But like nearly all the others on the commission, Rueter said he was persuaded that there were just too many fundamental questions about cap-and-trade system for the AQCC to embrace at this time. Only Boulder County’s Jana Milford dissented in the 7-1 vote. Even Elise Jones, until recently a Boulder County commissioner, voted no.
Just as important as the final vote may have been the advance testimony. It broke down largely along environmental vs. business lines.
Western Resource Advocates, Boulder County, and Colorado Communities for a Climate Action testified in favor of the cap-and-trade proposal.
From the business side came opposition from Xcel Energy, The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and allied chambers from Grand Junction to Fort Collins to Aurora, and, in a 7-page letter, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.
Most businesses echoed what Gov. Jared Polis said in a letter: “While a carbon pricing program may be one of many tools that should be considered in the future as part of state efforts to achieve our goals, our assessment of state level cap and trade programs implemented in other jurisdictions is that they are costly to administer, exceptionally complicated, risk shifting more pollution to communities that already bear the brunt of poor environmental quality, have high risk for unintended consequences, and are not as effective at driving actual emissions reductions as more targeted, sector-specific efforts,” Polis wrote.
This is from Big Pivots, an e-magazine tracking the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Subscribe at http://bigpivots.com
The cap-and-trade proposal came from the Environmental Defense Fund. EDF has been saying for a year that Colorado has been moving too slowly to decarbonize following the 2019 passage of the landmark SB-1261. The law requires 50% decarbonization by 2030 and 90% by 2050.
What does a 50% reduction look like over the course of the next 9 years? Think in terms of ski slopes, and not the dark blue of intermediates or even the ego-boosting single-black-diamond runs at Vail or Snowmass. Not even the mogul-laden Outhouse at Winter Park or Senior’s at Telluride.
Instead, think of the serious steeps of Silverton Mountain, where an avalanche beacon is de rigueur.
Can Colorado, a novice at carbon reduction, navigate down this Silverton Mountain-type carbon reduction slope by 2030?
Colorado, says EDF and Western Resource Advocates, needs a backstop, a more sweeping mechanism to ensure the state hits these carbon reduction goals.
California has had cap-and-trade for years, and a similar device has been used among New England states to nudge reductions from the power sector. The European Union also has cap-and-trade.
Following the May 2019 signing of Colorado’s carbon-reduction law, H.B. 19-1261, the Polis administration set out to create an emissions inventory, then began structuring a sector-by-sector approach. For example, the Air Quality Control Commission has conducted lengthy rule-making processes leading up to adoption of regulations in several areas.
Hydrofluorocarbons, a potent greenhouse gas used in refrigeration, are being tamped down. Emissions from the oil-and gas-sector are being squeezed. The commission this year will direct its attention to proposed rules that result in fewer emissions from transportation.
Meanwhile, the state has set out to hurry along the state’s electrical utilities from their coal-based foundations to renewables and a small amount of new gas. The utilities representing 99% of the state’s electrical sales have agreed to reduce emissions 80% by 2030 as compared to 2005 levels. Only one of those commitments, that of Xcel Energy, has the force of law. Others fall under the heading of clean energy plans. But state officials think that utilities likely will decarbonize electricity even more rapidly than their current commitments. That 80% is a bottom, not a top.
Will Toor, director of the Colorado Energy Office, presented to the Air Quality Control Commission an update on the state’s roadmap. The document released in mid-January runs 276 pages, but Toor boiled it down to 19 slides, which nonetheless took him 60 minutes to explain. It was a rich explanation.
Toor explained that Colorado needs to reduce emissions by 70 million tons annually. The Polis administration thinks it can achieve close to half of the reductions it needs to meet its 2030 target by 2030 through the retirement of coal plants and associated coal mines. Those reductions alone will yield 32.3 million tons annually.
The oil and gas sector should yield a reduction of 13 million tons, according to the state’s roadmap. That process had taken a step forward the previous day when the Air Quality Control Commission adopted regulations that tighten the requirements to minimize emissions from pneumatic controllers. Later this year, the AQCC will take up more proposed regulations.
Replacement of internal-combustion technology in transportation will yield 13 million tons. The Polis administration foresees deep reductions in transportation, partly through an incentives-based approach, even if not it’s not clear what all the components of the strategy look like.
Near-term actions in buildings, both residential and commercial, and in industrial fuel use can yield another 5 million tons annual reduction.
Waste reduction—methane from coal mines, landfills, sewage treatment plants, and improved recycling—will nick another 7.5 million tons annually More speculative are the strategies designed to reduce emission from natural and working lands by 1 million tons.
Add it all up and the state still doesn’t know how it will get all of the way to the 2030 target, let alone its 2050 goal of 90% reduction. Toor and other state officials, however, have expressed confidence that the roadmap can get Colorado far down the road to the decarbonization destination and is skeptical that cap-and-trade will.
“I would agree with the characterization that cap-and-trade guarantees emissions reductions,” said Toor. In the real world, he explains, those regimes struggle to achieve reductions particularly in sectors such as transportation where there are many decisions. The more demonstrable achievement has been in producing revenue to be used for reduction strategies.
“I don’t know that the record supports that they guarantee a true pathway toward reductions of emissions.”
In contrast, the roadmap has identified “highly enforceable strategies” to achieve reduction of 58 to 59 million of the 70 million tons needed by 2030, he said.
Some actions depend upon new legislation, perhaps this year and in succeeding years.
In the building sector, for example, the Polis administration sees “very interesting opportunities” with a bill being introduced into the legislature this year that would give gas-distribution companies targets in carbon reduction while working with their customers. See, “Colorado’s legislative climate & energy landscape.”
“This isn’t something that we are going to solve through just this year’s legislative session and this and next year’s regulatory actions,” said Toor. He cited many potential pathways, including hydrogen, but also, beyond 2030, the potential for cost-effective carbon capture and sequestration.
Later in the day, Pam Kiely and Thomas Bloomfield made the Environmental Defense Fund’s case for cap and trade. They described a more significant gap between known actions and the targets, a greater uncertainty about hitting the targets that they argued would best be addressed by giving power and other economic sectors allocation of allowances, which can then best be moved around to achieve reductions in cost-effective ways.
One example of cap-and-trade actually involves Colorado. The project is at Somerset, where several funding sources were pooled to pay for harnessing of methane emissions from the Elk Creek Mine to produce electricity. The Aspen Skiing Co. paid a premium for the electricity, and Holy Cross Energy added financial incentives. But a portion of the money that has gone to the developer, Vessels Coal Gas Co., is money from California’s cap-and-trade market
Kiely said Colorado’s 2019 law directed the Air Quality Control Commission to consider the greatest and most cost-effective emissions reductions available through program design. That, she said, was explicit authority for creating a cap-and-trade program.
“We think it’s a relatively light (legal) lift,” said Bloomfield. “You have authority to charge for those emissions.”
Further, Kiely said, cap-and-trade will most effectively achieve reductions in emissions and will do so faster than the state’s current approach. It will deliver a consistent economic signal and be the most adaptable. “The program does not have to predict where the optimal reduction opportunities will be a year from now without information about the relative cost of pollution control technologies, turnover rates in vehicles and other key uncertainties,” she said.
Then the questions came in. Kiely rebutted Toor’s charge of ineffectiveness. The most telling criticism of the California program was that the price was too low, she said.
What defeated the proposal—at least for now—were questions about its legality. Colorado’s Tabor limits revenues, and commission members were mostly of the opinion that their authority revenue-raising authority needed to be explored in depth.
Garry Kaufman, director of the Air Pollution Control Division, said that doing the work to rev up for a cap-and-trade program would require a “massive increase in the division’s staff,” north of 40 to 50 new employees, and the division does not have state funding.
He and others also contended that pursuing cap-and-trade would siphon work from the existing roadmap.
Then there was the sentiment that for a program of this size, the commission really did need direct legislative authority.
Commissioner Martha Rudolph said that in her prior position as director of environmental programs at the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, she had favored cap-and-trade. Not now, because of the legal, resource, and timing issues.
Elise Jones, the former Boulder County commissioner, voted no, but not without stressing the need to keep the conversation going, which is what will happen in a subcommittee meeting within the next few years.
“This is not now, not never,” said Rueter of the vote. This is conversation that will come up again, maybe at the federal level or maybe in Colorado a few years down the road.”
New climate pledges submitted to the United Nations would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by less than 1 percent, the world body announced.
The global scientific consensus is clear: Emissions of planet-warming gases must be cut by nearly half by 2030 if the world is to have a good shot at averting the worst climate catastrophes.
The global political response has been underwhelming so far.
New climate targets submitted by countries to the United Nations would reduce emissions by less than 1 percent, according to the latest tally, made public Friday by the world body.
The head of the United Nations climate agency, Patricia Espinosa, said the figures compiled by her office showed that “current levels of climate ambition are very far from putting us on a pathway that will meet our Paris Agreement goals.”
The figures offer a reality check on the many promises coming from world capitals and company boardrooms that leaders are taking climate change seriously…
Some of the biggest emitter countries — including Australia, Brazil and Russia — submitted new plans for 2030 without increasing their ambitions. Mexico lowered its climate targets, which the Natural Resources Defense Council described as a signal that “Mexico is effectively retreating from its previous leadership on climate and clean energy.”
In contrast, 36 countries — among them Britain, Chile, Kenya, Nepal and the 27 countries of the European Union — raised their climate targets.
The Paris Agreement is designed in such a way that the United Nations can neither dictate nor enforce any country’s climate targets, or what are called nationally determined contributions. Each country is expected to set its own, make regular reports to the world on its progress and set new targets every five years. Diplomatic peer pressure is meant to persuade each country to be more ambitious.
The end goal is to limit global temperature increase to within 1.5 degrees Celsius of 1990 levels. Any warming beyond that, scientists have said in exhaustive studies, would risk widening wildfires and droughts, growing food and water insecurity, and the inundation of coastal cities and small islands.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Charles Ashby):
The leading Republican in the Colorado House says it’s about time that pumped hydroelectric power plants are considered recycled energy that counts under the state’s renewable energy standard.
One of the reasons why it isn’t already counted as a renewable energy is because, unlike conventional hydroelectric power plants, pumped hydro requires additional power to move water uphill to an upper reservoir so that it can flow downhill to a lower reservoir through a turbine to generate electricity.
House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, R-Loveland, told the House Energy & Environment Committee on Wednesday the technology now exists to do that either with traditional renewable energy or at least to make it all work carbon neutral…
McKean said that most pumped hydroelectric plants don’t generate nearly as much electricity as those fossil fuel plants, but they often are used to help keep power costs to consumers down during peak usage times.
The beauty of them is they can augment power during peak times when costs are higher, thus reducing those costs, and use less expensive electricity to pump the water back uphill during non-peak times, such as late at night, he said…
McKean also said the pumped hydroelectric plants don’t require a lot of energy to pump that water uphill, adding that it can be done in a number of ways, including through stored power from solar, wind or rechargeable batteries.
The measure, HB21-1052, which the committee discussed but hasn’t yet voted on, has support from several rural electric associations, the Colorado Farm Bureau and some environmental groups, such as Trout Unlimited, but only if the bill is amended to ensure guardrails are in place to protect aquatic life from being harmed, something McKean said he plans to do…
Currently, there are only five hydroelectric pump storage stations operating in the state, all of which are located on the Front Range or Eastern Plains, according to a database maintained by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
That agency also lists 64 conventional hydroelectric plants operating in Colorado, including many on the Western Slope.
A Colorado expert on climate science will lead a virtual presentation Tuesday evening to discuss the science behind, impacts of, and solutions to address climate change.
Scott Denning, a professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University who has authored more than 100 papers on the subject, will deliver remarks over Zoom as the keynote speaker for a virtual event celebrating the third anniversary of the Renewable Energy Owners Coalition of America.
REOCA, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, formed in Pueblo in February 2018. Its mission is to “protect and promote distributed renewable energy resources for the economy, the environment and a sustainable future,” according to its website.
Denning’s Tuesday presentation will look at what he calls the, “Three S’s of climate change: simple, serious and solvable.”
“Simple is, ‘How does it work?’ Serious is, ‘Why is it bad?’ And solvable is, ‘What are you going to do about it?’” Denning said.
Although there are complex factors that contribute to an increasingly hotter climate, Denning said the phenomenon itself is simple.
“When you add heat to things, they change their temperature,” Denning said.
“This is pretty fundamental … You put a pot of water on the stove, you put heat into the bottom of the pot of water and lo and behold, it warms up. The Earth works exactly that same way. If more sun comes into the earth than heat radiation going out, then it warms up.”
Carbon dioxide (CO2) slows down outgoing heat from the earth. So the more CO2 there is on Earth, Denning said, the warmer it gets. And this poses a serious problem.
“Unless we stop burning coal, oil and gas, we’ll warm up the world 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the time our children today are old,” Denning said.
“And 10 degrees Fahrenheit is a lot. That’s like the difference between Denver and Rocky Mountain National Park, or the difference between Pueblo and somewhere down in southern New Mexico — it’s the kind of difference that you would absolutely notice.”
Denning said in the future, temperatures at the tops of mountains might be similar to current temperatures on the Colorado plains, which has drastic implications for farmers and ranchers.
In Colorado, some of the most serious impacts will affect the state’s water supply.
“Depending on where you are in the world, there are different kinds of climate problems. Our problem here is that we don’t have water to spare,” Denning said.
“In the Mountain West, we support our entire culture here on mountain runoff — on the snowmelt that comes down out of the mountains every spring and fills our reservoirs, and that’s where our cities get water and where our farmers get water,” Denning said.
“If we swap out the climate of Albuquerque or El Paso (Texas) for the climate of Pueblo, what’s the biggest thing people in Pueblo would notice? Well, besides the fact that it would be hot, you wouldn’t have enough water.”
Denning said the problem is not so much about water supply, but rather demand.
“When it’s hot in the summer, our lawns need more water, our crops need more water, our livestock need more water, our forests need more water,” Denning said.
“And this is a permanent change. If we turn up the thermostat to El Paso levels … people will have to live differently, very differently, than they do today in Colorado.”
But the positive news, and the third topic of Denning’s discussion, is that climate change is solvable.
“The solution is to stop setting carbon on fire,” Denning said.
“That means learning to live well with less energy and learning to make energy that doesn’t involve setting stuff on fire.
“That means (more energy efficient) houses and lights and cars and all that stuff, it also means using solar, wind, nuclear, hydro, whatever other kinds of energy that don’t involve burning things.”
Denning said people in 2021 are “very lucky” because sustainable sources of energy are “actually cheaper than the old-fashioned” energy sources.
“It’s hard to switch off fossil fuels, like it was hard to switch off of land lines. It’s hard to switch to clean energy, like it was hard to build the internet,” Denning said.
“It’ll cost us money. But just like mobile phones and the internet, switching our energy system will create jobs and prosperity for the next generation.
“This is basically just what we’ve been doing as a civilization since the end of the middle ages. We swap out old ways of doing things with new ways of doing things, and that’s why we have jobs.”
“So our kids’ generation will have jobs rolling out new infrastructure for generating energy that doesn’t cook the world.”
Farmington, a city of 45,000 in the northwestern corner of New Mexico, has run on a fossil fuel economy for a century. It is one of the only places on the planet where a 26-kiloton nuclear device was detonated underground to free up natural gas from the rock.
The city’s baseball team was called the Frackers, and a home run hit out of their practice park was likely to land next to a pack of gas wells. The community’s economy and identity are so tied up with fossil fuels that the place should probably try a new name like Carbonton, Methanedale or Drillsville.
Over the last decade, however, the oil and gas rollercoaster here has shuddered nearly to a halt, and one of two giant coal-fired power plants is about to shut down. The carbon corporations that have been exploiting the local labor and landscape for decades are fleeing, taking thousands of jobs with them. Left behind are gaping coal-mine wounds, rotting infrastructure and well-pad scars oozing methane.
The pattern of abandonment is mirrored in communities from Wyoming to Utah to Western Colorado to the Navajo Nation. Community leaders scramble to find solutions. Some cling to what they know, throwing their weight behind schemes to keep coal viable, such as carbon capture, while others bank on outdoor recreation, tourism and cottage industries.
Yet one solution to the woes rarely comes up in these conversations: Restoration as economic development.
Why not put unemployed miners and drillers back to work reclaiming closed coal mines and plugging up idled or low-producing oil and gas wells?
The EPA estimates that there are some 2 million unplugged abandoned wells nationwide, many of them leaking methane, the greenhouse gas with 86 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide, along with health-harming volatile organic compounds and even deadly hydrogen sulfide.
Hundreds of thousands of additional wells are still active, yet have been idled or are marginal producers, and they will also need plugging and reclaiming.
Oilfield service companies and their employees have the skills and equipment needed and could go back to work immediately. A 2020 report from the Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy found that a nationwide well-plugging program could employ more than 100,000 high-wage workers.
Massive coal mines are also shutting down and will need to be reclaimed. Northern Arizona’s Kayenta Mine, owned by coal-giant Peabody, shut down in late 2019, along with the Navajo Generating Station, resulting in the loss of nearly 300 jobs. The Western Organization of Resource Councils estimated that proper reclamation of the mine could keep most of those miners employed for an additional two to three years.
Peabody, however, still has not begun to meet its reclamation obligations. This is a failure not only on Peabody’s part but also of the federal mining regulators who should be holding the company’s feet to the fire.
Who will pay for all of this? Mining and drilling companies are required to put up financial bonds in order to get development permits, and they’re forfeited if the companies fail to properly reclaim the well or mine. Unfortunately, these bonds are almost always inadequate.
A Government Accountability Office report found that the Bureau of Land Management held about $2,000 in bonds, on average, for each well on federal land. Yet the cost to plug and reclaim each well ranges from $20,000 to $145,000. An example: In New Mexico, a company can put up as little as $2,500 per well that costs at least $35,000 to plug.
Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet tried to remedy this last year by crafting a bill that would increase bonds and create a fund for plugging abandoned wells. Republicans kept the bill from progressing, but with an administration that touted reclamation of mines and abandoned wells in a climate-related executive order, and a new Senate in place, the bill stands a good chance of going forward.
Economic development focusing on restoring the land once miners leave is a natural fit for beleaguered towns suffering the latest bust. Plus, by patching up the torn landscape these communities will help clear the path for other types of economic development, such as tourism or recreation.
“Restoration work is not fixing beautiful machinery … It is accepting an abandoned responsibility,” wrote Barry Lopez, the renowned nature writer who died recently. “It is a humble and often joyful mending of biological ties, with a hope clearly recognized that working from this foundation we might, too, begin to mend human society.”
The San Juan structural basin is primarily in New Mexico and the southeast corner of the Colorado Plateau. By US Geological Survey – Assessment of Undiscovered Oil and Gas Resources of the San Juan Basin Province of New Mexico and Colorado, 2002, USGS Fact Sheet FS-147-02, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5749904
San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.
Navajo Generating Station and the cloud of smog with which it blankets the region. Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson via The High Country News
Navajo Generating Station. Photo credit: Wolfgang Moroder.
Navajo Nation. Image via Cronkite News.
The Navajo Dam on the San Juan River.Photo credit Mike Robinson via the University of Washington.
Fly fishers on the San Juan River below the Navajo Dam.U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
Biden/Harris supporter Cindy Honani stands outside the Navajo Nation Council Chamber while holding a sign above her head to protect herself from the snow in Window Rock in late October. Sharon Chischilly/Navajo Times via The High Country News
The once-in-a-lifetime winter storm that clobbered the electrical grid in Texas and left at least 10 people dead has sparked a political donnybrook pitting clean energy advocates against conservative supporters of the oil and gas industry.
The controversy erupted after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said the rolling power outages that affected millions of residents enduring bitter cold underscores the continued need for fossil fuels…
Wind turbines did freeze in Texas, but the unprecedented deep freeze also led to the failure of natural gas plants, associated infrastructure such as pipelines, as well as nuclear power units.
Abbott’s criticism of clean energy comes even as the workhorse for the energy grid in Texas remains fossil fuels.
His statement led to a scathing rebuke from the American Clean Power Association.
“It is disgraceful to see the longtime antagonists of clean power — who attack it whether it is raining, snowing or the sun is shining — engaging in a politically opportunistic charade misleading Americans to promote an agenda that has nothing to do with restoring power to Texas communities,” said Heather Zichal, the association’s chief executive officer.
“Texas is a warm weather state experiencing once-in-a-generation cold weather. Most of the power that went offline was gas, coal or oil. It is an extreme weather problem, not a clean power problem.”
Could widespread grid failure happen in Utah?
It’s much more unlikely that a widespread grid failure could happen in Utah, according to Rocky Mountain Power’s Dave Eskelsen, because Utah’s grid structure is so different than that of Texas.
Rocky Mountain Power’s parent company is PacifiCorp, which is the largest grid owner and operator in the West, serving six states, including Utah.
Because of that, Utah enjoys the benefit of being part of a large, diverse grid in which there are multiple power purchase contracts in place should generation in one state fail.
In addition, PacifiCorp is a member of the Western Electricity Coordinating Council, which exists to ensure a reliable grid for 14 Western states, two Canadian provinces and a portion of northern Mexico…
While those interconnection relationships were initially forged to provide grid reliability, Eskelsen said the relationship among the various states emerged into one of a wholesale energy market in which long-term and short-term contracts provide electricity needs among the players.
Eskelsen said there are also plenty of “day ahead” contracts that exist to counter an unforeseen weather event that could affect individual generation…
Another contingency in the utility’s energy portfolio is that any of the wind turbines, say those in Wyoming, come with a cold weather package.
“Because a lot of those turbines in Wyoming are at a higher elevation where cold weather is common, they come with a cold weather package that offers heating capabilities to keep the machinery turning the turbines such as lubricating oil that is heated,” he said.
Should another electricity provider become compromised such as a natural gas plant or coal-fired power plant — Utah’s dominant conveyer of electricity — the state would generally have 800 megawatts of wind power available and Rocky Mountain Power is also a common recipient of excess solar power generated in California.
Another difference between Utah and Texas is that Rocky Mountain Power is part of a vertically integrated system in which the generation, the transmission and the distribution of electricity is all under one operating umbrella. In Texas, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas controls the flow of power, while there are independent power providers.
A power crisis in Texas caused by severe winter weather exposed the need for a climate-resilient system.
The rolling blackouts in Texas were national news. Texas calls itself the energy capital of the United States, yet it couldn’t keep the lights on. Conservatives were quick to blame reliance on wind power, just as they did last summer when California faced power interruptions due to a heat wave. What really happened?
It’s true that there was some loss of wind power in Texas due to icing on turbine blades. Unlike their counterparts further north, Texas wind operators weren’t prepared for severe weather conditions. But this was a relatively minor part of the problem.
The much bigger problem was loss of power from gas-fired power plants and a nuclear plant. The drop of gas generation has been attributed to freezing pipelines, diversion of gas for residential heating and equipment malfunctioning.
Texas faced a wave of very unusual cold weather, just as California faced an unusual heatwave last summer. What’s notable, however, is that in other ways the two systems are quite different. Texas has perhaps the most thoroughly deregulated electricity system in the country.
California experimented with its own deregulation, abandoned much of the effort after a crisis, and now has a kind of hybrid system. California and Texas are in opposing camps on climate policy. Yet both states got into similar trouble.
What happened in these states points to three pervasive problems.
The first is that we haven’t solved the problem of ensuring that the electricity system has the right amount of generating capacity. In states with traditional rate regulation, utilities have an incentive to overbuild capacity because they’re guaranteed a profit on their investments. Since there’s no competition, they have no incentive to innovate either. Iinstead, they have an incentive to keep old power plants going too long, contributing to air pollution and carbon emissions.
In other states, where utilities generally buy their power on the market, the income from power sales is based on short-term power needs and doesn’t necessarily provide enough incentive for long-term investments. That could be part of the problem in both California and Texas.
Some regional grid operators have established what are called capacity markets. At least judging from its record in the largest region (PJM), this has resulted in excess capacity and has encouraged inefficient aging generators to stay in the market. In short, we’ve got too little generation or too much, but we haven’t found the Goldilocks point of “just right.”
The second problem is that we haven’t made the power system resilient enough.
The heatwave that interfered with the California grid has been linked to climate change. It’s not clear whether the exceptionally cold weather in Texas was also linked to climate change, although climate change does seem to be disrupting the polar vortex that can contribute to severe winter conditions.
In Texas, the weather didn’t just impact the electrical system: the natural gas system suffered from frozen pipes, reducing gas supply to power generators.
Climate change is throwing more and more severe weather events at energy systems from Puerto Rico to California, yet our planning has not come to grips with the need to adapt to these risks. Microgrids, increased energy storage and improved demand response may furnish part of the answer.
The third problem relates to the transmission system.
Among the causes of the California blackouts, a key transmission line to the Pacific Northwest was down for weather-related reasons. This is another example of the broad failure to make the grid resilient enough for an era of climate change. Texas has deliberately shackled itself by cutting the state off from the national power grid in order to avoid federal regulation.
This leaves it unable to draw on outside resources in times of crisis. This is all part of a much larger problem: The United States badly needs additional transmission, but political barriers have stymied expansion of the transmission system.
The term “wake up call” is over used but seems applicable here. If we don’t wake up to the need for a climate-resilient power system, we will face even bigger trouble ahead.
We see families huddling for warmth and light in Texas and wonder if the same thing can happen here. It can. And it does.
Think of every major wildfire that threatens utilities and water. Think the 2003 St. Patrick’s Day blizzard that paralyzed much of the Front Range for days. Think the 2013 northern Colorado floods.
Even more recently than that — think Sunday in Larimer County. The Platte River Power Authority sent a note to customers on that frigid day, when wind chills were forecast up to minus 20 Fahrenheit, saying its overall power supply was challenged. Customers, the utility said, should pull back their thermostats and conserve power in order to lighten the load on the grid.
Colorado GOP House Minority Leader Hugh McKean even put it in his speech to the opening of the state legislature this week, blaming the problems of his northern Colorado constituents on renewables: “All of the lofty goals of having 100% renewable energy were not sufficient to both provide the electricity we all demand as well as the heat for our homes. We should never have to make those choices, especially on the coldest day in recent history. The 21st century should not hallmark a return to the candles and wood stoves of the 19th.”
Like many things, only more so, the power grid is not that simple.
Yes, Colorado’s growing share of renewable utility energy is vulnerable to the weather. So is the “old” grid based on fossil fuels. Platte River Power did suffer a partial loss of available power Sunday. (Colorado’s utility grid drew about 25% from renewable sources in 2019, and that percentage rises every month as coal plants shut down and wind and solar farms come online.)
The Wyoming wind turbines Platte River Power buys power from iced up. Ice on the blades makes them wobble and can ruin expensive technology for the long term. So the wind farm couldn’t produce. The large solar array it takes electrical power from was covered in snow, and didn’t produce.
But the far bigger problem was that Xcel Energy, which supplies the natural gas that Platte River Power uses to fire up its backup generating plant, said it couldn’t supply enough fuel on Sunday. Other customers needed the gas for home heating. Xcel has the right to tell Platte River that.
So Platte River, which sells power wholesale to Estes Park, Fort Collins, Longmont and Loveland, sent messages to customers asking them to conserve all energy use for the day. They did. Platte River had forecast high demand that day of more than 500 megawatts, and customers cut back by about 10 megawatts, enough to avoid any strain on the system.
By Sunday afternoon, Xcel and Platte River were telling customers that normal use was fine. Also the wind farm thawed out and started sending power again. “For all intents and purposes, we were back to normal,” explained Steve Roalstad, Platte River Power’s fairly beleaguered spokesman.
Utility companies and environmental advocates know there is a reality and perception problem for renewables, and so they are working to build short-term storage at renewable sites. Current battery arrays can store significant electrical energy for four to eight hours of peak demand, or to fill in for interrupted supply. Storage technology gets better over time, and will improve. Long-term storage, at higher capacity, is possible by using off-peak power to produce hydrogen, which can be stored in massive quantities, and then drawing down the hydrogen at peaks to generate electricity.
In Texas, the problem includes politics
Fossil fuels have their weather problems, too. In Texas and elsewhere, natural gas delivery has frozen up, interrupting power for both homeowners using gas directly and power plants burning natural gas to generate electricity. Coal piles freeze up. Power lines fail under downed trees or other old-technology problems.
Texas also has issues because it has isolated itself from a regional grid that can easily and cheaply supply backup power if prior agreements are in place and a strong transmission spine is in place. Western Resource Advocates energy analyst Vijay Satyal said that years ago, Texas turned itself into an “island,” cutting itself off from most of the backup grid other states connect to. Texas leaders thought they could deliver power more cheaply if they weren’t asking customers to pay for extra regulation in other states, and they doubled down on the Lone Star mentality.
“The Texas spirit in 2002 was, we don’t want extra regulation,” Satyal said. They turned themselves into Hawaii, he added. Moreover, despite multiple recent incidents of extreme cold weather, hurricanes and more in recent years, Texas regulators have never demanded their own utilities do the kinds of grid reinforcement or maintenance that help when the next storm hits…
Colorado utilities have better connections to a backup grid in Western power consortiums. Colorado and most Western regulators also allow their utilities to ask customers to pay for more maintenance and readiness costs. Satyal and Platte River Power did say there is room for more Colorado utilities to join even more reliable emergency power consortiums that won’t gouge prices for last-minute supplies, and Platte River is doing exactly that.
It’s the nature of human-power needs that demand often peaks when supply is most threatened. In the summer at 5 p.m., people get home from work and want air conditioning all at the same time, while a thunderstorm is rolling through, clouding up solar panels and downing transmission lines. Utility companies and their regulators are supposed to plan for these contingencies, while acknowledging that planning perfectly for a 100-year storm is impossible.
Sunday’s “crisis” in northern Colorado never put supply and demand too far out of balance, Roalstad said…
Many critics of climate change control efforts continue to echo McKean’s jabs at renewable sources. Are we doomed to huddle around makeshift fires if we keep replacing reliable coal with more fickle wind and sun?
Satyal, whose organization advocates for alternative energy, said it’s true that coal and natural gas are usually extremely reliable sources that come on almost instantly, day or night. But utilities are adding battery storage with every new farm, and retrofitting older ones, while technology improvement is constantly stretching the amount of energy stored and the length of time it can last.
Even the western utilities that do plan for winter storms can do better, Satyal said, including by making sure wind turbines are outfitted with coated blades and gear warming units, and with meticulous planning of maximum loads and potential backup sources.
The city of Tucson planned for the last solar eclipse, which temporarily erased power generated by solar panels, by making sure battery backups stored pre-eclipse electricity. Many politicians just don’t know how much has changed in power generation, Satyal said.
Carrots or sticks—or, more likely, what mixture? That will be among the questions as Colorado legislators sort through several dozen bills during the next few months that seek to build on the state’s ground-breaking energy and climate laws from 2019.
Foremost among the 13 energy and climate laws of that session was H.B.19-1261, the Climate Action Plan to Reduce Pollution. The law specified economy-wide carbon reduction targets of 26% by 2025 and 50% by 2030, with even deeper mid-century reduction.
The 2019 session provided only a partially defined pathway to reduction. The legislative session that begins today after a month-long semi-hiatus looks to be a big, big year for expanding the tool kit and defining more explicitly the decarbonization path. Some describe it as the session that will be known for beneficial electrification.
“We have obviously done a lot as a state when it comes to climate and energy issues in just the last two years,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg at a forum last week sponsored by Empowering Our Future. “But we all know it’s nowhere near what we need to be doing.”
Fenberg urged the 200 energy-change advocates on the video-conferenced town hall to use the accomplishments as inspiration even though, later in the evening, he cautioned against expecting a ban on new natural gas hookups in the built environment.
This is from Big Pivots, an e-magazine tracking the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Subscribe at http:bigpivots.com
One giant gain in the last two years has been the rash of announced closings of coal plants. If market forces were already aligned behind those closings, some believe Colorado’s action in 2019 hastened at least some of those announcements. The result of closing coal plants will be a dramatically decarbonized electrical supply by the end of the decade that can then be used to decarbonize other sectors, most notably transportation and the built environment.
Legislators, of course, are facing pressures from several sides. Major utilities generally want to go slower, to maintain traditional models of profit, worried about too much disruption.
Environmental advocates want to go faster and have a strong appetite for massive change. “I think it’s alarming to think that we didn’t get to 26% (carbon reduction, as targeted by the law two years ago) even at the height of the stay-at-home orders,” says Jan Rose, an advocate aligned with several organizations.
Memories of wildfires, even in the coldest, sub-zero days of winter, will provide a backdrop for the session. The smoke was awful but also deadly. In Larimer County, heart attacks and other emergencies spiked during the season of smoke, which there began in mid-August with the outbreak of the Cameron Peak Fire and never completely ended until after the first snows of November.
“I think this last summer was a real wakeup call for a lot of people—and a lot of lawmakers—about what is at stake here and what it will take for us to solve this problem. I have never experienced anything like the physical and emotional turmoil we saw related to our failure so far to get our climate emissions under control,” she says.
“I think there’s a real sense of urgency. We passed some incredible pieces of legislation in 2019, and we made some progress, but we haven’t made nearly enough.”
Mike Kruger, chief executive of Colorado Solar and Storage Association, also points to this heightened sense of urgency. The goal of 50% decarbonization is less than 9 years away. That goal was premised on the best science available about the reductions that will be needed.
“We can’t just bargain our way to a couple of extra years,” says Kruger. “We need to address things now.”
State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, a Democrat from Arvada, warns against moving forward in ways that fail to have a sustainable foundation. She describes broad coalitions that define common ground. “That is what is going to make your policies have staying power. That is what will make them work,” says Zenzinger, a self-described moderate who nonetheless has notched a 100% voting record rating from Conservation Colorado during the last four years.
Big Pivots has identified several dozen proposals likely to be introduced by legislators this week and in coming weeks. Some will be reintroductions of bills that were shelved last year because of the covid-induced shortened session, or even bills introduced repeatedly, if in variant fashion. Others will be entirely new.
The two biggest energy and climate bills will center around transportation and building emissions.
“This legislation session will be very focused on progress in both the built environment and transportation to ensure that we are extending the benefit of the (greening) of electricity and start making progress in other sectors that are lagging behind the power sector,” says Zach Pierce, the special climate and energy advisor to Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.
Transportation has replaced electrical generation as the No. 1 source of greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado. In his first executive order as governor in 2019 Polis specified a goal of having 940,000 electric vehicles on roads by 2030. Legislation in 2019 provided tools to advance that. But Colorado needs to hurry harder on transportation decarbonization.
Sen. Faith Winter, a Democrat from Westminster, has not revealed details of the big bill that she is said to have been working on. The transportation bill needs to cover a lot of ground. Colorado’s funding for transportation has fallen short for many years as voters have resisted raising the gas tax (or, if you prefer, the “fee” on gasoline). Now, with electric cars starting to rapidly enter the automotive fleet, there’s a further complication about how to make them pay their way.
As Sen. Winter was unable to make a scheduled interview for this story last Friday, my details on this bill are sketchy and second- or third-hand.
There is no doubt that Colorado’s funding for transportation needs an overhaul. And transportation must change if Colorado is to meet its decarbonization goals built on the foundation of climate science.
What I hear is that this bill will try to address the need for revenue from both electric vehicles, or EVs, and internal-combustion engines, or ICEs. How it will do so is unclear. One way may be through increased registration fees. Another thought is to add a fee for electricity used for charging EVs. Still another idea is to apply a road use fee, not a fuel fee. I’m unsure of the mechanics of that, although it’s been talked about for about 30 years.
“We want a tool that keeps up with the times,” says Ariana Gonzalez, Colorado policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
NRDC wants to see legislation that looks at transportation more holistically, she says, “not penalizing people who travel a lot but providing them more options, whether it’s more fuel-efficient vehicles or more mass transit.”
What does this mean specifically? Well, the Gonzalez interview was conducted in the first week of February, and details were sparse. Others interviewed for this story were similarly short on details except to point out that anti-tax (or fee) opponents still have powerful influence in Colorado. And Polis, in a public interview, conspicuously refrained from talking about either taxes or fees.
A carbon-reduction component, however, has to be a central piece of what Winter proposes. Transportation funding identified in the bill must align with the emissions reductions the governor’s roadmap has identified, says Katie Belgard, of Conservation Colorado.
Land use may be part of the discussion, as dispersed settlement tends to result in more transportation. It was discussed in the state’s decarbonization roadmap release in mid-January.
State Sen. Chris Hansen, a Democrat from Denver, says the transportation bill must deliver “broad-based solutions where each part of the transportation user groups all need to be involved in the solutions.” That package must involve trucks and heavy-duty vehicles, he added.
The Air Quality Control Commission is scheduled to take up transportation this summer as part of its rule-making to achieve decarbonization goals. You can be assured this legislative session will almost certainly produce a big pivot in transportation.
Building emissions will be the focus of a second big bill. Buildings rank fourth in Colorado in responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions. They pose an enormous challenge because the turnover rate is so terribly slow. Most of Colorado’s coal-burning plants were constructed from the late ‘60s to the early ‘80s. Now, they’re rapidly being retired. But you can drive from Pueblo to Brush to Craig in a day and see them all. In contrast, Colorado has perhaps a million buildings, give or take, each with its own small power plant, mostly natural gas furnaces for space heating, gas-powered hot water heaters, and gas stoves.
How to tamp down the combustion of natural gas? The intuitive answer might be to stop building tens of thousands more houses each year that require natural gas. That doesn’t seem to be the direction Colorado is headed, at least not soon.
Polis favors incentives, not mandates, and that was also the language of Fenberg at the Empowering our Future session. He would not, he said, be calling for a ban on natural gas.
“For a few reasons,” he went on to explain. “One, I am not sure the bill would pass, and if it is really about transitioning people’s homes to electricity I want a bill that passes. He also suggested that focusing solely on future buildings without considering how to retrofit existing buildings was misguided. Too, a lot of people like to cook with natural gas, even if they don’t care particularly how their homes are heated.”
It is, he added, an item for “further policy discussion. The goal now is to get as many dollars into homes for heat pumps and other decarbonization techniques.”
In other words, incentives, not mandates.
For example, the Polis budget includes $40 million for clean-energy financial programs, including $30 million for green banking, and another $10 million for various other programs.
Even so, there could be a soft mandate. One approach that was being talked about in recent weeks was a performance-based standard for natural gas utilities, a required reduction in emissions from the natural gas sold to consumers by Colorado’s four natural gas utilities, Xcel Energy, Black Hills Energy, Atmos Energy, and Colorado Natural Gas. But then let the utilities figure out how to achieve this.
Also part of the discussion are required energy efficiency upgrades, or demand-side management. Talk of a carbon tax on methane, similar to the PUC’s social cost of carbon, may have been walked back. I hear that from a good source, but I don’t know that for sure. This has been a fluid environment even in the last two weeks. “Lots of stake-holding going on,” a legislator said at a recent meeting.
There will be themes, though. One is about equity. Legislators in 2019 made it clear that equity needed to be part of the conversations as they applied pressure to create this big pivot in Colorado’s energy foundation. Those of lower incomes, which tend to be racial minorities, need to benefit from this transition. This will be part of the conversation in regard to transportation and other bills, too.
Energy Outreach Colorado has been monitoring the conversation about proposed bills with an interest in how well they affect energy affordability, reliability, and accessibility. “There is a lot of transition happening in the energy space, which is exciting, but that speed of transition can often leave people behind when they are not considered upfront,” says Jennifer Gremmert, executive director .
“I think the aggressive goals the state has will require a lot of shifts in generation, transportation and buildings,” she says. “I think there are a lot of very smart people pulling together good solutions, and we’re looking forward to the process of debate and consideration.”
Another element running through many of the energy and climate bills will be the role of evolving technologies. There’s much talk about hydrogen, for example, but also battery storage. What mix of carrots and sticks will be needed to help induce technological innovation and adoption while remaining agnostic about what the solutions look like?
Even in the shaping of bills, the enormous clout of Colorado’s major utilities and oil-and-gas interests can be detected. Xcel Energy, for example, urged a far slower approach to building electrification, even if it will theoretically benefit by selling more electricity to replace lost gas sales. It cites various concerns, including whether the transmission can be created to deliver the renewables sufficiently fast as needed to supply both electrified transportation and electrified homes.
On Thursday, Feb. 18, Xcel plans to disclose its electric resource plans in advance of its scheduled March 31 filing with the PUC. That could conceivably have a bearing on the legislation.
Geographical schisms also are evident. Boulder and Weld counties share a border but preciously little else on political talking points. As both Boulder and Boulder County seek to replace natural gas in big and remodeled homes, a bill is said to be coming from a Weld County legislator that would ban any bans on natural gas.
Some of those involved in helping shape legislation say they have been advised to trim their proposals, because of time limitations imposed by covid. Hansen, who is part of the legislative leadership team, disagrees. “I don’t think this session will be shortened very much in a functional way,” says Hansen. “All the legislative days we need will be available. This is going to be a very busy and important session. Big legislation typically passes in odd-numbered years, because it’s often harder to get the big pieces done in an election year.”
Fenberg sees opportunity amid the many crises. “In many ways I think the crises in front of us are a massive opportunity to rethink and imagine what we want our society to look like.”
This story attempts to be semi-comprehensive, but it has gaps of which I’m aware and likely important gaps of which I’m unaware. The conversation is fluid, so some information is likely dated. It’s a view from 15,000 or 20,000 feet, with a few clouds obscuring visibility here and there. I hope to follow the legislative session closely, as it is part of Colorado’s Big Pivot.
Wildfire is top of mind
It’s a given that the state will have to step up its response to the prospect of wildfire. The three largest wildfires in Colorado history occurred in 2020.
The East Troublesome Fire wasn’t the largest — that distinction belongs to the Cameron Peak Fire west of Fort Collins—but it was the scariest, racing from north of Hot Sulphur Springs to cover more than 100,000 acres within 24 hours, leaping across the Continental Divide and forcing the evacuation of Estes Park.
That’s a California-sized fire – and more California-type fires are almost certainly headed to Colorado given the rising temperatures and the increasing propensity toward drought, both manifestations of climate change.
“We are absolutely going to focus on wildfire mitigation,” said Senate Majority Steve Fenberg, a Democrat from Boulder, at the February forum sponsored by Empowering Our Future.
Some of this mitigation will involve funding, such as for equipment, and I didn’t dig up anything here. I did hear about two bills that relate to wildfire.
Ellen Roberts, a Republican from Durango, was a state representative in 2008 who was among that original bill’s sponsors. Now out of the Legislature, she has been engaged in a project, the Southwest Wildfire Impact Fund, which seeks to use that legislation to remove vegetation from forested landscapes.
“Dense, unhealthy forests. Increasing drought. Dead trees from insect infestations. All these factors combine to increase the public safety threat of catastrophic wildfire in populated areas of Southwest Colorado, like Durango and La Plata County,” the website says. “There are ways to remove or reduce the dangerous tinderbox of these fuels through forest health treatments and reduce catastrophic wildfire risk, but the region lacks a sufficiently funded, long-term, and coordinated approach to forest restoration on all lands, private or publicly owned.”
After two years of trying, the project Roberts, the Colorado State Forest Service, and others envisioned in southwestern Colorado together still hasn’t launched and only the first phase of the project will get done before the authority for bonding by the state’s water and power authority expires. The second phase of the project may be getting started post-2023, she says.
“It’s tricky,” she says of the project. “It involves local government financing. It involves finding the collaborative pieces between federal and non-federal lands, identifying areas of high risks in watersheds, identifying critical values, public safety, and natural environmental concerns. It’s very complicated, and it takes a lot of collaboration.”
But the project, she says, should serve as a template for those in other places, as reflected in the districts of the bill’s primary co-sponsors: Rep. Marc Catlin, a Republican from Montrose, and Rep. Jeni Arndt, a Democrat from Fort Collins, whose district experienced two big wildfires in 2021.
In the other chamber, Sen. John Cooke, a Republican from Greeley, and Sen. Chris Hansen, a Democrat from Denver, are also sponsors. Their districts include two major water providers, Denver Water and Northern Water.
If not a lobbyist herself, Roberts talks up the bill as resulting in rural job generation but also improved public safety, in that it will reduce the fuels for wildfire. It will also have a climate change component: younger forests absorb carbon, and wildfires create massive amounts of carbon dioxide emission.
“Fire is part of our ecosystems. We aren’t trying to eliminate fire. But we are trying to manage it in a world in which more and more people are moving into the forests of Colorado. So we need to think about it differently. This bill aims at projects that are thinking outside of the box but also dealing with the reality on the ground in terms of needing to think about the forests in areas of high risk.”
Wildfire, power lines
Utilities, already nervous about their liability if power lines start wildfires, were galvanized by the Camp Fire at Paradise, Calif. The fire in November 2018 caused by electrical wires in strong winds resulted in 85 deaths and $16.5 billion in damages and the bankruptcy of Pacific Gas and Electric.
The Colorado Rural Electric Association hopes to see a bill that would give the state’s 22 electrical cooperatives protection from liability if they undertake mitigation efforts. The essential problem is that rights-of-way for distribution lines often were negotiated 30, 40, or even 60 years ago, says Geoffrey Hier, director for government relations for CREA.
“That may have been adequate at the time, but it is no longer adequate,” says Hier. “You have property owners who aren’t necessarily excited about having a utility come in and chop down trees on their property.”
The proposal being shopped to legislators by Heir would give utilities permission to clear trees in 16-foot swathes along power lines, 8 feet on each side. “Under current law, we don’t have the ability to address that,” says Hier. “We need some way to address the identified hazards that fall outside of our rights-of-way in addition to maintaining the right of way.”
The carrot-and-stick approach favored by CREA, modeled on legislation adopted last year by Utah and Missouri, would require the co-ops to submit their mitigation plans to the Public Utilities Commission. In exchange, the co-ops would get shielded from some liability if they filed plans and adhered to their mitigation plans.
Most wildfires of 2020 in Colorado occurred in the service territory of utilities, although none of the fires were caused by wires. However, managers have fretted privately about how even a small fire in the wrong place among very expensive real estate could expose them to enormous liability that could potentially bankrupt the co-op.
Utilities see a huge need for vegetative mitigation that the $88 million proposed for allocation in the state budget will hardly touch. Too, while last year was the largest ever in Colorado in terms of acres burned, this year is already shaping up to be much, much worse, given the absence of snowfall.
If not the size of the federal government, Colorado’s state government has considerable weight through the simple fact of its purchasing power. Some environmental groups have been saying that Colorado needs to use that purchasing power to help shift the markets.
One easy example is in transportation. There, Colorado hopes to move the needle more rapidly toward electrification by getting fleet owners to convert. Colorado, the argument goes, can help move the market itself through fleet purchases of electrified vehicles.
Just Transition funding
Legislators in 2019 created a Just Transition office, with one staff member, and a mission to deliver a final report to legislators by Dec. 31, 2020.
The office still has one employee, Wade Buchanan, the director. But the Polis budget calls for two additional full-time equivalents positions, for a total of 3.5.
“It’s just a down payment. It’s not the money we will need for the programming and for the funding of communities,” says Zach Pierce, special advisor on climate and energy to Gov. Jared Polis. “In a difficult budget year, it’s a statement.”
Various ideas are being talked about among legislators, even if there is no specific legislation (of which I’m aware).
Time to slow emissions from the built environment
There will be a tremendous focus on the built environment, that attention being long overdue, in the minds of many environmental advocates.
The built environmental is No.4 on the list of emission sources in Colorado, behind transportation, electrical generation, and the oil and gas sector. The problem is that to achieve long-term goals of decarbonization will require a broad and deep effort. And unlike cars, which get swapped out every 10 or 15 years, buildings last for decades and, in the case of the house of this writer, well along on the second century (constructed 1889, and later expanded).
What you can expect, said Keith Hay, director of utility policy at the Colorado Energy Office, are proposals that fall into four buckets:
1) Modernizing and updating gas energy efficiency programs, which have not been updated since 2007. This would apply to the gas-regulated utilities: Xcel Energy, Black Hills Energy, Atmos Energy, and Colorado Natural Gas.
2) A requirement that the state’s two investor-owned electrical utilities, Xcel and Black Hills, file plans with the PUC to support beneficial electrification, similar to what was required of Xcel and Black Hills for transportation, but this time for gas. Again, the idea is of incentives but softly pressing down the carbon intensity of the building sector.
3) A renewable natural gas bill proposed by State Sen. Chris Hansen in 2020 that got shelved because of covid.
4) Benchmarking of buildings.
Gas demand-side management
Most buildings in Colorado are heated by combustion of natural gas. A bill being sponsored by Rep. Tracey Bernett, Democrat from Boulder County, would require utilities to expand their energy efficiency efforts, hence reducing demand. She plans to promote it as a jobs-creation proposal, but also one that reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas.
“It’s not shutting down gas,” she said when we talked in early February. “We are still going to need gas for a while in our buildings, especially in this colder environment. Things like heat pumps don’t necessarily work well at low temperatures.”
At the time of the conversation, she said the bill would include an “accounting for the external economic costs of burning fossil fuels.” I’ve since heard that this component—essentially a carbon tax applied to methane—has been stripped from the proposal.
So, we’ll see when the bill gets introduced. It’s worth reviewing the thinking of Laurent Meillon of the policy committee of the Colorado Renewable Energy Society. For more than a decade, he has been working with legislators with the hope of passing legislation that causes state regulators to review demand-side management programs through the lens of long-term gains.
It’s worth emphasizing: What he wants to see and what ends up in the bill may be two very different things.
One metric that Meillon wants Colorado to adopt for evaluating demand-side management programs is how capital is treated. “$100 ten years from now is not the same as $100 now,” he explains.
We all know that’s true. That’s why we invest money, instead of just putting it into shoeboxes or at least safe-deposit boxes.
In the case of adding insulation to an attic, though, the investment is viewed through the metric of whether the benefits outweigh the costs in the short term. Will the added insulation save money in the next two or three years?
Viewed through that short-term prism, only the lowest-hanging fruit will be seized. You will add only the minimal amount of insulation. However, if you took a long view, the amount of energy that would be saved and hence the lower cost to the consumer of the course of 30, 40 or 50 years, would be a greater cumulative return on the investment.
Benefits are less when evaluating energy efficiency programs using the weighted average cost of capital, as is now used by Xcel and regulators. If, however, regulators used something called net-present value—a way of viewing the long-term benefits—much more work in energy efficiency could be justified.
The existing system “has turned out to be unfair, inaccurate, and against clean energy and ratepayer interests,” says Meillon.
Then there’s the metric of the external costs of fossil fuels. We know that burning fossil fuels damages the environment and imposes costs even now on people, directly and indirectly. Colorado in the 2019 legislative session recognized this by imposing a social cost of carbon of $46 per metric ton of emissions through which state regulators evaluate generation plans by Xcel and other utilities. Meillon believes the same social cost of carbon should be applied to heating resources when decisions are made.
A decade ago, Meillon was working with then State Sen. Gail Schwartz with this same sweep of ideas. Last year he worked with former State Sen. Mike Foote.
He’s a solar developer with a giant interest in solar thermal. Solar thermal got a bad name in the 1970s when it was introduced – and performed badly. Since then, says Meillon, solar thermal has improved and should be taken seriously. “My first car was a Fiat, and it didn’t work so well, but I did not conclude that all automobiles are crap,” he says.
Solar thermal has continued to struggle to get traction. The renewable portfolio standards first adopted in 2004 and updated several times since have not provided for solar thermal. They provide credits only for production of electricity. As such, there is no financial incentive for creating solar thermal projects. Without that stimulus, solar thermal has struggled to compete against the low cost of natural gas in Colorado.
If slowly, solar thermal is making inroads. One such project is a 44-unit all-electric apartment complex in Longmont. The hot water is pre-warmed by solar.
This is one of the four pillars of the energy legislation described by Hay from the Colorado Energy Office. It would require owners of commercial buildings of more than 50,000 square (actually, there is at least one residential building of more than 50,000 square feet; it’s on the outskirts of Aspen) to collect and report on energy-use benchmarking data and comply with performance standards related to energy and greenhouse gas emissions.
Denver has such a law applicable to buildings of more than 25,000 square feet. It requires tracking of energy use and sharing of that information. It serves as a way of alerting building managers to problems. If they’re using far more energy than the owner of another comparably sized building, it will likely cause them to want to make changes.
This bill has the sponsorship of Representatives Cathy Kipp of Fort Collins, Alex Valdez of Denver, and Tracey Bernett of Boulder County.
The city’s Climate Action website reports that buildings caused 51% of Denver’s emissions. Buildings overall increased energy use 1.2% on average since 2016, but those in the benchmarking program cut use an average 0.4%. This compared to a goal of reducing energy use from buildings 30% by 2030.
The Polis administration decarbonization roadmap reports that the Colorado Energy Office is launching a commercial building benchmarking program that will enable building owners to report energy-use data to a state-wide database.
GHGs embedded in building materials
Look for a bill from Hansen along the same lines as last year’s SB20-159, Global Warming Potential for Public Project Materials. That bill proposed to establish a maximum acceptable global warming amount embodied in concrete, asphalt, and other materials used in public buildings. Concrete has a heavy carbon footprint, for example. This would require designers of state buildings to consider the emissions produced in the creation of those materials and would impose a lid on those emissions.
Renewable natural gas
Hansen last session sponsored SB20-1250, Adopt Renewable Natural Gas Standard, which would have required the PUC to create a renewable natural gas standard for large natural gas utilities, those of more than 250,000 customers.
The intent is to induce harvesting of methane from dairies, sewage treatment plants, and landfills, but also at least one coal mine near Somerset in the North Fork Valley.
The bill proposed to mandate Xcel Energy to use 5% renewable natural gas by 2025 and 15% within a decade. The bill also would have required the PUC to develop renewable natural gas programs for smaller utilities and require municipal utilities to report emissions from natural gas.
Expect to see that bill return this session. The bill will specify a maximum impact to ratepayers of 2% from the projects.
Environmental groups have been somewhat skeptical. The Colorado Renewable Energy Society policy committee, for example, frets that this may delay the transition from natural gas. Hansen says he has heard concerns about double-counting but indicates that shouldn’t be a problem.
As mentioned previously, I have only glimpses of what this bill will look like, at least in part because it was still being shaped up well into February. It will be big.
“We are very hopeful a large transportation bill comes out of this session,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg last week.
He identified the need for multi-modal transit, as well as electrification of transportation. The upshot is that transportation should look very different in just a few years.
Electrical co-ops governance
State Rep. Judy Amabile, a Democrat from Boulder who was elected to fill the seat vacated by term-limited K.C. Becker, the former speaker of the House, has a bill that would seek to reform the governance of Colorado’s 22 electrical cooperatives
Those co-ops serve 30% of electrical consumers in Colorado, and their functioning is often a mystery to those who live in co-op land.
(An aside, I lived in co-op land myself for 21 years, first in Mountain Parks and then Holy Cross Energy, with time spent in Yampa Valley Electric as well, working mostly as a newspaper reporter and editor. I can testify that the co-op business was very, very low profile. It has a higher profile now, but not among the general public. Election turnout remains far lower than for the town board, city council, and county commission elections).
Amabile, whose district expands beyond Boulder to include Grand, Gilpin and Clear Creek counties, all areas served by co-ops, says her bill would address transparency, would require disclosure of compensation, and make it easier for new members of the public to get elected to the boards of electrical cooperatives. This would, she says, also apply to Tri-State—of which 18 of Colorado’s 22 cooperatives are members. (Tri-State, however, also includes members from Wyoming, Nebraska, and New Mexico).
“No other state has the kind of legislation that we are proposing, but they are looking to us so that they can do something similar,” she said at an Empower Our Future forum on Feb. 11, 2021.
Solar and some tweaking
Expect several bills in the solar arena.
Revisiting permitting fees
Several years ago Colorado adopted a law that limited how much local jurisdictions can charge for solar permitting such as on rooftops and garages. The goal was to encourage roof-top and other solar development.
Members of the Colorado Solar and Storage Association say that many jurisdictions have figured out ways that avoid the spirit of that law. COSSA wants to see legislation that keeps local jurisdictions hewing to the spirit and avoid end-around fees and restrictions.
Lift the 120% cap?
Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Democrat from Boulder, will introduce a bill that would remove the current cap on how much solar capacity customers of Xcel Energy and Black Hills can produce.
Existing law allows residential customers of the investor-owned utilities to get credited for solar-photovoltaic capacity up to 120% of the annual consumption of electricity by the customer. Xcel and Black Hills must credit them with the retail rate, not the wholesale rate, which is far less.
At issue is whether the customers should be able to get greater credit for more than 120%—how much and also how?
Fenberg explains: “The pushback from the utilities on this topic is generally that they don’t want to pay the customer for the energy that is produced above and beyond what the customer uses himself.
“Currently the utility has to pay at the wholesale rate for that excess energy, and they’d like to keep it that way rather than paying at the retail rate. Some would argue that compensating at the wholesale rate is unfair because distributed solar has more value due to the avoided generation and transmission costs as well as avoided environmental externalities.
“However, with that said, the compensation rate isn’t actually the crux of the issue. Their main demand is that customers shouldn’t be able to roll over their excess generation credits at the end of the year. Instead, the utility wants to force the customer to take a check for those excess credits (at the wholesale rate). Currently customers can roll over credits, but the utility fears this will be a bigger threat to them if people are allowed to install larger systems on their roof.”
Colorado Solar and Storage Association members say this issue of exceeding 120% hasn’t been much of an issue. True, concedes Fenberg, but he sees need for even more distributed solar in the future.
“If we’re trying to rapidly electrify people’s homes and their cars, we need to lift this arbitrary cap. Installing a solar system based on your last year’s average electricity use isn’t a relevant cap once that homeowner buys an electric car and an electric heat pump,” Fenberg says.
“Due to economies of scale, it’s much better for that homeowner to build the system based on likely future electricity use rather than past electricity use. Part of the state’s path to reduce emissions is to electrify home heating and transportation, which means the average home will have a much larger electricity load in the future. And if we want to decarbonize that increased electric load, we want more roof-space covered by solar panels.
“Another aspect to this story is the recent Boulder/Xcel settlement. Xcel agreed to advocate for the lifting of the 120% cap in the Legislature this year as part of the settlement.”
Also operative, as he said at a recent forum, is that the utilities are in the business of selling electricity. “They don’t want to have to buy energy from you,” he said.
Policies to drive equitable expansion of storage
Colorado remains in the infancy of energy storage. Aside from pumped-storage hydro at Cabin Creek and Mt. Elbert, the largest energy storage system in the state is a bank of Tesla Powerwall batteries behind the United Power building along Interstate 25 between Longmont and Firestone. They can store 4 megawatts for up to 4 hours.
Behind the meter, the battery capacity isn’t much greater. Xcel Energy customers have 300 to 400 batteries in the Central Park neighborhood of Denver. Customers of Holy Cross Energy in the Aspen-Vail areas have more batteries, and there may be more scattered around Colorado, particularly in Boulder County.
That must change dramatically in the coming decade. As Colorado quadruples the penetration of renewable energy, it will need to increase storage capacity roughly 250-fold. “The Future of Energy Storage in Colorado,” a report commissioned by the Colorado Energy Office in 2019, called for 1.1 gigawatts of storage by 2030.
“We have a long way to go, and the longer we wait, the steeper the hill to climb,” says Mike Kruger, chief executive of Colorado Solar and Storage Association.
PUC guidance on storage
COSSA wants legislators to give the Public Utilities Commission specific guidance about phasing in storage.
In the past, says Kruger, the PUC has been leery of justifying storage, given its still great cost. That’s understandable. But battery storage provides benefits to the grid, such as in stabilization, that need to factored into the decision-making calculus. COSSA wants legislators to help inform that decision-making process.
Kruger points to a report issued in September 2020, “The Colorado Public Utilities Commission’s Operational Modernization Plan.” The document points to the need for a formal, coherent policy. Options for reducing greenhouse gases from the electric sector “can appear across many proceedings, and a determination in one proceeding may affect the outcome of another proceeding,” the report said.
The report cites the example of battery storage, with its potential to reduce the need for additional electric generation to meet system peak demand: “At the same time, the PUC may be called upon to make decisions regarding investments in battery storage technologies in multiple proceedings that may involve different regulated utilities that occur over a period of months or years.”
Utilities are already starting to invest in batteries. Xcel Energy has awarded bids for 50 megawatts, part of its plans for 275 megawatts in Pueblo and Adams counties. And Colorado Springs Utilities has a power-purchase agreement for the Pike Solar and Battery Energy Storage Systems, which will add 25 megawatts of battery storage by December 2023 to supplement 175 megawatts of solar.
This bill falls under the heading of unfinished business. In 2018, legislators passed a law, HB 18-1270, Public Utilities Commission Evaluation of Energy Storage Systems. The law required the PUC to establish mechanisms for investor-owned electric utilities to procure energy storage systems if certain criteria are satisfied.
COSSA members believe there has been too little movement. Details of exactly what will be proposed were still being worked over in stakeholder outreach in late January. What drives the legislation, though, is a sense of urgency, a desire to make things happen quickly, to decarbonize the economy 50% by 2030.
“We have 8 years and 11 months. We can’t have proceedings in which the stakeholder process takes years before we even get to a proposal. We have to move faster,” says Kruger.
Rules for behind-the-meter storage
Colorado Solar and Storage Association wants to see rules laid down for behind-the-meter storage. It’s still a frontier, when relatively few homes or buildings have battery storage.
Working with the Colorado Municipal League and Colorado Counties Inc., COSSA hopes to come up with state regulations to ensure the spirit of legislation is honored by counties and municipalities. “If the Legislature says it should be $500,” says Kruger of fees. “That means it shouldn’t be $500 plus X, Y and Z.”
Somewhat related in the battery question is where they will be deployed. Will battery storage remain the province of higher-end homes, or will batteries also be part of the lower-income neighborhoods, too?
Colorado legislators in 2019 inserted provisions in several laws designed to ensure that equity is a consideration in energy transition decisions. In the past, those of lower incomes, who tend to be racial minorities, have tended to suffer disproportionate impacts of the fossil fuel-based economy. The intent is to avoid repeating mistakes of the past. Battery storage is one place for this consideration.
COSSA would like to see legislators give the PUC guidance to ensure that equity is a consideration in battery storage programs.
Office of Consumer Counsel
As required by state law, the Office of Consumer Counsel must be reauthorized by statute in this session, if it is to continue to exist.
In 2019, legislators chose to reauthorize the PUC by substantially expanding its purview and mission. It’s possible legislators may do so this year with the Office of Consumer Council. For example, legislators could give much more direction in advocacy for low-income populations in the coming energy transition.
Electrical transmission, one of the big missing pieces
This is the bailiwick of State Sen. Chris Hansen, a Democrat from Denver who grew up amid the steady winds of the Great Plains before going off to college and eventually getting a Ph.D. in economic geography from Oxford University
In a sense, he’ll return to his roots this session with three bills that in various ways would help advance development of wind resources in eastern Colorado. But all three components of the bill he has prepared have the word “regional” embedded or implied in their text
Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg calls transmission “one of the missing pieces of getting renewables to customers, especially from areas that are traditionally under-represented and don’t have a lot of economic opportunities.”
Streamline PUC permitting
One component would streamline permitting and rules at the state’s Public Utility Commission for new transmission projects. Regulators, Hansen says, need to acknowledge regional benefits when evaluating projects. The bill is a revision of Hansen’s bill from last year, SB20-190, Boost Renewable Energy Transmission Investment.
A second component would create a transmission authority, which New Mexico already has. The transmission authority’s mission would be to help coordinate development of transmission needed to develop currently stranded renewable assets.
One such area is Bent County, in southeastern Colorado. Studies by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have found that this county snuggled against the Kansas and Oklahoma borders has some of the steadiest wind in the country. Trucks constantly cross the county on Highway 287 on their way to Denver and other destinations, but no such wire highway exists to get wind-generated electricity from farms to urban markets.
Xcel Energy and Tri-State Generation and Transmission both operate in eastern Colorado, and both have built transmission lines and have plans for upgrade. But the movement has been slower than what Hansen says Colorado needs to execute its energy transformation.
Hansen believes he has a strong argument because there’s something in it for everybody, but especially consumers. Accessing the renewable resources in the state will result in lower rates. Improved transmission should also result in more jobs. “We need to maximize job growth and clean energy, and that is dependent on a robust transmission grid,” he says.
Pushing an RTO
A third component would seek to accelerate integration of Colorado utilities with utilities in other states. Colorado is currently something of an island. It’s connected by electric lines to other states, but not particularly well. There’s been talk and study for four years or more. All utilities say they want this, but action has been lagging. Hansen wants to hurry this along.
The first modest step occurred on Feb. 1 with launch of the energy imbalance market by the Arkansas-based Southwest Power Pool. Colorado participants include Tri-State Generation and Transmission and the Western Area Power Authority. Xcel Energy and three utility partners along the Front Range will begin an imbalance market next year, but that one is conducted by the California Independent System Operator, or CAISO.
Hansen professes to see advantages whether going eastward or westward. He does, however, see Colorado’s wind resources contouring wonderfully with the solar resources of Arizona and other Southwestern states
“My observation is that every power operator in the state is supportive of more grid integration, but some are more excited about it than others,” he says
Describing it as a “slam-dunk economic case,” Hansen says he does not expect substantial opposition. A Republican legislator, whom he has not identified, will co-sponsor the bill
This integration must be pushed firmly, he says. If Colorado does end up with what is called a seam, a division within the state, with parts going east and some parts going west., then it must be done in a way that does not harm ratepayers. Examples of both success and failure when seams divide states or regions can be found in other parts of the country.
Changes to give the PUC commissioners more tools
Look for a bill from Sen. Chris Hansen that will seek to modernize the Public Utilities Commission and revise budgeting, giving commissioners more resources and more direct control over staff members.
“We have a PUC that is not well positioned to implement all of the important work that is ahead of us. (The commissioners) need better resources to do their work,” says Hansen.
The PUC is currently embedded within the Department of Regulatory Agencies, and the staff members are answerable to the department director, Doug Dean. Hansen’s legislation would make the staff members, at least some of them, directly answerable to PUC commissioners. The bill would also expand the staff to reflect the increasing workload of PUC commissioners in a time of unprecedented shifts in the world of electricity and, quite likely in the decade ahead, natural gas.
The move has the support of the Colorado Solar and Storage Association. Mike Kruger, the executive director of COSSA, says there needs to be a direct link between the staff member and commissioners given that the commissioners are “responsible for a huge chunk of our decarbonization.”
Kruger also points out to the statutory ban of commissioners meeting in private. All of their interaction is in public meetings. Aside from very specific and narrow proceedings, they meet only weekly. That limited meeting schedule can result in three weeks or a month to make a relatively simple decision about forward movement.
“Given that complication, you definitely need to have a staff that provides the commissioners what they need to make decisions,” Kruger says. “From our perspective, the 2020s will be the decade of deployment for solar and batteries. We will go from around 20% renewable generation to around 80%, a four-fold increase over 9 years. And the PUC is going to guide and direct that. They need to know they are getting the best information and results from their staff.”
PUC processes have often been drawn out. But there’s a sense of urgency about figuring out the way forward reflected in the admonishment by Eric Blank in his first weekly meeting in January as the PUC chairman. Studies can’t take a year or more, he said, but timelines demand a quicker pulse.
Another shot at Community Choice Energy
Rep. Edie Hooton, a Democrat from Boulder, will return this session with her proposal to study community choice energy, also known as community choice aggregation.
The goal of community choice is to accelerate the transition to clean electrical generation by allowing individual communities currently served by Xcel Energy and Black Hills Energy, the state’s two investor-owned utilities, to procure their electricity directly from providers. Those two utilities would still service the distribution lines. Together, Xcel and Black Hills were responsible for 56% of electrical sales in Colorado in 2018, according to a study by the Colorado Energy Office
“Introducing competition into the wholesale electricity sector would encourage a more vibrant wholesale electricity market in Colorado, from which many co-ops and municipal utilities purchase all or part of their electricity,” she writes. “Competition tends to put downward pressure on prices, as well as pressure to increase the renewable energy content in the energy mix.
Hooton also sees this helping other electrical consumers. A more vibrant wholesale market for clean energy “would likely expand the number of independent power producers and power marketers that are active in Colorado, leading to lower wholesale prices and more opportunities for all buyers, including co-ops and municipal utilities.”
The Colorado Municipal League supports the study, as does the Sierra Club, whose “ready for 100” yielded voluntary participation by 14 Colorado communities that formally want to achieve 100% renewable energy between 2025 and 2035. The measure is also supported by Colorado Communities for Climate Action, or CC4CA, which has 34 member communities in Colorado, evenly split between the Front Range and Western Slope. City councils for Denver, Pueblo, Boulder, Golden, and Lafayette have also adopted resolutions of support.
California is the poster child for the effectiveness of pushing clean electrical generation. There, communities authorized to use community choice have entered into long-term contracts for 6,000 megawatts of new-build clean energy sources. There, it’s common for multiple cities and/or counties to form joint power authorities to share administration and combine their purchasing power, governed by a board of elected officials from each member jurisdiction.
A study by the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation found that nearly 50 communities in California have already reached their 100% renewable energy goals, and the vast majority of them have community choice.
In theory, communities could choose to procure electricity from 100% carbon sources. That’s unlikely, given that renewables have become so much cheaper.
Hooton’s bill— which is co-sponsored by Rep. Cathy Kipp, a Democrat from Fort Collins—would only authorize a study by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission staff between October 2021 and November 2022. The bill authorizes one full-time employee to the study, the money $112,000 spread across two years – to be taken from the Fixed Utility Fund, the surcharge on ratepayer bills that funds the PUC.
If the PUC study looked promising, says Hooton, she would consider sponsoring enabling legislation in the 2023 legislation session. This bill, she emphasizes, only authorizes a study.
Inherent in this study is the potential for gains. She points to a request from Boulder last year for indicative pricing from wholesale suppliers. The city in August received 11 responses that together indicated the city could have 89% renewable energy in 2024 at two-thirds the project cost of Xcel.
She also contends this would add pressure to form a regional transmission organization, or RTO, which would lower costs by expanding the footprint of energy trading in the West and by reducing the needed level of reserve generating capacity.
One thing the study—if approved by legislators—would have to address is what real difference this will make in the latter half of the 2020s, when Black Hills and Xcel are rapidly decarbonizing their electric supplies.
What about the Air Quality Control Commission?
This was the agency delegated by the 2019 foundational legislation with the largest single authority for devising and executing strategies for achieving the economy-wide decarbonization goals. Elements were also given to the Public Utilities Commission, with it authority for overseeing the decarbonization of the electrical sector and also regulated gas utilities. But the AQCC is numero uno, dai-ichi, number 1.
Does the AQCC have the resources it needs to get the job done? This was a thread in AQCC conversations for much of 2020. Environmental organizations, Western Resource Advocates and the Environmental Defense Fund in particular, argued that the AQCC was moving too slowly. The AQCC personnel, particularly John Putnam, the then-director of environmental programs for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, politely pointed to lack of adequate resources.
I heard that legislators are working to secure more resources for the Air Pollution Control Division, the agency within CDPH&E that works directly with the appointed commission. I was told that Sen. Dominique Jackson was writing the bill. I did not get a response from her.
The question of the AQCC was raised more broadly at the Empowering our Future forum. Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg took the question and addressed it broadly, if not in the particulars.
“We got a slow start,” he said. “I think it will accelerate. We are going to start taking a significant bite of the apple in the next few years, tackling our transportation system. And electrifying as much as possible will have a huge impact. Xcel Energy is just about to file their electric resource plan (update: Xcel will release details on Thursday, Feb. 18) that will show there is a lot more of where they think they are capable of going in the next couple of years. Things are happening, and they’re happening pretty fast.”
Among the questions before the AQCC in late 2021 will be whether to approve the request for Earthjustice and the National Parks Conservation Association to order to effect the earlier retirement of coal plants. All but two are scheduled to close by 2030, but the environmental organizations wanted the AQCC to nudge the retirements up a year, to 2028. The AQCC approved that by a 5-2 vote then, the next month, unanimously backtracked for legal procedural reasons, whose intricacies I never understood. Xcel Energy then preempted this by announcing the closure of the Hayden units in 2028.
Could the PUC have the authority to instead order earlier retirements? That was hinted at by State Rep. Edie Hooton, who spoke at the Empowering Our Future forum about adjusting retirements to meet the 2025 decarbonization target of 2026. “There was consideration,” she said. “I don’t know if it will happen this year, not because of will, but because of capacity,” she said.
Rep. Emily Sirota, a Democrat from Denver, will be carrying legislation again, as she did with her HB 19-1270, to require the Colorado Public Employees’ Retirement Association to review its $45 billion in holdings through the lens of climate change, specifically fossil fuels.
That bill didn’t make it out of committee. Since then, however, New York state’s comparable fund dido go ahead with a gradual divestment strategy in December.
350 Colorado also hopes to find a sponsor for a bill that would allow cities, counties, and other jurisdictions to hold investments in financial institutions that are not FDIC insure. This would allow jurisdictions to avoid the megabanks like Wells Fargo and Chase Morgan, who are FDIC insured and who also invest in fossil fuels.
The Colorado Public Banking Coalition makes no mention of divestment but instead paints a broader picture of rising interest in public banking since the 2008 financial crash. “Currently, over half of the states in the United States have either organized, conducted research, or introduced legislation to promote public banking,” says the coalition.
Regulation of oil and gas industry, don’t expect much
Don’t look for much here. Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg was a primary sponsor of SB19-181, which he describes as the most substantial reform of oil and gas regulation in Colorado in 60 years.
“I think we forget how much that did tackle, because it did so much at once,” he says. The law basically turned Colorado regulation upside down, inverting the mission of regulation to support extraction to instead emphasize community protection values.
It created basic standards for jurisdictions across Colorado, including a minimum setback of 2,000 feet (with some exceptions), while leaving latitude for local jurisdictions to create regulations that are right for them.
What about stopping “fracking?” he was asked at a recent forum, the word fracking being apparently meant to mean drilling for oil and gas altogether.
No, that wasn’t the intention of the 2019 law, he said. And what used to be considered the major players in Colorado have disappeared as a result of acquisitions and mergers. “I think the Wild West days of fracking in Colorado are not over, but they will be soon,” he said. He also noted that the market for Colorado oil and gas extends beyond Colorado, so the demand depends upon national policies.
This is from Big Pivots, an e-magazine tracking the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Subscribe at http://bigpivots.com
Conceptual work has begun on a pumped-storage hydro project along the Yampa River five miles east of Craig. The project was conceived to provide electricity to assist Colorado utilities in balancing the intermittency of wind and solar generation as they advance toward 100% renewable portfolios during the coming decade.
In pumped-storage hydro, water is released from a higher reservoir to produce electricity when needed most. The water in the lower reservoir is then pumped uphill to the higher reservoir when electricity has become more readily available.
Colorado has two existing pumped-storage hydro projects. Cabin Creek Generating Station, between Georgetown and Guanella Pass, harnesses a 1,200-foot vertical drop to produce up to 324 megawatts of electricity. Completed in 1967 and operated by Xcel Energy, it serves as effectively a giant battery with a four-hour life, the same as a humongous bank of Tesla batteries.
Near Leadville, at Twin Lakes, the Mt. Elbert pumped storage hydro plant can produce up to 200 megawatts. Operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, that pumped-storage hydro was completed in 1981.
Near Craig, the project—it’s really no more than an idea—would use three turbines to produce 600 megawatts, nearly as much as Colorado’s largest coal-fired power plant. The idea submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Aug. 20 calls for two relatively small reservoirs of storage capacity of 4,800 acre-feet each connected via a tunnel and conduit, with a total drop of 1,450 vertical feet. This compares with a 1,200 drop at Cabin Creek.
The lower reservoir would not be on the Yampa River, nor would it require a constant infusion of water. Rather, it operates in a closed loop. Only water lost to evaporation would have to be replaced. In an open loop hydro system, water is drawn directly from a river to be pumped uphill.
Matthew Shapiro, the applicant, says the preliminary permit awarded by FERC in November for the Craig-Hayden project is best described as a placeholder for a future license application. He hopes to begin producing electricity toward the end of this decade, just as several utilities in Colorado aim to achieve 100% renewable generation. See Nov. 24 notice in the Federal Register.
Creating pumped-storage hydro, he says, requires considerable patience but also capital. One project in Wyoming that Shapiro’s company proposes has an estimated cost of $1.8 billion.
The United States has not had a new pumped-storage project since 1993. The Craig-Hayden project is the only FERC filing for Colorado.
Meeting the checklist
Despite its jumbled geography and abundant water, the Centennial State actually is a difficult place for new pumped hydro projects, says Shapiro. The right kind of topography, with enough vertical drop over a short distance but not too much is needed, but also proximity to transmission and low environmental sensitivity.
“It’s a significant challenge. Finding the combination of factors is not easy,” Shapiro says. “But that is what a good pumped-storage developer does during the site-screening process.”
The Craig site checks all the boxes. Private land is easier to develop than public land, says Shapiro, and it has that. Transmission lines export the electricity in three directions and to several states, but especially to east of the Continental Divide in Colorado. The Hayden and Craig coal-fired stations together have 1,724 megawatts of generating capacity, the most of any area of Colorado.
Water is also needed. The two coal-burning stations together own 15,000 acre-feet from the Yampa River, far more than the 5,000 acre-feet needed for this project. The plants will close between 2025 and 2030.
This is from the Jan. 15, 2021, issue of Big Pivots, an e-magazine tracking the energy transition in Colorado and beyond. Subscribe at http://bigpivots.com
Finally, a pumped-storage hydro project needs customers. Shapiro reports seeing a promising market within Colorado. Two utilities—Platte River Power Authority, a co-owner of the Craig plant, and Holy Cross Energy—both have adopted goals of 100% renewables by 2030. Xcel Energy, the primary owner of the Hayden units and a part owner at Craig, has a 100% emissions-free goal for 2050.
All analyses of attaining high levels of renewables in electricity supplies have focused on three crucial pillars:
One, demand needs to be recontoured to better take advantage of when renewables are abundant, such as linking warming of hot water to times of abundant electricity.
Second, energy supplies in Colorado need to be better connected with a broader geographic area, either to the west or possibly to the Great Plains and conceivably in both directions, thus allowing greater ability to take advantage of renewable energy. The sun might not be shining everywhere, but the wind is always blowing somewhere. There is actually some predictability to this, if you get large enough terrain.
And third, there needs to be storage. The Craig-Hayden idea envisions eight-hour storage, compared to the four-hour value of lithium-ion batteries. So-called green hydrogen, which uses renewable electricity to create hydrogen from water, can deliver 50 to 100 hours of storage, but the technology and economics lag. “I think there is going to be a mix, particularly over the next 20 to 30 years before I think green hydrogen really matures,” says Shapiro. “We will see a mix of storage types. I don’t think we are going to do 100% renewable energy without additional advanced energy storage technology.”
Utilities have been closely watching developments. Duane Highley, chief executive of Tri-State Generation and Transmission, operator of the three units at Craig, said on an October webinar that his utility sees no need to make decisions about energy storage until 2024 and does not actually need it until 2029-2030. The three units at Craig will be shut down between 2025 and 2030. The two Hayden units operated by Xcel are to be shut down in 2027 and 2028.
The value of storage
A 2019 report by Synapse Energy Economics that was commissioned by the Colorado Energy Office spoke to the need for advanced energy storage as Colorado decarbonizes its electricity.
“Although pumped hydro is currently the most prevalent type of energy storage in the United States, traditional battery storage technologies (primarily lithium-ion) have experienced rapid market growth within the last few years. As costs continue to decline in the coming decade, flow batteries are also expected to become common in large-scale storage applications.”
Pumped-storage hydro does not figure prominently in the analysis by Synapse. However, the consultant did find need for public policy that serves to encourage the market for storage in Colorado.
“Though lithium-ion battery costs are projected to decline in the coming years, there is debate about whether they are expected to become cost-competitive with traditional generators prior to the late 2020s without supportive policy mechanisms.”
In removing two coal-burning units at the Comanche station near Pueblo, Xcel Energy is adding 275 megawatts of battery energy storage. On a vastly different scale, United Power began using a 4-megawatt battery storage in late 2018.
In viewing the Craig project, Shapiro hopes to time completion to the closure of the coal plants. These projects require patience.
Shapiro already has already demonstrated great patience. In a life with many twists and turns since his upbringing in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, Shapiro by 1991 was on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. In a paper titled E Pluribus Unum, Shapiro describes himself as a “creator, an entrepreneur, a public philosopher, a conscious citizen, a writer, and a father.”
In that paper, he says he was motivated to help the Blackfeet and, in that outlook, he began to wonder whether the steady winds of the Montana reservation could be harnessed to benefit the tribe. He quickly grasped the limits of renewable generation.
“Upon my return to New York, I immersed myself in the study of energy storage as a means of helping wind energy compete with conventional energy resources,” he explained. There were then 40 pumped-storage hydro projects in the United States among well more than 100 around the world.
Since then, in 1993, just one additional project pumped-storage hydro has been built in the United States. Many gas-fired plants were built, however, to address the need for peaking power.
Growing interest from utilities
About 2009, though, Shapiro noticed a shift.
“Renewable energy was surging, the interest in storage was starting to pick up, and more and more utilities were mentioning pump-storage in their resource plans,” he explained in a telephone interview. “So partners and I formed GridFlex to identify the best new sites in the country.”
His partners now include David Gillespie, who served a stint with Duke Energy as vice president of business development, and John Spilman, the general counsel, who has provided services to Vestas Americas, among others. Shapiro is the chief executive.
Utilities have shown much greater interest in the last two years after solar prices tumbled and, in response to consumers, many embraced 100% carbon-free goals. But the time was not lost. “We spent a lot of those years honing our knowledge about how to make the business case,” he said in a recent phone interview. “And we built relationships with equipment vendors and environmental consulting firms and others needed to move ideas into projects.”
Shapiro’s company, Gridflex, now in partnership with another company called rPlus Energies, a developer of utility-scale wind and solar, has filed with the FERC for seven sites: two in Nevada and one each in California, Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming.
Most, like the Craig site, are placeholders in the FERC process. Two, in Wyoming and Nevada, have moved to a second step with FERC, the pre-application stage.
In Wyoming, Shapiro last summer outlined a plan to use Seminoe Reservoir in conjunction with a new reservoir on federal Bureau of Land Management property for a capacity of 700 megawatts, somewhat larger than the Craig-Hayden proposal. The Rawlins Times reported that officials in Carbon County declined to endorse the project but were OK with the application with FERC proceeding. Cost of that project has been estimated at $1.8 billion
In Nevada, progress came earlier with the White Pine project getting press attention in Ely in 2014. But it has moved little further along than the Colorado project.
In Arizona, other developers have several proposals for even larger pumped-storage hydro projects. One using water from Lake Powell proposes to use the transmission built for the Navajo Power plant now being demolished. It has a price tag of $3.6 billion.
About the Craig-Hayden site, Shapiro declined to identify whether his company has agreements with landowners and other specific elements of what will be needed. He said he has begun outreach to utilities.
Holy Cross Energy might be one such utility. Its service territory includes Vail and Aspen but also Rifle, which is within 100 miles of the pumped-storage hydro, connected by a major transmission line. In its resource plan posted in 2020, Holy Cross specifically mentioned pumped-storage hydro as one option for being able to attain its goal of 100% renewable generation by 2030.
Jonah Levine, who wrote a master’s thesis about pumped-storage hydro in 2007, now works in the realm of biomass for Louisville, Colo.-based Lignetics.
“The evolving story is not of wind vs. biomass or even traditional resources vs. renewables,” he says. “The real question is how do we deploy these things together in the most efficient and effective ways? I don’t see that story enough. What is the best utilization of the resources to our society?
This story has been updated to reflect that the pumped-storage hydro plan envisions eight-hour storage, not six.
Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist who publishes an e-magazine called Big Pivots. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303.463.8630.
Platte River Power Authority’s call for customers to conserve energy on Sunday resulted from a perfect storm of energy supply issues, as extreme cold created a regional shortage of natural gas, ice and frigid temperatures restricted power from wind turbines and blankets of snow covered solar panels.
The power provider for Fort Collins, Loveland, Estes Park and Longmont issued a call to conserve energy — both gas-powered heat as well as electricity — Sunday from 4-10 p.m. Platte River spokesperson Steve Roalstad said the public call to conserve came after Xcel Energy notified Platte River on Sunday that gas supplies were being curtailed to preserve fuel for heating.
The curtailment has ended, and Platte River doesn’t expect further supply issues in the immediate future, Roalstad said. Xcel Energy didn’t explicitly confirm the curtailment in written comments provided to the Coloradoan, but a spokesperson said that “extreme weather conditions can be a challenge for power providers, and we are managing our resources to make sure our customers have the heat and power they need at this time.”
The supply challenges began this weekend as extreme cold impacted Platte River’s renewable energy resources, Roalstad said.
NextEra Energy, the company that operates the Roundhouse Renewable Energy wind farm in southern Wyoming, shut those turbines down as ice coated the blades and frigid temperatures threatened the turbines’ structural components. Meanwhile, snow coated the solar panels at Platte River’s Rawhide Energy Station…
Natural gas typically supplies less than 2% of the electricity Platte River provides to its owner-communities, because the power provider only uses it to provide an extra boost when demand is especially high. Platte River’s natural gas capacity is close to 400 megawatts, even more than the 280 megawatts of capacity at the Rawhide Unit 1 coal plant that supplied almost half of electricity in 2020.
Because of the temporarily curtailed supply, though, Platte River couldn’t run its natural gas units. So on Sunday, Platte River was essentially relying only on the Rawhide Unit 1 coal plant and Craig Units 1 and 2 (coal units Platte River co-owns). That didn’t leave much wiggle room for electricity supply, so the utility issued the public call to action. It was the first time in recent memory that Platte River has had to ask customers to conserve electricity in the face of a supply shortage.
Platte River asked customers to conserve energy by turning down their thermostats a few degrees and abstaining from using laundry machines, clothes dryers, dishwashers and other electric devices. The reason for the call to conserve gas-powered heat was two-fold, Roalstad said: Building heat pumps use electricity, and lessening the pressure on gas supplies for heating would hopefully lead to a quicker end to the gas curtailment.
Platte River sent the call to conserve to local media, shared it on social media and coordinated with local utilities to disseminate the information. That outreach appeared to be effective in reducing electricity demand, Roalstad said. Demand dropped by about 10 megawatts, which is roughly equivalent to the power needed for 5,000-8,000 households.
Roalstad described the call to conserve as a precautionary measure rather than a situation where rolling blackouts were imminent.
“I don’t think we were that close, but we just wanted to make sure we didn’t get any closer” to that point, Roalstad said…
Sunday’s scenario was noteworthy not just because of the extremely cold temperatures but because of the widespread regional nature of the issue. Frigid temperatures and winter storms swept much of the country this weekend, from Colorado to Texas to Tennessee. The broad geographical footprint of the extreme weather put more pressure than usual on the nation’s natural gas supply…
The renewable energy supply shortage illustrates a challenge that Platte River is working to address as it shifts to more renewable electricity supply in the years ahead, Roalstad said. Renewable sources are projected to make up about 50% of electricity delivered to Fort Collins, Loveland, Longmont and Estes Park in 2021, and the power provider has a goal of achieving 100% non-carbon electricity by 2030 if it can do so without sacrificing affordability and reliability.
Platte River is contemplating larger investments in battery storage or other alternatives to carbon resources. The power provider is also working to join a regional energy imbalance market, which could be helpful in situations where weather affects renewable energy supply in select areas. The science around renewable energy is also growing more sophisticated, which enhances predictability and reliability, Roalstad added.
Were there virtual high-5s among Colorado’s architects of decarbonization?
Surely there were in the wake of the announcement by General Motors that it was shifting its production and sales from the internal combustion engine to electric vehicles in the next 15 years.
Ford Motors followed up late last week that it was doubling its investment in EVs by 2025. “We’re not going to cede the future to anyone,” Jim Farley, the chief executive of Ford, told CNBC.
This should make it far easier for Colorado to achieve its goal of 42% penetration of the automotive fleet by 2030. That goal, announced soon after Gov. Jared Polis took office in 2019, calls for 940,000 EVs by 2030.
Asked for comment after GM’s announcement, Will Toor, executive director of the Colorado Energy Office, agreed that it is “very good news for Colorado’s EV goals, and we look forward to working with GM and other automakers to transition to a fully electric fleet.” GM was, he noted, the first major automaker, beyond the EV-only companies like Tesla and Rivian, to announce EV plans that match the scale of changes needed to confront the climate crisis.
This is from Big Pivots, an e-magazine tracking the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Subscribe at http://bigpivots.com
The GM announcement was part of a broader somersault by the automotive sector since the November election of President Joe Biden.
The short story is that Trump lost, of course, and California won—and so did Colorado.
Some history: California by virtue of a ruling in the 1990s had the authority to set stricter emissions standards for vehicles than those imposed on automakers by the EPA.
The Obama administration adopted pollution rules that were modeled on those adopted by California. The California and Obama rules required auto companies to make and sell vehicles that reached an average fuel economy of about 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. It was, says the New York Times, the most salient effort by the Obama administration to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.
Arriving in the White House, Donald Trump set out to roll back those standards, the centerpiece of his deregulatory agenda. The Trump administration last year rolled the standard back to 40 miles per gallon by 2026.
Meanwhile, Colorado in 2019 joined the coalition of California and 12 other states requiring zero-emission vehicle regulations.
Within the automotive industry, some automakers—including General Motors and Toyota—sided with the Trump administration rollback. They filed suit against California. But five automakers—Ford, Honda, BMW, Volkswagen, and Volvo, together with 30% of the market in California—had agreed last August to abide by California’s standards. The agreement required them to increase their average fuel economy from about 38 mpg to about 51 mph by 2026.
Last week, Toyota, Fiat Chrysler, and others who had banded together under the name of Coalition for Sustainable Automotive Regulation dropped the lawsuit.
This comes after the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which includes 99% of automakers, offered principles for a national program of clean car standards and a long-term focus on electric vehicles.
The decision to drop the lawsuit was described by Travis Madsen, the transportation program director at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, as important for Colorado as the clean-car standards are a “central part of Colorado’s strategy to accelerate vehicle electrification and deliver on our climate goals, and it will be important to have all automakers moving in the same direction.”
Polis, in a statement, had much the same to say.
“We are also encouraged to see the auto industry come to the table with a willingness to support stronger year over year improvements to fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions than the rules adopted by the previous administration,” he said.
“Moving forward, we are focused on achieving large scale electrification, which is what is required to meet the climate crisis we face. With most of the real-world manufacturing decisions for the next few years already made, we encourage all parties to put the fighting of the past behind us and chart a new path to successfully electrify the light-duty fleet as soon as possible.”
Xcel Energy reached 10,000 megawatts of wind energy capacity in its eight-state service territory by the end of 2020. The company expects to achieve 31% of its nameplate energy capacity from wind by the end of 2021.
In Colorado, Xcel expects to have 4,135 megawatts of wind-generating capacity by the end of 2021. That will represent 35.3% of the utility’s electrical sales in Colorado.
Four wind farms were completed in 2020. The largest was the 500-megawatt Cheyenne Ridge, located east of Denver near the Kansas border. Xcel owns the farm.
This is from Big Pivots, an e-magazine tracking the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Subscribe at http://bigpivots.com
Others were 300-megawatt Bronco Plains, the 162-megawatt Colorado Green, and the 171-megawatt Mountain Breeze. Two of the above are power-purchase agreements, and Colorado Green was a repowering of an existing project.
Rush Creek, a 600-megawatt project east of Denver, near Limon, was completed in 2018 and is owned directly by Xcel.
The company will file a proposal with Colorado regulators by the end of March that enumerates its plans. Xcel, in a statement, said the plan is “expected to include continued expansion of wind.
Colorado is now gearing up for a second giveaway. The Can Do Colorado eBike Pilot will award more than 100 e-bikes with $560,000 from the Colorado Energy Office, the City of Denver and the Regional Air Quality Council.
Unlike the first round, individuals can’t apply for a free e-bike. Instead, organizations had to submit concepts before the end of January to manage the bikes for the benefit of essential workers.
Will Toor, the director of the Colorado Energy Office, said the pilot program came in response to the pandemic. Last spring, his office started hearing stories about essential workers who had decided to avoid the closed confines of buses and light rail cars and instead some used their own cars to get around. RTD later cut some of those routes altogether.
Going forward, Toor thinks e-bikes could play a much larger role as Colorado confronts the threat of climate change. Transportation now accounts for more emissions than any other sector of Colorado’s economy. A lot of those emissions come from Coloradans driving bikeable distances. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, three-fifths of each household’s 2017 car trips, nationwide, were six miles or less.
“I think there is significant potential over time for e-bikes to play a really important role in replacing a lot of those short-to-medium distance automobile trips,” Toor said…
Toor said equity “is really important” as Colorado tries to get people out of internal-combustion cars. He noted the Colorado Energy Office supported Xcel Energy’s recent plan to provide $5 million in rebates for low-income electric car buyers. (What Toor didn’t mention is Colorado’s Public Utilities Commission shot down a plan his office submitted for $30 million in rebates. Some PUC members did not like that the plan would have incentivized luxury cars.)
The pledges countries made to reduce emissions as part of the 2015 Paris agreement are woefully inadequate, and the world must nearly double its greenhouse gas-cutting goals to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change, according to research published [February 9, 2020].
“The commitments are not enough,” said Adrian Raftery, a University of Washington statistics professor and co-author of the study, published in Communications Earth & Environment.
The study found that even if countries were to meet their existing pledges, the world has only about a 5 percent chance to limit the Earth’s warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) over preindustrial levels — a key aim of the international agreement.
Raftery and a colleague calculated that global emissions would need to fall steadily — about 1.8 percent each year on average — to put the world on a more sustainable trajectory. While no two countries are alike, that amounts to overall emissions reductions roughly 80 percent more ambitious than those pledged under the Paris agreement, he said.
In many respects, the race to slow the Earth’s warming is a daunting math problem. Emissions have risen about 1.4 percent annually on average over the past decade, not including the abnormal plunge in 2020 driven by the coronavirus pandemic.
In 2019, the world logged the highest emissions ever recorded, at 59 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, a category that includes not only carbon dioxide but also methane and other climate-warming agents. If that trend continues unabated, scientists say, the world could begin to cross troubling climate thresholds within the coming decade.
The architects of the Paris accord and numerous world leaders have long underscored that the pledges made in 2015 were not enough to limit warming to acceptable levels. The expectation was always that nations would grow more ambitious with time, and there is evidence that is happening.
But as global emissions have continued to rise, as countries have failed to hit even modest targets and as the consequences of a warming world have become more tangible, the push for leaders to act more aggressively has become only more urgent.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Diminishing water supply part of report
Numerous western Coloradans were part of a group that has presented U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., with recommendations for how to increase resilience to climate change in the West.
Bennet said in a news release that he plans to use the recommended priorities to drive his policy work in the Senate and in working with the Biden administration on its national climate strategy.
“The terrific work this group has done to reimagine climate policy is already informing my team’s work. I plan to share their framework with my colleagues in the Senate and the Biden Administration to help them understand why climate resilience is so important to Colorado and the rest of the Mountain West,” Bennet said in the release. “I will do my part to ensure these priorities are part of every discussion going forward about climate and the country’s economy. I think this framework will be an important tool to demonstrate to the country that climate change isn’t a future condition in the West — it’s here now. And the survival of our economy and our way of life depends on tackling this challenge.”
The group was formed in November and chaired by Andy Mueller, general manager of western Colorado’s Colorado River District, which has been focused on dealing with the challenges of diminishing water supply in a warming climate, and the implications that may have for Western Slope agriculture and communities…
The group made recommendations focused on three overall priorities, saying:
Resilience is dependent on strong local economies in the West, and a climate resilience strategy must include tools for local economies to adapt to changing climate and economic conditions and build long-term prosperity in a future powered by a clean economy.
Supporting healthy soils, forests, rangeland, rivers and watersheds will make communities more resilient and help maximize the climate mitigation potential of western landscapes.
Climate resilience is dependent on a thorough and science-based understanding of actions needed to sustainably adapt to and mitigate climate change.
A wide range of more specific recommendations within the framework of those priorities include:
Helping communities transitioning from fossil-fuel-based economies through measures such as job training, support for building broadband infrastructure, and investing in forest restoration, clean energy and outdoor recreation to attract new business, jobs and tax revenues;
Modernizing and building new infrastructure, including water infrastructure that protects and enhances rivers and habitat, and provides water for communities and agriculture while enhancing a vibrant outdoor economy;
Updating federal management of natural resources so it is informed by the best available science;
Increasing funding for research and development programs throughout the West that focus on developing climate change solutions.
Bennet’s office said he already is taking action based on the recommendations.
He recently urged the Biden administration to prioritize locally driven economic development solutions for communities transitioning away from fossil fuels. He plans in coming weeks to reintroduce a bill to invest in $60 billion in forest and watershed restoration across the West.
FromThe High Country News [February 1, 2021] (Jonathan Thompson):
A half-century ago, the ‘Big Buildup’ transformed the West; now, it’s all coming to an end.
For nearly five decades, the Navajo Generating Station’s smokestacks towered over the sandstone and scrub of the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona, churning out greenhouse gases and other pollutants and serving as symbols of coal’s unquestioned dominance of the nation’s energy mix. But the plant shut down in December 2019, and the towers were demolished a year later. Now they symbolize something else entirely: The Big Breakdown of coal power and the ongoing transformation of the West’s economic and energy landscape.
In the late 1950s, several utilities across the Southwest teamed up to create a cabal called WEST, or Western Energy Supply and Transmission Associates, to construct six massive coal-fired power plants and their accompanying mines across the Colorado Plateau. The plants would then ship power hundreds of miles across high-voltage lines to the region’s burgeoning cities. It was the first and most ambitious phase of what scholar and author Charles Wilkinson would later dub “The Big Buildup.”
Four of the six proposed plants — Four Corners, Mojave, San Juan and Navajo — sprouted on or near the Navajo Nation in the 1960s and early ’70s. Huntington was built in central Utah, but the sixth plant never made it past the drawing board.
The Buildup’s real beneficiaries lay west and south of the Colorado Plateau, in the cities, where an abundance of cheap power lit the neon of Las Vegas and ran air conditioners in LA. The Navajo Generating Station powered the pumps that pushed Colorado River water into central Arizona, sending Phoenix’s suburbs sprawling into the desert and enriching the Southwest’s growth machine — all those real estate developers, mass-production homebuilders, the automotive industry, the corporate shareholders, the ratepayers and the executives.
For a half-century, the coal plants churned, pumping electricity onto the grid, cash into state and tribal coffers, and pollution into the water, land and air, unruffled by recessions or environmental protests and lawsuits, impervious to the booms and busts that plagued oil, gas and hardrock mining. Just as the coal leviathan maintained a steady stream of “baseload” power to the grid, so too did it provide an economic foundation for coal-dependent communities, together with a baseload level of smog.
Now that foundation is crumbling.
Coal as a power-generating fuel reached its apex in 2007. Soon thereafter, the price of natural gas came crashing down and that, along with renewable-energy tax credits and the decreasing price of solar and wind energy, wiped away coal’s cost advantage. States mandated that at least some of the electricity they consumed had to come from clean sources, California ordered the state’s utilities to break their coal habit for good, and the Obama administration implemented a variety of regulations that increased the cost of operating coal plants.
Total annual royalties, bonus payments and water-use fees paid to the Hopi Tribe and the Navajo Nation by the owners of both the Navajo Generating Station and the Kayenta Coal Mine, which were lost when the plant and mine shut down.
Compensation paid to Peabody CEO Glen Kellow in 2017 as the company exited bankruptcy. Peabody owns the now-closed Kayenta Coal Mine.
Number of coal-mining fatalities in the U.S. in 1913.12
Fatalities in 2019.
Fatalities in 2020.
Metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent greenhouse gases emitted by the Navajo Generating Station (CO2) and the Kayenta Mine (methane) annually while they were in operation.
472; 4,370; 259
Pounds of mercury, arsenic and selenium, respectively, emitted by the Navajo Generating Station annually when it was still operating.
Tons of coal combustion waste produced by the plant each year.
9 billion gallons
Amount of water drawn from Lake Powell each year for steam generation and cooling at the plant. This was all consumptive use, meaning none of this water was returned to the source.
Megawatt-hours of electricity the Central Arizona Project uses to lift, transport and deliver 1.6 million acre-feet of Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson annually — enough to power about 240,000 Arizona homes for one year. Most of that power previously came from the Navajo Generating Station.
Approximate number of households on the Navajo Nation that lack electricity.
Today, the products of the Big Buildup are coming down as surely as the Navajo Generating Station’s smokestacks. Mojave shut down in 2005; Reid-Gardner in southern Nevada went dark in 2019, as did the Navajo Generating Station and the Kayenta Mine that fed it. San Juan Generating Station in northwestern New Mexico will close next year, and the nearby Four Corners Power Plant is unlikely to run beyond 2031. Domestic coal consumption is down 65% since its 2007 peak, and some 45,000 coal miners have lost their jobs during the last decade. The Big Breakdown is reverberating across the West despite President Donald Trump’s market-meddling and regulation-eviscerating efforts to save the coal industry.
The transition won’t be easy: Coal-dependent economies are suffering mightily, from the Hopi Tribe and the Navajo Nation to towns like Farmington, New Mexico, and Gillette, Wyoming. Yet the Big Breakdown also opens up space for hope and opportunity, for a rethinking and refashioning of energy systems and economies. And already the air over the Southwest is a little bit cleaner than it’s been since the 1960s.
Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Mine Safety and Health Administration, Energy Information Administration, Navajo Generating Station-Kayenta Mine Complex Draft Environmental Impact Statement (2016), St. Louis Dispatch.
Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Email him at email@example.com./blockquote>
Weld County Wyoming, a political committee registered last year by Christopher “Todd” Richards, wants to place a measure on the November 2021 ballot that, if passed, would instruct county commissioners to engage and explore annexation with Wyoming.
“We’re not really moving,” Richards said during a November meeting at a local church that was recorded and posted on a website built to promote the proposed measure. “We’re moving a line.”
At the meeting, Richards said he got the idea for Weld County Wyoming after reading a Denver Post opinion article, admitting he considered the idea the “funniest thing I’ve ever heard.” Still, Richards later created a Facebook page to gauge interest that has since garnered nearly 5,000 likes.
“This has never been done before, so we’re not here to tell you this can be done,” Geoffery Broughton, a local pastor, said at the meeting. “We’re telling you this is a hard thing that we think is worth trying to do.”
A pair of rural Oregon counties are one election cycle ahead of Weld County Wyoming. In November, Jefferson and Union counties approved ballot measures to push lawmakers to consider relocating to Idaho, a state they believe is more representative of their political views.
Two other counties rejected the same measure proposed by a group led by Mike McCarter called Move Oregon’s Border. What’s next? McCarter hopes to push similar ballot measures in 11 other counties as soon as this year, with a vision of ultimately taking 22 of Oregon’s 36 counties to a new “Greater Idaho.”
It won’t be easy: The reallocation of any county would require votes by the state legislatures in Oregon and Idaho as well as the U.S. Congress.
The Weld County Wyoming movement faces similar long odds, with Richards stressing at the meeting that the process would be “long” and “daunting.”
If Weld County joined Wyoming, Vermont would suddenly become the country’s most sparsely populated state, with Wyoming’s population increasing by nearly 60%. The Colorado county east of Fort Collins has a population of about 324,000.
Wyoming, with about 579,000 residents, has long celebrated its standing as the country’s least populated state since the 1990 U.S. Census. One Cowboy State radio station even pulled together a “10 Reasons NOT to Move to Wyoming” list that includes too much fresh air and not enough traffic.
Why is Wyoming a better fit for Weld County? At the meeting, Broughton said it was because Colorado was “at war with three major economic drivers for Weld County: small businesses, agriculture, and oil and gas.”
A similar idea proposed in 2013 that aimed to form a new state with several northern Colorado counties failed, though it passed in five of 11 counties where it appeared on the ballot.
“There are a lot of consideration(s) for Weld County voters if they want to secede to Wyoming: income tax, personal property tax, corporate state income tax, retirement income tax, gas tax, severance taxes on oil and gas, and water rights to name a few,” Jennifer Carroll, the mayor of Erie, said in a statement. “If Weld County residents approve the ballot question, the Colorado legislature has to approve it, the Wyoming legislature has to approve it, and it’s possible both Colorado voters and Congress will need to approve it as well.”
Tommy Butler, a member of the Greeley City Council, offered a blunter assessment to KDVR-TV.
“I absolutely love living in Colorado,” Butler told the TV station. “For those that don’t love living here, there are certainly less ridiculous ways of moving to Wyoming.”
FromThe Center Square (Derek Draplin) via The Kiowa County Press:
President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed an executive order halting new leases for oil and natural gas development on federal land, a move criticized by the industry and some state governors.
“We’re going to review and reset the oil and gas leasing program,” Biden said Wednesday at the White House.
Biden said his administration is going to “properly manage lands and waterways in ways that allow us to protect, preserve them and the full value that they provide for us for future generations,” adding that his administration won’t ban fracking.
The administration cites greenhouse gas emissions and “irresponsible leasing” that negatively affects communities as the reason for the order, which won’t affect existing oil and gas development on federal land and doesn’t apply to tribal land.
The lease moratorium, which also applies to offshore leases, expands a secretarial order signed last week suspending new land leases and drilling permits for 60 days unless approved by Department of Interior (DOI) leadership. It’s also part of broader executive actions Biden took on Wednesday.
The executive actions establish an Office of Domestic Climate Policy in the White House along with a National Climate Task Force. Biden is also directing DOI to establish a plan that will conserve 30% of the country’s land and water by 2030…
Other states, like Colorado, welcomed Biden’s climate actions and pledge to work with his administration.
“We will also work closely with the Biden administration as they begin a program-wide review of energy development policy on public lands to ensure that it works for Colorado,” Gov. Jared Polis said in a statement. “And as long as the review is completed expeditiously we don’t expect an economic impact in the short-term with current market factors and the many existing unused leases and permits.”
Environmental advocacy groups praised the moratorium along with the administration’s broader efforts on fighting climate change.
“Hitting pause on oil and gas leasing is a crucial first step toward reforming a rigged and broken system that for too long has put oil and gas lobbyists ahead of the American people,” said Jesse Prentice-Dunn, policy director for the Denver, Colo.-based Center for Western Priorities.
The Sierra Club said the lease moratorium “will improve the health of our communities, our climate and our wild places.”
“We look forward to working with the Biden administration to secure lasting solutions that address the climate impacts of coal, oil and gas leasing and put in place long-overdue protections for communities, taxpayers, and the climate,” said Athan Manuel, the Sierra Club’s director of Public Lands Protection.