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.
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.
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.”
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.
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>
FromThe Associated Press (Matthew Brown) via The Aurora Sentinel:
The Biden administration announced Thursday a 60-day suspension of new oil and gas leasing and drilling permits for U.S. lands and waters, as officials moved quickly to reverse Trump administration policies on energy and the environment.
The suspension, part of a broad review of programs at the Department of Interior, went into effect immediately under an order signed Wednesday by Acting Interior Secretary Scott de la Vega. It follows Democratic President Joe Biden’s campaign pledge to halt new drilling on federal lands and end the leasing of publicly owned energy reserves as part of his plan to address climate change.
In Colorado, about 14 percent of federal land in the state is available for drilling, about 3.8 million acres. Currently, federal officials report around 5,000 oil and gas leases across the state.
The order did not ban new drilling outright. It includes an exception giving a small number of senior Interior officials — the secretary, deputy secretary, solicitor and several assistant secretaries — authority to approve actions that otherwise would be suspended.
The order also applies to coal leases and permits, and blocks the approval of new mining plans. Land sales and exchanges and the hiring of senior-level staff at the agency also were suspended…
On his first day in office Wednesday, Biden signed a series of executive orders that underscored his different approach — rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, revoking approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada and telling agencies to immediately review dozens of Trump-era rules on science, the environment and public health.
The Interior Department order did not limit existing oil and gas operations under valid leases, meaning activity won’t come to a sudden halt on the millions of acres of lands in the West and offshore in the Gulf of Mexico where much drilling is concentrated. Its effect could be further blunted by companies that stockpiled enough drilling permits in Trump’s final months to allow them to keep pumping oil and gas for years…
But Biden’s move could be the first step in an eventual goal to ban all leases and permits to drill on federal land. Mineral leasing laws state that federal lands are for many uses, including extracting oil and gas, but the Democrat could set out to rewrite those laws, said Kevin Book, managing director at Clearview Energy Partners…
National Wildlife Federation Vice President Tracy Stone-Manning said she expected Biden to make good on his campaign promise to end leasing altogether, or at least impose a long-term moratorium on any new issuances.
“The Biden administration has made a commitment to driving down carbon emissions. It makes sense starting with the land that we all own,” she said. “We have 24 million acres already under lease. That should get us through.”
Oil and gas extracted from public lands and waters account for about a quarter of annual U.S. production. Extracting and burning those fuels generates the equivalent of almost 550 million tons (500 metric tons) of greenhouse gases annually, the U.S. Geological Survey said in a 2018 study.
Here’s the release from Governor Polis’ office (Chris Arend):
The State of Colorado, through the Department of Natural Resources, filed a complaint today in Colorado federal court challenging the approval of the U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Resource Management Plan (RMP) for the Uncompahgre Field Office. The Uncompahgre RMP, finalized in April 2020, governs mineral extraction and other land use activities on federal lands spanning five counties in southwestern Colorado. The Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR) protested the proposed RMP in July 2019, and Governor Polis also submitted inconsistencies between the RMP and state policies, but those concerns were dismissed by the BLM in the final plan.
The State’s complaint details how William Perry Pendley, a BLM deputy director, violated the Federal Vacancies Reform Act (FVRA) when he improperly exercised the authority to resolve DNR’s protest while unlawfully occupying the role of the agency’s acting director. Resolving such protests is a responsibility reserved exclusively to the Secretary of Interior, a U.S. Senate-approved BLM Director, or a legitimate acting director nominated by the President.
Mr. Pendley’s appointment by Secretary David Bernhardt was never reviewed by the U.S. Senate and had extended beyond the legal 90-day limit for temporary officials at the time when the plan was finalized. Colorado’s lawsuit follows a recent ruling in a federal lawsuit in Montana that invalidated two RMPs and an RMP amendment that were approved based on a similar unlawful protest resolution by Mr. Pendley.
“The unfortunate fact is that if the Trump Administration had followed the law in appointing a Senate-confirmed nominee to lead the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Colorado and other western states would not be in this predicament,” said Governor Jared Polis. “It is now Colorado communities and the State of Colorado who face unnecessary uncertainty and potential impacts to local recreation and outdoor industry jobs.”
“The Department of Natural Resources raised legitimate concerns in its protest that the final Uncompahgre RMP runs counter to Colorado’s goals to protect sensitive habitat for big game species and other wildlife, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said Dan Gibbs, Executive Director, Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “The complaint provides facts demonstrating that these concerns were not addressed appropriately, and the approval of the plan by Pendley’s BLM was invalid. We are hopeful that the uncertainty caused by the questionable appointment can be clarified by the court so that Western Slope and Southwest Colorado communities can reliably plan for the future.”
Attorney General Phil Weiser said: “In Colorado, our public lands are critical to our quality of life and economy. Over the years, the Bureau of Land Management has taken a series of illegal actions in developing the resource management plan that harms and conflicts with our state’s policies. We are bringing this lawsuit to address those harms and safeguard public lands and wildlife in Colorado.”
The state’s argument that Pendley, the BLM’s “acting director,” did not have the authority to approve anything mirrors a federal case in Montana that overturned three resource-management plans.
Gov. Jared Polis didn’t like the Bureau of Land Management’s long-range management plan for the Uncompahgre Plateau, saying the expansion of oil drilling in the region did not jibe with state laws and regulations protecting water, air, wildlife and recreation.
And because the agency did not resolve those issues in its Resource Management Plan, Polis on Friday sued the BLM, as well as agency bureaucrat William Perry Pendley and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, asking a federal judge to overturn the Resource Management Plan (or RMP) for nearly 680,000 acres of federal land in western Colorado.
The state is following the lead of Montana, arguing not just that the management plan conflicts with state laws, but that Pendley, who was never formally approved by the U.S. Senate as director of the BLM, did not have the authority to approve the RMP in April.
“The unfortunate fact is that if the Trump Administration had followed the law in appointing a Senate-confirmed nominee to lead the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Colorado and other western states would not be in this predicament,” said Polis in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “It is now Colorado communities and the state of Colorado who face unnecessary uncertainty and potential impacts to local recreation and outdoor industry jobs.”
The final plan approved by Pendley was the first resource management plan approved under the Trump Administration’s “energy dominance” agenda to bolster domestic oil, gas and coal industries. It did not limit drilling in the North Fork Valley and expanded energy development across 675,800 acres of land and 971,200 acres of mineral estate in Montrose, Gunnison, Ouray, Mesa, Delta and San Miguel counties. And it did not weigh the state’s concerns about energy projects potentially injuring wildlife, habitat and air quality.
The preferred plan that was on track in the fall of 2019 — crafted after many years of BLM meetings and work with local communities — was replaced by a new Trump Administration alternative in the spring of 2020 that identified energy and mineral development as key planning issues alongside reducing regulatory burdens for extractive industries and economic development. The BLM said the plan would contribute $2.5 billion in economic activity to the region and support 950 jobs a year for the next two decades.
Earlier this month the BLM approved two oil and gas drilling projects in the North Fork Valley that allow up to 226 wells.
Colorado’s lawsuit, being handled by Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, says the plan’s conflicts with state laws were never resolved, so the approval should be overturned.
In 2020, the raft of bills passed by Colorado legislators in 2019 began altering the state’s energy story. Too, there was covid. There was also the continued movement of forces unleashed in years and even decades past, the eclipsing of coal, in particular, with renewables. Some Colorado highlights:
1) Identifying the path for Colorado’s decarbonization
Colorado in 2019 adopted a goal of decarbonizing its economy 50% by 2030 (and 90% by 2050).
The decarbonization targets align with cuts in greenhouse gas emissions that climate scientists warn must occur to reduce risk of the most dangerous climatic disruptions.
In September 2020, the Colorado Air Quality Control Division released its draft roadmap of what Colorado must do to achieve its targets. The key strategy going forward is to switch electrical production from coal and gas to renewables, then switch other sectors that currently rely on fossil fuels to electricity produced by renew able generation. But within that broad strategy there are dozens of sub-strategies that touch on virtually every sector of Colorado’s economy.
A core structure to the strategy is to persuade operators of coal-fired power plants to shut down the plants by 2030, which nearly all have agreed to do. It’s an easy argument to make, given the shifted economics. The harder work is to shift electrical use into current sectors where fossil fuels dominate, especially transportation and buildings.
It’s a lot—but enough? By February, environmental groups were fretting that the Polis administration was moving too slowly. During summer months, several members of the Air Quality Control Commission, the key agency given authority and responsibility to make this decarbonization happen, probed both the pace and agenda of the Polis administration.
This is from the Jan. 5, 2021, issue of Big Pivots, an e-magazine tracking the energy transition in Colorado and beyond. Subscribe at bigpivots.com
ohn Putnam, the environmental programs director in the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, and the team assembled to create the roadmap have defended the pacing and the structural soundness, given funding limitations.
Days before Christmas, the Environmental Defense Fund filed a petition with the Air Quality Control Commission. The 85-page document calls for sector-specific and legally binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions. It’s called a backstop. The proposal calls for a cap-and-trade system of governance, similar to what California created to rein in emissions. New England states also have used cap-and-trade to govern emissions from electrical generation. In this case, though, the emission limits would apply to all sectors. EDF’s submittal builds on an earlier proposal from Western Resource Advocates.
“The state is still far from having a policy framework in place capable of cutting greenhouse gas emissions at the pace and scale required—and Colorado’s first emissions target is right around the corner in 2025,” said one EDF blog post.
This proposal from EDF is bold. Whether it is politically practical even in a state that strongly embraces climate goals is the big question, along with whether it is needed. All this will likely get aired out at the Air Quality Control Commission meeting on Feb. 18-19.
2) Coal on its last legs as more utilities announce closures
It was a tough year for coal—and it’s unlikely to get better. Tri-State Generation and Transmission and Colorado Springs Utilities both announced they’d close their last coal plants by 2030. Xcel Energy and Platte River Power Authority had announced plans in 2018.
That will leave just a handful of coal plants operated by Xcel Energy puffing, but who knows what state regulators will rule or what Xcel will announce in 2021. It has a March 31 deadline to submit its next 4-year electric resource plan.
Meanwhile, Peabody, operator of the Twentymile Mine near Steamboat Springs, furloughed half its employees in May, partly because of covid, and in November announced it was considering filing for bankruptcy. If so, it will be the second time in five years.
It was an image from Arizona, though, that was iconic. The image published in December by the Arizona Republic, a newspaper, showed three 750-foot stacks at the Navajo Generating Station at Paige beginning to topple.
3) How and how fast the phase-out of natural gas?
Cities in California and elsewhere have adopted bans on new natural gas infrastructure in most buildings. Several states have adopted bans against local bans. Colorado in 2020 got a truce until 2022.
But the discussion has begun with a go-slow position paper by Xcel Energy and heated arguments from environmental hard-hitter Rocky Mountain Institute. It’s insane to build 40,000 new homes a year in Colorado with expensive natural gas infrastructure even as Colorado attempts to decarbonize its economy, Eric Blank, appointed by Polis in December to chair the PUC, told Big Pivots last summer. The PUC held an information hearing in November on natural gas.
State Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat, sponsored a bill that would have created a renewable natural gas standard, to provide incentives to dairies and others to harness their methane emissions. The bill got shelved in the covid-abbreviated legislative session. Expect to see it in 2021.
4) Colorado begins effort to define a Just Transition
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis spent the first Friday in March in Craig and Hayden, two coal towns in northwest Colorado. Legislators in 2019 created an Office of Just Transition. The goal is to help communities and workers in the coal sector affected by the need to pivot to cleaner fuels create a glide path to a new future. No other state has the same legislative level of ambition.
There are many places in Colorado where the impacts of this transition will be felt, but perhaps no place quite as dramatically as in the Yampa River Valley of northwest Colorado.
Polis and members of the Just Transition team created by legislators spent the afternoon in the Hayden Town Hall, hearing from disgruntled coal miners, union representatives, and local elected and economic development officials. That very afternoon, the first covid case in Colorado was reported.
Legislators funded only an office and one employee. That remains the case. Some money will have to be delivered in coming years to assist workers and, to a lesser degree, the impacted communities. As required by law, a final report to legislators was posted in late December.
Legislators will have to decide whether the task force got it right and, if so, where the money will come from to assist workers and communities in coming years.
Meanwhile, in Craig, and elsewhere, the thinking has begun in earnest about the possibilities for diversification and reinvention. But it will be tough, tough, tough to replace the property tax revenues of coal plants in the Hayden, Craig, and Brush school districts.
For more depth, see the first and second stories I published on this (via Energy News Network) in August.
The question driving the upcoming investigation is whether Xcel customers, who represent 53% of electrical demand in Colorado, would be better served by shuttering this coal plant well ahead of its originally scheduled 2060-2070 closing.
6) Work begins on giant solar farm that will power steel mill
In October, site preparation work began on the periphery of Pueblo on 1,500 acres of land owned by Evraz, the steel mill, for a giant 240-megawatt solar farm. Keep in mind that nearby Comanche 3 has a generating capacity of 750 megawatts. Commercial operations will begin at the end of 2021.
Evraz worked with Xcel Energy and Lightsource BP to make the giant solar installation happen. The company expects the solar power to provide nearly all of its needs. See artist depiction on page 15. See August story.
7) A new framework for oil and gas and operations
Colorado’s revamped oversight of oil and gas drilling and processing continued with a new legislatively-delegated mission for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission: protecting public safety, health, welfare, and the environment. The old mission: fostering development.
Guiding this is a new 5-member commission, only one of whom can be from the industry. The 2019 law also specified shared authority over oil and gas regulation with water and other commissions to also have say-so. And local governments can adopt more restrictive regulations.
The specifics of this came into sharp focus in November with 574 pages of new rules adopted after 10 months of proceedings, including what both industry and environmental groups called cooperative and collaborative discussions.
The new rules simplify the bureaucratic process for drilling operators, require that drilling operations stay at least four blocks (i.e. 2,000 feet) from homes; old regulations required only a block. The new rules also end the routine venting of natural gas.
The new rules likely won’t end all objections but the level of friction may drop because of the rules about where, when, and how.
8) Covid clobbers the drilling rigs and idles the pickups
Oil prices dove from near $60 a barrel in January to $15.71 in May. All but 7 drilling rigs in Colorado’s Wattenberg Field had folded by then, compared to 31 working a year before. Covid-dampened travel had slackened demand, and supply was glutted by the production war between Saudi Arabia and Russia.
Unemployment claims from March to November grew to 8,425, compared to 30,000 direct jobs in 2019. The full impact may have been 230,000 jobs in Colorado, given the jobs multiplier. Dan Haley, chief executive of Colorado Oil and Gas Association, at year’s end reported cautious optimism for 2021 as prices escalated and vaccines began to be administered.
Covid slowed the renewable sector, too, causing Vestas to announce in November it would lay off 185 from its blade factory in Brighton.
9) Utilities mostly hold onto empires—for now
Xcel Energy got a big win in November when Boulder voters approved a new franchise after a decade-long lapse while the city investigated creating its own utility. Black Hills Energy crushed a proposed municipal break in Pueblo. And Tri-State Generation & Transition stalled exit attempts by two of its three largest member cooperatives, Brighton-based United Power and Durango-based La Plata Energy, through an attempt to get jurisdiction in Washington D.C.
But there was much turbulence. Xcel lost its wholesale supplier contract to Fountain, a municipality. Canon City voters declined to renew the franchise with Black Hills. And Tri-State lost Delta-Montrose, which is now being supplied by Denver-based Guzman Energy, a relatively new wholesale supplier created to take advantage of the flux in the utility sector. Low-priced renewables have shaken up the utility sector – and the shaking will most certainly continue as the relationship between consumers and suppliers gets redefined.
10) Two utilities take lead in the race toward 100% renewables
Xcel Energy in December 2018 famously announced its intent to reduce carbon emissions from its electrical generation 80% by 2030 (as compared to 2005 levels), a pledge put into law in 2019. In 2020, nearly all of Colorado’s electrical generators mostly quietly agreed to the same commitment.
Meanwhile, several utilities began publicly plotting how to get to 100%. Most notable were Platte River Power Authority and its four member cities in northern Colorado. Holy Cross Energy, the electrical cooperative serving the Vail-Aspen, Rifle areas, announced its embrace of the goal in December. CEO Bryan Hannegan said the utility sees multiple pathways to this summit.
11) Gearing up for transportation electrification
You can now get a fast-charge on your electric car in Dinosaur, Montrose, and a handful of other locations along major highways in Colorado, but in 2021 that list will grow to 34 locations.
Colorado is gearing up for electric cars and trying to create the infrastructure and programs that will accelerate EV adoption, helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, now the No. 1 source, while delivering hard-to-explain-briefly benefits to a modernized grid.
Also coming will be new programs in Xcel Energy’s $110 million transportation electrification program approved by the PUC just before Christmas. It creates the template going forward.
Now comes attention to medium- and heavy-duty transportation fleets. Easy enough to imagine an electrified Amazon van. How about electric garbage trucks?
Colorado and 14 other states attempted to send a market signal to manufacturers with a July agreement of a common goal of having medium- and heavy-duty vehicles sold within their borders be fully electric by mid-century. Of note: Other than Vermont, Colorado was the only state among the 14 lacking an ocean front.
Many await arrival of the first Rivian pickup trucks in 2021, while Ford is working on an electric version of its F-series pickup.
12) Disproportionately impacted communities
The phrase “disproportionately impacted communities” joined the energy conversation in Colorado in 2020.
In embracing the greenhouse gas reduction goals, in 2019, state legislators told the Air Quality Control Commission to identify “disproportionately impacted communities,” situations where “multiple factors, including both environmental and socio-economic stressors, may act cumulatively to affect health and the environment and contribute to persistent environmental health disparities.”
The law goes on to describe the “importance of striving to equitably distribute the benefits of compliance, opportunities to incentivize renewable energy resources and pollution abatement opportunities in disproportionately impacted communities.”
Specific portions of Air Quality Control Commission meetings were devoted to this. What this will mean in practice, though, is not at all clear.
A version of this was previously published by Empower Colorado. IT was published in the Jan. 5, 2020, issue of Big Pivots.
With the dawning of a new year comes a new source of news, insight, and commentary: the Land Desk. It is a newsletter about Place. Namely that place where humanity and the landscape intersect. The geographical center of my coverage will be the Four Corners Country and Colorado Plateau, land of the Ute, Diné, Pueblo, Apache, and San Juan Southern Paiute people. From there, coverage will spread outward into the remainder of the “public-land states” of the Interior West, with excursions to Wyoming to look at the coal and wind-power industries and Nevada to check out water use in Las Vegas and so on.
This is the time and the place for a truth-telling, myth-busting, fair yet sometimes furious journalism like The Land Desk will provide. This is where climate change is coming home to roost in the form of chronic drought, desertification, and raging wildfires. This is where often-toxic politics are playing out on the nation’s public lands. This is the sacrifice zone of the nation’s corporate extractive industries, yet it is also the playground and wilderness-refuge for the rest of the nation and the world. This is the headwaters for so many rivers of the West. And this is where Indigenous peoples’ fight for land-justice is the most potent, whether it be at Bears Ears or Chaco Canyon or Oak Flat.
The Land Desk will provide a voice for this region and a steady current of information, thought, and commentary about a wide range of topics, from climate change to energy to economics to public lands. Most importantly, the information will be contextualized so that we—my readers (and collaborators) and I—can better understand what it all means. Perhaps we can also help chart a better and more sustainable course for the region to follow into the future, to try to realize Wallace Stegner’s characterization of this place as the “native home of hope.”
I’ve essentially been doing the work of the Land Desk for more than two decades. I got my start back in 1996 as the sole reporter and photographer for the weekly Silverton Standard & the Miner. I went from there to High Country News fifteen years ago, and that wonderful publication has nurtured and housed most of my journalism ever since. But after I went freelance four years ago, my role at HCN was gradually diminished. While I have branched out in the years since, writing three books as well as articles for Sierra, The Gulch, Telluride Magazine, Writers on the Range, and so forth, I’ve increasingly run up against what I call the freelancer bottleneck, which is what happens when you produce more content more quickly than you can sell it. That extra content ends up homeless, or swirling around in my brain, or residing in semi-obscurity on my personal website.
I’m not messing around. The Land Desk is by no means a repository for the stories no one wants. It is intended to be the home for the best of my journalism and a place where you can find an unvarnished, unique, deep perspective on some of the most interesting landscapes and communities in the world. My hope is that it will give me the opportunity to write the stories that I’ve long wanted to write and that the region needs. If my hopes are realized, the Land Desk will one day expand and welcome other Western journalists to contribute.
That’s where you come in. In order for this venture to do more than just get off the ground, it needs to pay for itself. In order to do that, it needs paying subscribers (i.e., you). In other words, I’m asking for your support.
For the low price of $6/month ($60/year), subscribers will receive a minimum of three dispatches each week, including:
1 Land Bulletin (news, analysis, commentary, essay, long-form narrative, or investigative piece);
1 Data Dump (anything from a set of numbers with context to full-on data-visual stories); and,
1 News Roundup, which will highlight a sample of the great journalism happening around the West;
Reaction to and contextualization of breaking news, as needed.
Additionally, I’ll be throwing in all sorts of things, from on-the-ground reporter notebooks to teasers from upcoming books to the occasional fiction piece to throwbacks from my journalistic archives.
Can’t afford even that? No worries. Just sign up for a free subscription and get occasional dispatches, or contact me and we can work something out. Or maybe you’ve got some extra change jangling around in your pocket and are really hungry for this sort of journalism? Then become a Founding Member and, in addition to feeling all warm and fuzzy inside, you’ll receive some extra swag.
I just launched the Land Desk earlier this week and already subscribers are getting content! Today I published a Data Dump on a southwestern indicator river setting an alarming record. Also this week, look for a detailed analysis tracing the roots of the recent invasion of the Capitol to the Wise Use movement of the early 1990s. In the not-so distant future I’ll be publishing “Carbon Capture Convolution,” about the attempt to keep a doomed coal-fired power plant running by banking on questionable technology and sketchy federal tax credits. Plus the Land Desk will have updated national park visitor statistics, a look back on how the pandemic affected Western economies, and forward-looking pieces on what a Biden administration will mean for public lands.
Please subscribe to The Land Desk. Click here to read some of Thompson’s work that has shown up on Coyote Gulch over the years.
FromThe Arizona Republic (Ryan Randazzo). Click through for the photo gallery:
The demolition of the largest coal burner in the West is a milestone for environmentalists who fought, and continue to fight, to shift the country to renewable energy. But it was a somber moment for the hundreds of people who worked at the plant, some following multiple generations of family members before them, who benefited from the good-paying jobs.
When the plant was running at full capacity, the 775-foot-tall stacks were the third-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the nation, but the coal-burning days for the station ended last year as utilities decided to purchase cheaper power from natural-gas plants and renewables like solar.
Now the stacks will no longer linger in the background of tourists’ photos at the famous Antelope Canyon slot canyons and Lake Powell.
The coal plant, and mine 80 miles away that fed it, employed about 750 people before operations began to wind down two years ago, and nearly all of the workers were Navajo and Hopi.
Hundreds of people lined the highways and cliff sides outside Page on Friday to watch the demolition, which sent a huge plume of dust creeping across the landscape…
…environmentalists have urged the plant’s closure for years, noting its contribution to climate-warming greenhouse gasses, the impact from the coal mine on the land and water, and the other pollutants that came out of the emissions stacks creating haze over the region.
From the University of Colorado (Kelsey Simpkins):
A long-term trend of ecological improvement is appearing in the mountains west of Boulder. Researchers from CU Boulder have found that Niwot Ridge—a high alpine area of the Rocky Mountains, east of the Continental Divide—is slowly recovering from increased acidity caused by vehicle emissions in Colorado’s Front Range.
Their results show that nitric and sulfuric acid levels in the Green Lakes Valley region of Niwot Ridge have generally decreased over the past 30 years, especially since the mid-2000s. The findings, which suggest that alpine regions across the Mountain West may be recovering, are published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences.
This is good news for the wildlife and wildflowers of Rocky Mountain National Park to the north of Niwot Ridge, which depend on limited levels of acidity in the water and soil to thrive. Colorado’s Rocky Mountains are also the source of a lot of water for people living in the Mountain West, and the integrity of these ecosystems influences both the quantity and the quality of this water.
“It looks like we’re doing the right thing. By controlling vehicle emissions, some of these really special places that make Colorado unique are going back to what they used to be,” said Jason Neff, co-author on the paper and director of the Sustainability Innovation Lab at Colorado (SILC).
Almost every area in the world, including Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, has been affected in the past 200 years by increased acidic nutrients, like nitrogen, contained in rain and snow. Nitrogen oxides, like nitrate, are produced primarily from vehicles and energy production. Ammonium is a main ingredient in common agricultural fertilizers.
Nitrogen is a fundamental nutrient required in ecosystems. But when nitrogen levels increase too much, this changed soil and water chemistry can make it difficult for native plants to thrive or even survive—leading to a cascade of negative consequences.
In the summer, the sun heats up the Eastern flanks of the Front Range, causing the warmer air to rise—bringing nitrogen from cars, industry and agriculture with it. As this air cools, it forms clouds over the Rocky Mountains and falls back down as afternoon thunderstorms—depositing contaminants, explained Neff.
In the 1970s, so-called “acid rain” hit East Coast ecosystems much harder than the Mountain West, famously wiping out fish populations and killing trees across large swaths of upstate New York. But scientists are still working to understand how increased levels of acidic nutrients affect the alpine region and how long these ecosystems take to recover.
To fill this gap of knowledge, the researchers analyzed data from 1984 to 2017 on atmospheric deposition and stream water chemistry from the Mountain Research Station, a research facility of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) and CU Boulder located on Niwot Ridge. They found that around the early 2000s, levels of nitric and sulfuric acid stopped increasing in the Green Lakes Valley. In the mid-2000s they started decreasing.
Their findings were not all good news, however. Levels of ammonium from fertilizer have more than doubled in rainfall in this area between 1984 and 2017, indicating a need to continue monitoring this agricultural chemical and its effects on the mountain ecosystem.
From field work to statistics
This work builds on decades of field work by Colorado researchers at CU Boulder and beyond.
Niwot Ridge is one of 28 Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network sites in the U.S., funded by the National Science Foundation. Its 4 square miles stretch from the Continental Divide down to the subalpine forest, 25 miles northwest of Boulder. Researchers at CU Boulder, as well as Colorado State University and the United States Geological Survey, have been collecting data here since the mid-1970s, hiking through snow, sleet and rain to get it.
In the 80s, 90s and 2000s they worked to bring attention to increasing acidification in Colorado mountain ecosystems as a need for pollution regulation in the Front Range.
This new research was made possible by these dedicated scientists, stresses Neff.
“We used water quality modeling and statistical approaches to analyze the long-term datasets that Niwot researchers have been collecting for decades,” said Eve-Lyn Hinckley, a co-author on the paper and fellow of INSTAAR. “The data are available for anyone to download. Our modeling approaches allowed us to evaluate the patterns they hold in a rigorous way.”
Since 1990, Bill Bowman, director of the Mountain Research Station and a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, has been looking into how nutrients like nitrogen affect plants in mountain ecosystems. He’s found that alpine environments are unique in how they respond to these nutrients.
“It’s a system that is adapted to low nutrients, as well as a harsh climate and a very short growing season—and frost in the middle of the season. These are very slow growing plants. And they just simply can’t respond to the addition of more nitrogen into the system,” said Bowman, also a fellow in INSTAAR.
He has also found that these ecosystems recover quite slowly, even after acidic elements like nitrogen are no longer being added. But like Neff, who completed his undergraduate honors thesis with Bowman in 1993 using Niwot Ridge data, he sees this research as encouraging.
Even if it’s slow going, they said, these results show that the ecosystem has a chance to recover.
“We still have air quality issues in the Front Range. But even with those air quality issues, this research shows that regulating vehicle and power plant emissions is having a big impact,” said Neff.
Additional authors on this paper include lead author John Crawford of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) and CU Boulder.
Colorado’s second biggest electrical utility will soon identify its path to 80% reduced emissions by 2030. Surely this map will include Arizona and Wyoming.
Tri-State Generation and Transmission last week promised to deliver what Colorado wants, an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. As for how it will deliver on that pledge, it remains a bit of a mystery.
Less coal production, obviously. More wind and solar, ditto. And, as has been highlighted in recent filings, more transmission to get electricity from renewable sources to its 16 member co-operatives in Colorado.
But how exactly?
For that, a more definitive answer will likely have to wait until Dec. 1 and perhaps beyond. That’s when Tri-State is scheduled to deliver an electric resource plan to state regulators. This plan is to explain in detail how it intends to procure electricity in coming years for its Colorado cooperatives. Colorado’s co-ops together account for about two-thirds of Tri-State’s demand across a four-state area.
Tri-State is Colorado’s second largest utility based on the amount of electricity it delivers in the state. In 2019 it delivered 38% as much electricity as compared to Xcel.
This electric resource plan will be a first for Tri-State. The utility has never been directly regulated by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. SB 19-236, one of the many laws passed by Colorado legislators in 2019 to complement new economy wide carbon reduction targets adopted in the same session, makes it clear that the PUC has jurisdiction over Tri-State’s resource planning activities. A September filing by the Colorado PUC staff asserted that the “overriding concern” in evaluating Tri-State’s plan is how the utility “can meet Colorado’s emissions reduction cost effectively.”
Foundational to Colorado’s efforts to decarbonize its economy 50% by 2030, with even deeper cuts by mid-century, is removing carbon emissions from the electrical sector and then using electricity for other uses now fulfilled by fossil fuels in the transportation, industrial, and building sectors.
The 2019 legislation laid out an explicit requirement of 80% emissions reductions of Xcel Energy, which had by then agreed to do so. The state’s authority over other utilities, however, is more fuzzy.
In recent months, Will Toor, executive director of the Colorado Energy Office, has secured commitments from Platte River Power Authority, the wholesale provider for four municipalities along the Front Range, and also Colorado Springs Utilities. This commitment by Tri-State binds the overwhelming majority of Colorado electrical production to the emissions reductions identified by legislators.
A smaller utility, Holy Cross Energy, has adopted a more restrained goal of 70% by 2030 but is almost certain to hit that target within the next year.
Tri-State in January announced it would close the Escalante coal plant in New Mexico this year, which it did in September, and that it would have all the three units near Craig that it operates closed by 2030.
Still, Tri-State has a long, long way to go. Baseline modeling done by the utility in advance of its Dec. 1 filing showed a 34% reduction in Colorado in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 as compared to a 2005 baseline.
Last week, after Tri-State’s announcement, Tri-Harder, a new coalition of Tri-State members, issued a statement. Speakers were cautious in their praise.
“Telluride can’t meet its carbon reduction goals unless Tri-State takes the lead on carbon reductions, so we’re thrilled with this news,” said Todd Brown, mayor pro-tem of Telluride. “I hope this means that Tri-State will invest in local, clean energy in our communities so that our local economies can benefit as well as the climate.”
Wyoming and Arizona
With Colorado Gov. Jared Polis rubbing virtual elbows, video-conference style, Tri-State chief executive Duane Highley took questions about his utility’s pathway.
Highley said the utility will be adding thousands of megawatts of new generating capacity in wind and solar and expects to be at 50% renewables across its entire system by 2023; in 2019 it was about 30%, about the same as Xcel.
But what will it do about imported power into Colorado? Tri-State imports power to meet needs of Colorado consumers from the Laramie River Station at Wheatland, Wyo., and from the Springerville 3 plant in Arizona. Tri-State is a minority owner in the Laramie River Plant but owns all the output from the unit at Springerville.
Highley said that Tri-State will diminish the power from the Wyoming plant over time, but did not give a time line.
The PUC staff report in September pointed out that aside from natural-gas generation, almost all the other carbon dioxide emissions in 2030 are from these out-of-state coal units.
“According to Tri-State, there are no provisions for modification or early termination” of the contracts” and Tri-State “has not analyzed such an action. The staff report went on to say that the resource planning review before the PUC “may include clear evidence that for Tri-State to meet its cumulative Colorado GHG reduction obligations, it cannot continue to serve Colorado load (demand) using those out-of-state resources.”
Tri-State, in an Oct. 2 filing, said it is developing several scenarios as part of its planning. “These scenarios will address the social cost of carbon on a system-wide basis, as well as specified carbon reduction goals in the state of Colorado,” the filing said. “These scenarios include aggressive levels of renewable energy additions and energy storage, allow for demand-side management, limit thermal additions, allow for retirement of existing resources, and incorporate either base or low-load forecast.”
What its load—the demand for its electricity—will be could be impacted by changes in the oil-and-gas sector, as Tri-State is a major supplier to oil-and-gas fields, but also the potential for existing cooperatives to leave or transition to partial requirements, Tri-State says.
In other words, there are a lot of uncertainties about just how much electricity Tri-State will need.
Another electric resource planning process will commence in 2023, not long after the current one is settled.
This is from the Nov. 20, 2020, issue of Big Pivots, which chronicles the great energy transition in Colorado and beyond. Sign up for copies at BigPivots.com.
Electric resource plans are wonky but rigorous things. Xcel Energy and Black Hills are required to file them. In addition to the filings of the utilities, laying out their plans and answering questions, intervening parties, including environmental groups, independent power producers, and the Office of Consumer Counsel, chip in statements, sometimes lengthy. Printing out all the filings in some of these cases can cost you a box of paper. The plans can drag on for years. Like painting the Golden Gate Bridge, the job is completed and then begins from the other side again.
The Tri-State filing will be a first for the utility itself. It will also be the first time for any resource plan since state legislators adopted the suite of energy laws in 2019. None was more expansive than SB 19-236, which reauthorized existence of the PUC but also delivered new criteria for how commissioners are to evaluate plans by utilities.
One example: The lengthy bill—it runs 64 pages—specifies that the commission must establish the cost of carbon dioxide emissions produced by electric generation resources, starting at not less than $46 per ton. The rate must be escalated based on the work by the federal interagency working group. This is called the social cost of carbon.
The PUC commissioners, at their weekly meeting on Nov. 12, ruled that Tri-State must use cost escalators in the models it submits for future electrical generation on Dec. 1.
Necessarily, the Colorado PUC will be examining Tri-State’s four-state operating system. Already, there are questions.
Reacting to Tri-State’s 80% announcement, Eric Frankowski, director of the Western Clean Energy Campaign, warned against any attempt to make this “an accounting exercise by shipping its expensive, dirty coal to its members outside of Colorado.”
Western Resource Advocates will also be watching carefully how Tri-State explains its accounting of greenhouse gas emissions in the review process.
Gwen Farnsworth, WRA’s senior energy policy advisor, says Tri-State’s announcement puts it at a better starting point for the electric resource plan in December as compared to the data provided by the utility earlier this year. That process before the PUC, she added, “provides a rigorous, evidence-based process to review Tri-State’s plan and emissions reductions claims.”
Tri-State’s cases will be different from the filing by Xcel Energy next March 1 in that the PUC has clear authority over setting rates in the case of Xcel. Tri-State sought oversight by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission because it operates in four states.
One important area is that of transmission. Transmission has been constructed in a piecemeal fashion in Colorado over the decades. This new push for rapid development of renewable generation calls for a more unified and systematic approach to thinking about both new resources and transmission, instead of considering them separately.
Transmission was also the subject of Highley’s second significant announcement last week. He said Tri-State and four other power providers have sent letters committing to evaluate expansion of the Southwest Power Pool’s regional transmission organization, or RTO, into the West. The other utilities are Basin Electric Power Cooperative, Deseret Power Electric Cooperative, the Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska, and the Western Area Power Administration.
In essence, Tri-State has assembled buddies to challenge the more dominant idea in Colorado that the most logical way to realize benefits of managed markets will be to join with the California and other utilities in the West. Like Tri-State, generation and transmission associations, the one larger and the other much smaller, MEAN is a public power provider of many Colorado towns and cities.
Tri-State and WAPA — the distributor of electricity generated by federal dams in the West— in September 2019 announced they were forming an energy imbalance market with the aid of the Arkansas-based Southwest Power Pool. Xcel Energy and three partners—Platte River Power, Black Hills Energy, and Colorado Springs Utilities—three months later said they were doing the same but with the aid of CAISO, the California-created operator.
Creation of these imbalance markets is seen as a low-risk, low-reward investment in coordinating supplies, especially low-cost renewables, to meet demands. Highley has said that Tri-State can earn back its investment within three years. The far greater benefits will be found in an RTO.
A recent study by Vibrant Clean Energy found that a regional transmission organization, whether operated by SPP or by CAISO, could greatly benefit Colorado consumers, but concluded that the somewhat greater benefits were to be found with the alliance with California.
Asked about that study, Highley disagreed with the conclusion about CAISO but also said that whatever the regional alignment, there will be benefits of integrated transmission and scheduling to share wind, solar, and other resources across broader regions.
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.
The New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission and The Nature Conservancy hope to demonstrate that the strategic water reserve can help endangered fish recover while also providing the ability to meet water compact requirements in the San Juan Basin.
The Interstate Stream Commission approved allowing ISC Director Rolf Schmidt-Petersen to continue negotiations with the Jicarilla Apache Nation to lease up to 20,000 acre feet of water annually that became available as it is no longer needed for operation of the San Juan Generating Station.
The Jicarilla Apache Nation acquired rights to water stored in Navajo Lake in 1992 and has the authority to lease this water to other entities to help the tribe. Up until recently, the nation has leased water to Public Service Company of New Mexico to operate the San Juan Generating Station.
But the potential of the power plant closing in 2022 as well as a reduction in the amount of water needed to operate it due to the closure of two units in 2016 means that this water is now available for the state to potentially lease.
The water would be placed in the strategic water reserve, which has two purposes: assisting with endangered species recovery and ensuring the state meets its obligations under water compacts. When needed, the water could be released from the reservoir to help with the fish or to meet the requirements of the 1922 Colorado River Compact…
Terry Sullivan, the state director of The Nature Conservancy in New Mexico, said the organization has been working on the San Juan River for 15 years trying a variety of restoration projects to help create habitat. The fish rely on slow backwaters for reproduction…
Sullivan said the water lease is a great step forward to achieve both compact requirements and benefits to endangered species.
The amount leased each year would depend on funding available. One of the details of the lease agreement that has not yet been determined is the price…
Peter Mandelstam, the chief operating officer for Enchant Energy, said in a statement that the company believes it has enough water rights without the Jicarilla Apache lease to successfully retrofit the San Juan Generating Station with carbon capture technology and operate it.
Beyond both being in Colorado and along the state’s Front Range, Boulder and Cañon City could not be more different. The differences go back to the state’s founding.
Cañon City had the choice of getting the state penitentiary or the state university. It chose the former, so Boulder got the latter.
In both cities, a franchise vote with the existing utility provider was on the ballot on Nov. 2. This time, they went in different directions once again. The fulcrum in both cases was cost, if the formula was more complex in the case of Boulder.
Boulder voters, after exploring municipalization for a decade, agreed to a new 20-year franchise agreement with Xcel Energy. Xcel had continued to supply the city’s residents with electricity after the last franchise agreement lapsed in 2010.
The new agreement garnered 56% voter approval. Even some strong supporters of the effort to municipalize had agreed that the effort by the city to create its own utility had taken too long and cost too much money, more than $20 million, with many millions more expected. They attributed this to the power of Xcel to block the effort.
Boulder’s effort had been driven primarily by the belief that a city utility could more rapidly embrace renewables and effect the changes needed to create a new utility model. In short, climate change was the driver, although proponents also argued that creation of a city utility would save consumers in the long run. Consumers just weren’t willing to wait long enough.
Going forward, Boulder will have several off-ramps if Xcel stumbles on the path toward decarbonization of its electrical supply. The city will also retain its place in the legal standings, if you will, should that be the case. Also, Xcel agreed to a process intended to advance microgrids and other elements, although critics describe that as toothless. Undergrounding of electrical lines in Boulder will not commence anew as a result of the new franchise agreement.
Cañon City is Colorado’s yin to Boulder’s yang. Located along the Arkansas River in south-central Colorado, it has become more conservative politically even as Boulder has shifted progressive. In the November election, 69% of votes in Fremont County—where Cañon City is located—went for Donald Trump, who got 21% of votes in Boulder County
Economically, they walk on opposite sides of the street, too. The statewide median income in Colorado in 2018 was $68,811. Boulder County stood a shoulder above (and Boulder itself likely even more) at $78,642. Fremont County was at waist level at $46,296.
And along the Arkansas River…
Cañon City also went in the opposite direction of Boulder in the matter of its franchise. There were differences, of course. Boulder turned its back on municipalization in accepting a new franchise.
In Cañon, about 65% of voters rejected a franchise agreement with Black Hills Energy, Colorado’s second investor-owned electrical utility. The city council had approved it, but the city charter also required voter approval.
Unlike in Boulder, decarbonization and reinvention was not overtly among the topic points. Some people in Cañon City do care about decarbonizing electricity, says Emily Tracy, the leader of a group called Cañon City’s Energy Future, which she put together in January 2018. But the cost of electricity was the fulcrum and, she believes, a reflection of how the community feels about Black Hills.
The old franchise agreement with Black Hills expired in 2017. Tracy and other members of Cañon City’s Energy Future persuaded council members to put off a new agreement but failed in their bid to have a community dialogue.
“The power industry, the electric industry, are so different than they used to be, and we simply want the city to explore its options,” she says.
In stories in the Pueblo Chieftain and Cañon City Daily Record, city officials said they had evaluated options before seeking to get voter approval of the franchise.
Partially in play was the effort underway in nearby Pueblo to break away from Black Hills and form a municipal utility. The thought was that if Pueblo voters approved that effort, Canon City could piggyback to the new utility. The proposal lost by a lopsided May vote after a campaign that featured $1.5 million in advertising and other outreach by a pro-Black Hills group.
Black Hills rates are among the highest in Colorado. Tracy illustrates by citing those she pays to Xcel Energy in Breckenridge, where she has a second home.
“I pay 77% more for a kilowatt-hour of electricity for my house in Cañon City than I do to Xcel in Breckenridge,” she says.
This is from the Nov. 20, 2020, issue of Big Pivots, which chronicles the great energy transition in Colorado and beyond. Sign up for copies at BigPivots.com.
Opponents of the franchise renewal were heavily outspent in the campaign. Records that Tracy’s group got from the city clerk showed $41,584 in spending by Power Cañon City, the pro-Black Hills group, through mid-October. Tracy’s group spent less than $5,000, counting in-kind contributions. Tracy suspects that Black Hills didn’t entirely take the vote seriously.
Now it’s back to the drawing board for the Cañon City Council. Tracy hopes for more transparent discussion about the options.
But it’s all about the money.
“You take a poor community like Cañon City or Pueblo, then add in the fact that we’re paying the highest electricity rates in the state, and there’s no doubt it has an impact on families, businesses and attempts to do economic development,” says Tracy.
Frances Koncilja, a former member of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission has offered her legal assistance to Cañon City’s Energy Future.
As for why Cañon City wanted the state prison instead of the state university in the early years of Colorado’s statehood, keep in mind the times. Crime did pay for Cañon City in the 19th century, when few people had or needed college degrees. It was well into the 20th century before this shift toward greater education began.
Did Platte River Power just take a big step backward? Or was it big step forward?
The Sierra Club describes Platte River Power Authority as reneging on a commitment. Colorado Governor Jared Polis, who ran on a platform of 100% renewables by 2040, issued a statement applauding the electrical power provider for four northern Colorado cities with setting a new bar for electrical utilities.
Do you detect any dissonance?
Directors of Platte River representing its member cities—Fort Collins, Longmont, Loveland and Estes Park—in December 2018 adopted a goal of 100% renewable generation by 2030. The 2018 resolution was hinged to a long list of provisos: if a regional transmission authority was created, if effective energy storage became cost effective, if…
You get the idea.
Platte River in recent months has been engaged in a planning process similar to what Xcel Energy does when it goes before the Public Utilities Commission every four years with updated plans for how it will generate its electricity.
Looking out to 2030, Platte River’s planners can see how they can get to 90% or above by 2030. That is, hands down, as good as it gets in Colorado right now. Aspen Electric in 2015 was able to proclaim 100% renewable generation. But that claim is predicated upon purchase of renewable energy certificates. Platte River’s goal goes further.
Steve Roalstad, who handles public relations for Platte River, says utilities in the Pacific Northwest with easy availability of hydroelectric power or those utilities relying upon nuclear power, can claim more. Not so those utilities, like Platte River, that have traditionally relied heavily on coal.
Rawhide, Platte River’s coal-fired power plant, has historically provided 60% to 65% of electricity to customers in the four cities. It’s being used less than it was. Platte River expects coal to provide 55% of Platte River’s power generation this year but less than 40% by 2023. The utility also uses “peaker” gas plants, to turn on quickly to meet peak demands, for 2% to 3% of annual generation.
Platte River plans another 400 megawatts of renewable generation in the next three years.
Still unresolved is the combination of technologies and market structures that will allow Platte River and other utilities to get to 100%. As backup, it has adopted a plan that could result in new natural gas generation, a technology called a reciprocating internal gas engine. That’s not a given, though. When exactly that decision will have to be made is not clear. Presumably it must be a matter of years, conceivably toward the end of the decade.
The Sierra Club issued a statement decrying the decision to use gas-fired generation as a place holder in the plans for 2030. In a release, the organization said the directors had “voted to build a new gas-fired power plant” and this decision “derails the utility’s 2018 commitment to 100% carbon-free power by 2030.”
Wade Troxell, the mayor of Fort Collins and chairman of the board of directors for Platte River, dismissed the statement.
Platte River, he wrote in an e-mail, “is not pulling away from our 2030 commitment in any way.” He directed attention to the resolution passed by directors.
That resolution, beginning on page 169, insists that Platte River “will continue to proactively pursue a 100% non-carbon energy mix by 2030, seeking innovative solutions… without new fossil-fueled resources, if possible.” The resolution describes fossil-fueled resources as a “technology safeguard.”
In other words, Platte River thinks it can figure out a way to avoid this gas plant. But it’s impossible to know now.
That’s likely a realistic assessment. Nobody knows absolutely how to get to 100% today. Will cheaper and—very important—longer-lasting energy storage create the safeguards that Platte River and other utilities want?
Technology in the last 10 years has done amazing things in some areas. Solar prices dived 87% between 2010 and 2020 while wind prices plummeted 46%, according to FactSet. Battery prices are now following a similar trajectory, although nobody has solved the challenge of energy storage for days and weeks.
Other technologies—think carbon capture and sequestration—have yielded almost nothing of value, despite billions of dollars in federal investment.
In Boulder, advocates of a municipal utility have cited the progress of Platte River in arguing that a separation from Xcel Energy would benefit that city’s decarbonization goals. See, Boulder’s fork in the road.
In Denver, the governor’s office issued a statement Thursday afternoon applauding Platte River.
“This is the most ambitious level of pollution reduction that any large energy provider in the state has announced, and it sets a new bar for utilities. Today’s decision will save Platte River Power Authority customers money with low cost renewables while maintaining reliability, and this type of leadership from our electric utilities is a critical part of our statewide efforts to reduce pollution and fight the climate crisis,” said Governor Polis in a statement on Thursday afternoon.
Switching from fossil fuels to renewables to produce electricity is crucial to Colorado’s plan to achieve a 50% decarbonized economy by 2050. If electricity is decarbonized, it can then be used to replace petroleum in transportation and, more challenging yet, heating of homes and water.
State officials have limited authority to achieve this directly. Will Toor, director of the Colorado Energy Office, cited Platte River as the only utility in the state to voluntarily commit to a clean energy plan to achieve the state’s goals. Others, however, likely will also, he said.
Platte River is Colorado’s fourth largest utility, behind Xcel Energy, Tri-State Generation and Transmission, and Colorado Springs Utilities.
Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist who publishes an e-magazine called Big Pivots. Reach him at email@example.com or 303.463.8630.
Speakers say regional transmission organization crucial to economic decarbonization of electrical supplies
If you’re interested in how Colorado will achieve its climate change goals, prepare to wrap your mind around the concept of an RTO, or regional transmission organization.
Colorado in 2019 set economy-wide carbon reduction goals of 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050. Getting there will require electrifying many uses that now depend upon fossil fuels. Think cars and then trucks, but eventually houses, too, and more.
This only works if emissions are largely removed from the production of electricity. Colorado legislators in 2019 understood that. They set a target of 80% fewer emissions by 2030 among electrical utilities. They did not tell utilities how to get there.
On a September morning in which smoke was wafting eastward across the Great Plains from the wildfires in the Rocky Mountains and the West Coast, I sat in a cabin near Nebraska’s Lake McConaughy to hear representatives of Colorado’s two largest electrical utilities and one state legislator explain how they thought Colorado might get an RTO or its close relative, an ISO.
The former once again stands for regional transmission organization, and the latter an independent system operator. The function in both cases is much the same. These organizations pool electrical generation resources and also consolidate transmission.
Colorado currently has neither an RTO nor an ISO, although it has been talking about it for several years. Instead, the state remains composed of fiefdoms. These utilities do share electricity to a point, but the system is archaic, little more advanced than one utility calling a neighboring utility and asking if they have a little extra sugar to share.
Now think more broadly of Western states and provinces. There are wide open spaces, the stuff of calendars and posters. That’s the image of the West. The reality in which 80% or more of Westerners live lies in the dispersed archipelagoes of urban development: Colorado’s Front Range, Utah’s Wasatch Front, and Arizona’s Phoenix-Tucson, the mass of Southern California, and so on.
These islands define and determine the West’s electrical infrastructure. You can see them in the nighttime photographs taken from outer space, including this 2012 image from the NASA Earth Observatory/NOSAA NGDC. These 38 islands represent more-or-less autonomous grids, only loosely connected to the other islands and archipelagoes.
RTOs pool commitments and dispatch of generation, creating cost savings for participating utilities. An RTO also consolidates transmission tariff functions under one operator, resulting in more efficient use of high-voltage transmission.
In the 20th century, this pattern of loosely linked islands worked well enough. Each island had its big power plants, most of them coal-fired generation. The intermittency of renewables was not an issue, because there were few renewables. And, of course, there was less need for transmission. In keeping with the fiefdom theme, transmission providers levied charges for electricity that moves through those wires.
Much has changed. Renewables have become the lowest-cost generation. Prices of wind and solar, plus batteries, too, dropped 90% in the last 10 to 15 years. Utilities have figured out how to integrate wind and solar into their resource mix. Xcel Energy, in its Colorado operations, has used more than 70% of wind at certain times, for example.
Coal earlier this year remained the source of 40% of electrical generation in Colorado, but will decline rapidly in the next five years. Two coal-fired units at Pueblo, two in or near Colorado Springs, and one at Craig will cease production by 2025.
Beyond 2025, more closings yet will occur. Tri-State Generation & Transmission, Colorado’s second largest electrical supplier, will close the two remaining plants it operates in Craig by 2030. Xcel Energy, Colorado’s largest utility, will almost certainly have closed additional units, either Hayden or Pawnee, conceivably both, by 2030. Platte River Power Authority also plans to shutter its Rawhide plant north of Fort Collins.
To take advantage of low-cost renewables but also ensure reliable delivery of electricity, utilities will have to do more sharing. That was the common theme of the webinar sponsored by the Colorado Rural Electric Association on Sept. 14.
A must for decarbonization
The subject of RTOs was “a very important topic, and one that the average voter knows absolutely nothing about, in my experience,” said State Sen. Chris Hansen, an engineer who has a Ph.D. in economic geography from Oxford University. He has been involved with most of Colorado’s most important energy legislation of recent years.
Hansen pointed out that 80% of energy use in the West is aligned with decarbonization goals. He foresees a $700 billion investment in the next 20 years needed to reinvent electrical generation, transmission, and distribution across the Western grid, including British Columbia and Alberta.
“If we stay with 38 unintegrated grids, I just don’t think we can physically get there (to achieve climate targets) without a hugely expensive overbuild of wind and solar, and nobody wants that,” said Hansen on the webinar.
While decarbonizing the grid, an RTO will deliver strong economic benefits. “Just leave climate change aside for the minute—which is hard to do as fires rage across the West—we are looking at a minimum $4 billion in savings in the West if we have an integrated grid,” he said.
What’s the snag? As Hansen has pointed out, the smart phone took only two years from introduction into the market to broad adoption.
The short answer is that creating markets in the West is relatively new and this stuff gets very, very complicated, as was pointed out by Carrie Simpson, who looks after markets for Xcel’s Colorado operations.
She cited the devilish details involving charges on electricity transmission, how utilities make money, who makes the money and who doesn’t, and then a massive rejiggering of the electrical grid through invention of sophisticated software intended to deliver lowest-cost electricity while keeping the lights on.
Hansen was asked by webinar host Thomas Dougherty, an attorney for Tri-State Generation and Transmission, whether Colorado’s utilities might expect legislative direction in the coming session.
He prefaced his answer by pointing to the ability of an RTO or ISO to reduce needed reserves to ensure reliability. Currently, utilities need backup generation of 16% or 17%. With an RTO, said Hansen, that could be lowered to 10% or 11%. It’s like needing 9 pickups in your fleet instead of 10.
“You could easily take 5% out of reserve margins in Colorado,” he said. “That is worth more than $100 million dollars per year.”
“I think you will see the Legislature really try to push this, because there is so much at stake for the ratepayers,” Hansen replied.
Later, in an email interview, Hansen confirmed his plans to introduce legislation next winter that “will address both the near-term and longer-term issues in CO around transmission. I believe we need a clear policy direction for Colorado to join a well-structured RTO or ISO and transmission owners. To accomplish that goal, we may need incentives and disincentives for operators.”
Hansen also confirmed that he believes even existing coal plants are less foundational than they once were.
Why Tri-State needs it
Duane Highley, the chief executive of Tri-State, has practical experience in the benefits of regional markets. A veteran of 38 years in electrical cooperatives in the Midwest, he recalled being in Arkansas a few years ago when he drew on the power of the Midwest Independent System Operator, or MISO, to deliver wind power from Iowa during winter to Arkansas customers.
This enabled coal-fired power plants to be shut down. He called it “decommitting” of resources.
Tri-State must decommit coal resources in coming years to meet Colorado’s decarbonization targets. The utility, Colorado’s second largest, behind Xcel, has started shifting from coal. It closed one small plant in Colorado, at Nucla, in September 2019, and Escalante, in New Mexico, in September 2020. The three much larger units at Craig, of which Tri-State shares ownership with other utilities, will close between 2025 and 2030.
On the flip side, Tri-State is adding 1,000 megawatts of renewable generation before the end of 2024. That will get Tri-State to 50% renewables across its four-state operating area. It then has plans for more than 2,000 megawatts of additional renewable generation from 2025 to 2030.
That won’t be enough to get Tri-State to the 80% emission reduction by 2030 that Colorado lawmakers want to see. In preliminary filings with the PUC, Tri-State has not shown its cards about how it intends to get there. Environmental groups have started making noise. In a filing with the PUC, Western Resource Advocates pointed out that current plans will get Tri-State to only a 34% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 as compared to 2005 levels.
Crucial will be what Tri-State intends to do with its share of two other coal-fired power plants, the Laramie River Station in Wyoming and the Springerville plant in Arizona.
Highley, in the webinar, did not acknowledge the critique directly. He did, however, say that Tri-State needs an RTO to get across the finish line.
“We see a strong need for an RTO to get us past that 50% renewable level as we try to integrate larger and larger amounts of renewables,” he said.
Colorado and its neighbors in the Rocky Mountains currently operate bilateral markets. Highley described it as getting “on the phone and calling your neighbors. That’s sort of the way the West operates. It’s very inefficient,” he said.
This is from the Oct. 2, 2020 issue of Big Pivots. If you want to be on the subscription list, go to BigPivots.com
Utilities in Colorado in 2017 began getting together in an ad hoc organization called the Mountain West Transmission Group to talk about how to do it more efficiently. That effort fell apart in spring 2019 when Xcel pulled out. The company said the benefits weren’t obvious relative to the cost.
Tri-State, which delivers about roughly a quarter of electricity in Colorado, and Xcel, which has more than 60% of market share, have gone their separate ways. Both have led efforts to create energy imbalance markets, or EIMs. These are best described as the first step toward an RTO or ISO, with smaller risk and smaller rewards.
The first, small step
Only five months after arriving from Arkansas to chart a new course for Tri-State, Highley in September 2019 announced formation of an energy imbalance market, or EIM, in conjunction with the Western Area Power Authority, the federal agency that delivers electricity from federal dams. The federal government makes the low-cost hydroelectric power available to co-operatives and municipal utilities, but not to Xcel and other investor-owned utilities.
Think of an energy imbalance market, or EIM, as being like a 100-level class in energy markets. It is a low-cost, low-gain endeavor. RTOs are a graduate-level course.
With an EIM, utilities can share power, but on a somewhat limited basis. There is sub-hourly balancing, but not the day-ahead planning that begins to deliver big benefits.
“We wanted to get something going. It may not be the ultimate solution for the West, but we can recover the cost from the savings in three years. Maybe this is the first step toward an ultimate market or restarting the Mountain West conversation,” Highley said.
This new EIM will go on-line in February 2021 and will be administered through the Arkansas-based Southwest Power Pool.
Xcel and its three partners—Platte River, Colorado Springs Utilities, and Black Hills Energy—are looking west. Are you ready for more alphabet soup? They will have CAISO creating an EIM for them. CAISO stands for California Independent System Operator. It was established in 1998. An ISO, like an RTO, is motivated to produce efficiency. They’re often compared to air traffic controllers, because they independently manage the traffic on a power grid that they don’t own, much like air traffic controllers manage airplane traffic in the airways and on airport runways. CAISO has advanced services to utilities north and east. This, however, will not be an RTO.
Highley said that the “real prize will be getting the RTO,” and then he threw down a spade in the conversation.
“About 90% of transmission (in Colorado) is controlled by Tri-State and our partner, the Western Area Power Authority,” he said. “We are key to what happens regionally and not just in the state of Colorado.”
It’s been conventional wisdom that an RTO will look either east or west. There are problems in both directions.
One challenge is that of political control. Do you think for a second that Wyoming will allow control of its electrical grid in the hands of appointees of the governor of California? Colorado, which of late has aligned more comfortably with California in its politics, nonetheless has its own hesitancy about that sort of arrangement. It’s not a hypothetical example. California legislators in 2019 refused to put administration of CAISO into independent hands. In other words, the better acronym for CAISO would be CASO. Forget about Independent.
Tooting the horn
Highley, coming from Arkansas, toots the horn of the Southwest Power Pool. “It would make sense in some ways for us to help SPP to move west, and CAISO, of course, is moving east. Think of it like the great railroad days.”
The golden spike completing the transcontinental railroad was hammered down in the salt flats along the Great Salt Lake in 1869. Highley describes a different geography, with a fortune yet to be made – or costs reduced – depending upon who can get wind-generated electricity of the Great Plains to markets.
“There’s an extremely large amount of wind in SPP area that needs to go somewhere, and it has negative pricing now at some points in time. And they haven’t built all the wind that will be built in Kansas yet,” he said. “It’s going to be an opportunity for whoever manages the DC ties to better tie together the grids east and west. Everything east of those ties is currently managed by SPP,” said Highley.
The DC stands for direct-current. The DC ties provide portals between the Eastern Interconnection Grid and the Western Interconnection, which hum along not quite on the same tune and both on alternating current. (Surely you have experience with this part of the alphabet soup). Think of narrow gates along a very tall fence. There are eight such DC portals between Artesia, N.M., and Miles City, Mont. One is north of Lamar, Colorado. There are also two in the Nebraska panhandle.
The afternoon of the webinar, I drove to the one near Stegall, Neb., which is about 35 minutes southwest of Scottsbluff. How would I not? I had been hearing about this for near 40 years. You leave the valley of the North Platte River and its fields of corn and climb into the landscape out of a Remington painting. There was a flock of wild turkeys and then, just over the hill, the focus of all the electrical lines: the David Hamil Tie.
It’s owned and operated by Tri-State, but used exclusively to get electricity from the Laramie River Station at Wheatland, about an hour to the west, to its customers in the Eastern grid. I was neither thrilled nor disappointed by what I saw. An electrical engineer probably understood what was evident to the eye, but I did not.
There has been much talk about creating greater permeability between this giant electrical wall just beyond eyesight of the Rocky Mountains and the energy resources of the Great Plains. A study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory was devoted to that idea, with the goal being to integrate greater quantities of renewables. It was called the Seams study, but it got smothered by Trump administration officials. It is likely to re-emerge.
“Yes, that study will be very helpful in guiding our policy discussions in this area, as will the DoE study being done by Utah on western grid options,” said Hansen in an e-mail after the webinar.
Optimizing the east-west gates
These portals currently can accommodate transmission of 1,300 megawatts. Highley suggested – but did not go into details – about figuring out creating wider gates at these portals.
“Who best could manage those DC ties and optimize them than possibly SPP,” he asked rhetorically, referring to the Arkansas-based Southwest Power Pool.
(The Colorado Public Utilities Commission will host an information meeting devoted specifically to transmission on Oct. 22, and I would be shocked if this is not addressed. I also expect much discussion of the infamous Seams Study squelched by the coal-happy Trump administration.)
Highley said the real benefit of renewables will be realized by creating opportunities to move them east and west – and in different time zones. “The person who sits on the seams will have the opportunity to either make a lot of money or lower prices, however you look at it,” he said.
Much has been made about seams in Colorado (including a story I did that was published in March). “I do think there will be a seam somewhere,” Highley said. Too much has been made of seams, too much “fear” expressed. “If you look east of us, there are seams all over the place. This problem has been solved any number of times. We can figure this out, too.”
Simpson, representing Xcel, suggested a third option for an RTO, one that does not explicitly look either east or west but instead uses Colorado as a focal point. But, she said, Colorado alone cannot deliver the market efficiencies. The footprint must be somewhat larger, but she did not specify exactly how large.
When may Colorado become part of an RTO? That was the parting question, and all three panelists answered much alike,
“Five years might be a little quick, but I would love to see this happen in the 2025-2028 time-frame,” said Hansen.
Xcel’s Simpson largely agreed. “Five years may be a little aggressive, but I do think that the EIM will open up new opportunities for us to learn about our system and how we can interact with the rest of the West more efficiently.”
Tri-State’s Highley was the most sporting. He offered to bet a bottle of wine that a quicker pace can occur, delivering an RTO by the end of 2025.
“I will keep that wine bottle bet out there,” he said.
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.
FromThe High Country News [This story was originally published at High Country News (hcn.org) October 1, 2020] (Paige Blankenbuehler):
In Grand Junction, Colorado, the presidential election is a choice between two distinct energy futures.
On July 13, in Grand Junction, Colorado, a day after the coronavirus pandemic hit a local three-month peak, 45 elderly women flouted the state’s “safer-at-home” directive and withstood temperatures that reached 105 degrees Fahrenheit to meet at the Grand Vista Hotel for the Mesa County Republican Women’s Luncheon.
Officially, the event was meant to spotlight an issue on this year’s ballot in Colorado, a contentious measure on wolf reintroduction in the state. But as the women milled about the hotel’s conference room, discarding their masks and embracing each other, the scene looked more like a reunion. Although the group, which was founded in 1944, typically gathers monthly in Grand Junction, Mesa County’s largest city, the meetings had been on forced hiatus since March, and the women were excited to be together, excited by their shared disobedience.
The featured speaker was Denny Behrens, co-chair of the Colorado Stop the Wolf Coalition, but the true star of the day was Lauren Boebert, a feisty MAGA Republican who had just beaten a longtime incumbent, Rep. Scott Tipton, in the Republican primary. Boebert moved from table to table for introductions, handshakes and hugs, a sidearm holstered at her hip. At 33, she was the youngest there by decades. In Rifle, Colorado, where she has lived since the early 2000s, Boebert owns the Shooters Grill, where waitresses in tight flannel shirts and denim serve burgers and steaks with loaded handguns strapped to their hips or thighs. The Grill was shut down in May for repeatedly violating public health orders restricting in-person dining, but the publicity Boebert received from the conflict — and a GoFundMe petition for the Grill that raised thousands of dollars — assisted her bid for Congress.
After a lunch of barbecued chicken, potato salad and corn muffins, the group’s president officially began the meeting. She recited a prayer, quoted Abraham Lincoln, and led the room in the Pledge of Allegiance. Then she introduced key people in the room: candidates for the county commission, a representative from President Donald Trump’s Mesa County campaign office, and Boebert.
Speaking to the room, Boebert described a conversation she had had with Trump, who called her after she won. “President Trump said that he was watching this from the very beginning,” Boebert said. “He said, ‘I knew that something big was going to happen with you, and now I get to call and congratulate you.’ He said, ‘Every day I’m fighting these maniacs, but now I have you to fight them with me.’”
Her audience laughed and applauded. Boebert smiled brightly. “We are going to win this fight against the liberal socialist agenda and restore the potential for our community to develop our rich natural resources right here in the ground in Mesa County,” she said.
Boebert is partly right; this election could mean a change in how much fossil fuels are extracted from public lands. Currently, a quarter of the crude oil produced in the United States comes from federal lands, and almost three-quarters of Mesa County is federally owned. Public land also accounts for 20% of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions, making it key to any national energy (or climate) policy.
If he wins in November, Trump promises to further his agenda of “energy dominance,” which has already opened millions of acres of federal land across the Western U.S. to energy extraction. But if his opponent, Joseph Biden, wins the presidency, he’ll bring with him the most progressive environmental platform ever proposed by a major party candidate. And, as with so many issues in this election, the stakes are high for communities that rely on public lands — and nowhere are these themes more amplified than in Grand Junction, the home of the new Bureau of Land Management headquarters.
THERE ARE 1,260 OIL WELL SITES scattered throughout Mesa County. The scene is not apocalyptic; the sites don’t dominate the landscape, and the machinery is tucked away from highways and out of view from the city center. In the rural communities that orbit Grand Junction, pumpjacks, compressors and pipes sit amid a mosaic of farms and ranchland, orchards and winery towns, and numerous biking and hiking trails.
Some 63,000 people live in Grand Junction, more than 80% of them white, and around 15% Latino. The city is named for its location at the junction of the Gunnison and Colorado rivers, and has a long history of mining, including uranium. In the 1970s, thousands of homeowners were warned that their homes had been built on non-mediated radioactive sites, marked by gray, sand-like waste from a defunct uranium mill downtown.
Over the last decade, Grand Junction has developed a reputation for outdoor recreation and wineries. It is a city defined by two distinct identities: new liberal-leaning outdoor enthusiasts and a more rooted, conservative population. The different groups coexist amid the expansive public land with all its multiple uses: hunting, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, motorized off-roading and skiing, as well as ranching and the extraction of oil, gas and coal.
There are nearly 20 outdoor gear stores in the downtown vicinity alone, reflecting the myriad approaches to life here. Brochures, maps and pamphlets at places like Hill People Gear — a family-run institution that sells hand-sewn goods and promotes gun rights on its website — and Loki Outdoor gear — where an 18-year-old sales associate told me she was “definitely” voting for Biden — tout the many nearby places where one might recreate. About 73% of Mesa County is public land, but only 18% of it is protected from natural resource development. So far, Grand Junction has had enough room for a variety of perspectives and competing interests. Since Trump took office, however, he has offered more land for oil and gas development in his first two years as president than Obama did in his entire second term, auctioning off more than 24 million acres of public lands. If Trump is re-elected and continues to lease land at the rate of the last few years, opponents fear that land that could be managed for recreation, wildlife or conservation will wind up under the control of energy companies. At best, it will remain idle, but be inaccessible to the public. At worst, it will be immediately developed and directly contribute to greenhouse emissions in a world that is already nearing the critical threshold for the climate crisis.
Even as Grand Junction has changed, the Trump years have widened the political and cultural divide between liberals and conservatives here. Multiple use and the concept of space for all have given way to sharpened political ideologies and divisiveness, and attitudes have hardened around the pandemic and its restrictions, while protests have arisen concerning police brutality.
AFTER I LEFT THE REPUBLICAN WOMEN’S Luncheon, I drove west to the trailhead of Lunch Loops, a popular mountain biking trail network just outside Colorado National Monument. I was there to meet Sarah Shrader and Scott Braden, two of the town’s most prominent conservationists.
Shrader and Braden represent an alternate vision for Grand Junction, a future in which a sustainable economy is built around abundant access to public lands. Both are relative newcomers to the area, but they’ve invested their personal and professional lives in the Colorado canyon country.
I waited for them by a picnic table in the sweltering heat. Behind me, a rocky mesa hulked over the system of singletrack trails, extending out from narrow ledges and scarcely visible breaks in the canyons — the kind of landscape whose scale outflanks the mind’s ability to absorb it.
The area is managed jointly by the Bureau of Land Management and the city of Grand Junction. The local BLM office, with the help of the city and a number of other land-use agencies, is extending a connector trail all the way to the monument. Once it’s finished, a person will be able to bike from the heart of downtown Junction all the way to the monument in about 25 minutes.
Soon, Braden arrived and shared some relief: iced black coffee sweetened with agave nectar, which he poured from a glass jar into a tin mug for me. Braden is 44, with a friendly smile and a dark goatee. He has worked for many conservation organizations and served a stint on a resource advisory council for the BLM. Now, he runs his own firm where he provides advocacy-for-hire for Western environmental and conservation groups.
“Grand Junction is really the perfect place to be for me,” he told me as we drank. “This is a place with an economic identity built around cattle and sheep, oil and gas, uranium mining. But you look out on places like this, and you see the ability of outdoor rec as an industry to transform it.”
Just then, Shrader drove up, parked, and walked towards us. Shrader is the head of the Outdoor Recreation Coalition, a local interest group she founded in 2015 to help outdoor recreation businesses work together to market the area as an international destination.
The three of us stood on the sandy pavement drinking our coffee, using the picnic table to reinforce social distancing. The trails were empty except for one mountain biker, who was climbing a steep ascent to the edge of the ridge; we watched, half in awe, half concerned that the rider might collapse from heat exhaustion. Shrader thought she recognized the cyclist as a pro she knew. “I was riding my bike up the monument the other day, and she lapped me going up,” Shrader said, “and she lapped me again going down.”
Shrader’s cheeks were moist with perspiration above a royal blue bandanna that she pulled down to drink her coffee. She moved from Prescott, Arizona, to Grand Junction in 2004 with her husband. In addition to running the coalition, Shrader owns a company called Bonsai Design, which builds adventure courses — hard-core mountain playgrounds with ziplines, obstacle courses, Indiana Jones-type bridges — for resorts, state parks and adventure-recreation companies. She started it in her basement in 2005, and her business grew quickly. She bought a building downtown, but outgrew that space, too. Just recently, she broke ground on a new location by the Colorado River — part of a revitalization project that features a water park designed to accommodate low-income families and encourage them to recreate on the river.
Shrader said the Outdoor Recreation Coalition was formed to grow adventure-based industries and the higher quality of life that goes with them. “I did that to really start talking publicly and visibly about the outdoor rec economy here and to shift focus on primarily getting our wealth from the surface of the land, instead of underneath it,” she said.
Recently, the president of Colorado Mesa University asked Shrader to develop and head a new outdoor rec industry program, which offers students experience and coursework on adventure programming, guide services and the fundamental accounting and finance classes needed to run an outdoor recreation business. This fall is its first semester. Shrader serves as the program’s director and also teaches a few classes. “It came from the demand of so many outdoor industry businesses here saying, ‘We need a talented and skilled workforce,’ ” she said. “I really created the program classes to be a reflection of what businesses need and what businesses want.”
She envisions training a new workforce for outdoor-recreation businesses in what has become an $887 billion industry — creating stable, green, good-paying jobs in fields tied to conservation and landscape preservation.
Shrader views the coming election as a crucial moment for Grand Junction. “When we’re talking about the economy, we’re talking about creating a quality of life that is bringing people here,” she told me. “Location-neutral workers, doctors, manufacturing companies — they don’t have to work in the outdoor rec industry, but they’re coming here and raising their families here, buying houses, buying commercial property here, paying their employees here because of this” — she motioned to the rocky mesas surrounding us.
Braden and Shrader worry that Trump’s desire to develop more natural resources here could significantly alter the local landscape. “This place — along with Book Cliffs, Dolores Basin, Grand Mesa, the national monument — is the critical infrastructure of our community, if you’re thinking about creating that quality of life,” Braden said. “If an oil well and a surface oil truck is one picture of an economy future, this place would be the picture of the other economy future. We have a choice as a community, which one we want to run towards.”
As Shrader drank her iced coffee, Braden continued. “Grand Junction is an avatar for this choice,” he said. “This is a place that, not too long ago, our picture of our economic future was an oil field. Now we have a choice.”
FOR DECADES, the Bureau of Land Management has struggled to disentangle the two contradictory directives that make up its mission: management of the landscape for conservation, and a quota for sustained yield of that landscape’s natural resources. Its direction sways back and forth, reflecting the interpretation of the administration currently in charge of the agency’s mandate for multiple uses. The idea is that the political appointees who run the agency have a responsibility to take a balanced approach that keeps in mind the public land’s many resources — timber, energy, habitat and more — and its various other uses, including recreation, mining and grazing. The BLM’s mission, in its own words, is to balance these at-odds uses “for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.”
But ever since the BLM was formed in 1946 by President Harry Truman, to act as the guardian of the public lands, it has served as more of a purveyor than a preserver of land, water and minerals. It was established to administer grazing and mineral rights, and it largely benefited ranching interests, officially combining the General Land Office and the U.S. Grazing Service — both of which aided in the exploitative conquest of the Western United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The agency has never found its balance. In 1996, President Bill Clinton made history by designating the 1.7 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, the first national monument to be overseen by the BLM. Then, under George W. Bush, millions of acres of public land were leased for oil and gas drilling and logging, and “Drill, baby, drill!” became a 2008 Republican campaign slogan. Barack Obama’s tenure over Western public lands was marked by the implementation of policies meant to rein in extraction and focus on preservation. The result was a record of compromise and small gains: He delisted 29 recovered species, but weakened the Endangered Species Act; he designated over two dozen national monuments, more than any other president, but left other important public lands unprotected; he promoted tribal sovereignty, but failed to address systemic inequalities in Indian Country. And even though Obama is considered the first leader to seriously address climate change, he also oversaw surges in oil and gas production.
Neil Kornze, who served as BLM director under Obama, told me that the agency acted as crucial connective tissue in addressing climate change. “As we think about climate solutions and the way that plants and animals are reacting to these really strong changes in our environment, the BLM becomes the bridge to other areas of refuge,” he said. “Questions about sustainable use and conservation are going to be really, really important for the next administration.”
But while the Obama administration’s policies were aimed at protecting more public lands from energy development, the rollout of those regulations was difficult for Bureau of Land Management field offices across the West. Jim Cagney, the BLM’s former Northwest district manager, based in Grand Junction, told me that the administration was too ambitious, and it overreached. Effective land management, he said, happens over decades, not over the course of a single administration.
“I don’t want to burst any environmentalist bubbles or anything, but those guys were really calling the shots from up above,” Cagney said. “My feeling at that time was that we can’t take on this many battles and win them. We’re going to get more pushback than we can handle. Can we slow down and bring this along at a sustainable pace? The Obama administration would have none of that.”
Cagney, who worked for the BLM for three decades, retired before Trump became president. “It’s plainly obvious that (the Trump administration’s) public-lands approach is rooted in the denial of any science that conflicts with their extractive agenda,” Cagney said. “I’ve spent my lifetime trying to maintain a balanced, unbiased approach to public lands. I think both parties overplay their hand, and the ever-increasing pendulum swings associated with administration changes are making management of the public lands unaffordable and impractical.”
SINCE HIS INAUGURATION IN 2017, Trump has worked hard to undo Obama’s legacy, especially when it comes to the environment. I interviewed more than a dozen former Interior Department employees, BLM directors and staff, conservationists, environmentalists and Washington insiders, and by most accounts, Trump has narrowed the vision of the beleaguered agency far more than any of his predecessors. “Energy dominance is not the same thing as multiple use,” Nada Culver, vice president of public lands and senior policy counsel for the National Audubon Society, told me. “It’s a very, very radical tug on the balancing act. There is a thumb on the scale.”
Back in October 2016, I attended a campaign rally for then-candidate Trump on the tarmac of the Grand Junction airport. Ten thousand people waited more than four hours outside the arena. The scene was rowdy, joyous, like an energized fan base at a music festival. Although public lands account for nearly three-quarters of the land inside Mesa County’s limits, a place known as the gateway to the canyonlands and the home of Colorado’s first national monument, Trump never mentioned them explicitly. But he knew that energy development would resonate with his constituency. “We’re going to unleash American energy, including shale, oil, natural gas, clean coal,” he told the crowd. “That means getting rid of job-killing regulations that are unnecessary. … We’re going to put the miners right here in Colorado back to work.
“We are going to dominate,” he said, as his audience whistled and whooped.
Trump won Mesa County by 64% — 28 points more than Clinton. And so began what critics call his “frontal assault” on regulation and public-lands protections, and a chaotic remaking of the Bureau of Land Management. Just one week into his presidency, in his second executive order, Trump took aim at the National Environmental Policy Act — the bedrock environmental legislation that safeguards public land and resources for future generations by requiring thorough environmental impact analyses — and ordered expedited environmental reviews for high-priority infrastructure projects. A few months later, Trump ordered public-land agencies to remove regulatory burdens that blocked projects to develop the “nation’s vast energy resources,” giving agencies 45 days to review ongoing projects.
According to an analysis by The New York Times, in the past few years, Trump has reversed 68 environmental rules; more than 30 similar rollbacks are currently in progress. Many of these moves impact the BLM. In April 2017, Trump signed an executive order to review all designations under the Antiquities Act; later that year, he shrank the boundaries of both Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments. In December 2017, he scrapped a rule that required mines to prove that they could reclaim their mines; a month later, he ordered Interior to expedite rural broadband projects on public lands. Trump has exempted pipelines that cross international borders, such as the Keystone XL project, from environmental review. In April 2019, he lifted an Obama-era moratorium on new coal leases on public lands; that summer, he nixed a ban on drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Trump has also refused to hire a BLM director. Instead, he selected William Perry Pendley, a controversial conservative with a history of lobbying to transfer public lands to local private interests, to serve as acting director in 2019. Trump sidestepped the nomination process altogether until this June, when he formally nominated Pendley to lead the agency in an official capacity. After months of outrage and opposition — notably from vulnerable Western politicians like Colorado’s Republican senator, Cory Gardner, who is up for re-election this year — Trump withdrew the nomination. Still, Pendley remained at the helm of BLM until a federal judge in Montana ordered Pendley to leave his post in late September. The judge concluded that Pendley served unlawfully as acting director for 424 days.
By most accounts, Trump has been successful in advancing his agenda of energy dominance. Though American energy production set records during Obama’s tenure, according to the Interior Department, the revenue from federal oil and gas output in 2019 was nearly $12 billion — double that produced during Obama’s last year in office. The courts — and the uncertain economic situation — have acted to temper abrupt change, but Trump has done everything in his power to clear the way for development.
“Four more years of Trump means a steady stream of oil and gas lease sales and locking in leases and fossil fuel emissions when we can’t afford it,” Kate Kelly, public-lands director for the Center for American Progress, an advocacy organization for progressive policies, told me. “We will continue to see every acre that could potentially be leased, leased, and the hollowing out of the agencies that are there to protect these landscapes.”
In late summer, Trump revealed one of his most extreme changes yet: Amid the widespread economic crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic, his administration finalized a “top-to-bottom overhaul” of NEPA. Trump’s change would fast-track infrastructure and result in shorter reviews and a narrower comment process, thereby limiting what the public is allowed to scrutinize. Already, 17 environmental groups have sued. “(NEPA) is a tool of democracy, a tool for the people,” Kym Hunter, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, the firm representing the groups, wrote in the suit. “We’re not going to stand idly by while the Trump administration eviscerates it.”
And Trump has promised to continue what he started if he’s re-elected in November. He remains skeptical of climate change, calling the crisis a “make-believe problem,” a “big scam” and a “Chinese hoax.” In countering Trump on the issue, Biden has been able to make his most compelling argument for the presidency yet: “There’s no more consequential challenge that we must meet in the next decade than the onrushing climate crisis,” he said at a virtual town hall in July. “Left unchecked, it is literally an existential threat to the planet and our very survival. That’s not up for dispute, Mr. President. When Mr. Trump thinks of climate change, the only word he can muster is ‘hoax.’ When I think about climate change, the word I think of is ‘jobs’ — green jobs and a green future.”
Right now, and for the foreseeable future, the public lands are the battleground for the climate crisis. The United States is the world’s largest emitter of fossil fuels after China, meaning that the country must play an outsized role to curb the climate crisis. In order to keep rising temperatures within the critical 2 degrees Celsius threshold that scientists deem necessary to prevent the worst environmental impacts, the U.S. must decrease its total emissions by 25% by 2025. We are not on track to meet this benchmark, but reducing the 20% of emissions that occur on public lands would significantly help the nation to limit catastrophic ripple effects from the worsening crisis. The fight between Biden and Trump is really a fight over keeping fossil fuels in the ground.
IN LATE OCTOBER 2019, Joe Biden traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina, for a campaign rally. There, he encountered Lily Levin, an 18-year-old climate activist with the Sunrise Movement, an international coalition of more than 10,000 young people fighting for immediate action on climate change and skyrocketing inequality. “I’m Lily from Sunrise,” she said as Biden turned around to face her. “I’m terrified for our future. Since you’ve reversed and are now taking super PAC money — ”
Biden held up a phone, pointed it toward himself and Levin, and took a selfie, as Levin continued: “How can we trust that you’re not fighting for the people profiting off climate change?”
“Look at my record, child,” Biden responded.
A few days earlier, Levin had learned that Biden was walking back an earlier promise that his campaign would not accept dark money from super PACS — interest groups that influence politics without regulations to require disclosures of the identities of their donors. “This lack of transparency is a problem, because young people simply cannot trust that politicians — who have kicked the can down the road for decades when it comes to climate change — will be on our side, unless we also know that they’re not taking a single dollar from the merchants of our planet’s destruction,” Levin wrote in an op-ed for BuzzFeed News a few days after the encounter.
Biden has struggled to capture the support of the progressive arm of the Democratic constituency, and his exchange with Levin deepened the doubts of the Sunrise Movement, which, since its creation in 2017, has become an influential force in Democratic politics. The group was an early champion of the Green New Deal, which was initially mocked by politicians, including Nancy Pelosi, as being overly ambitious and impractical. By 2019, however, 16 of the Democrats running for president had endorsed it. Biden was not among them.
A few days earlier, Levin had learned that Biden was walking back an earlier promise that his campaign would not accept dark money from super PACS — interest groups that influence politics without regulations to require disclosures of the identities of their donors. “This lack of transparency is a problem, because young people simply cannot trust that politicians — who have kicked the can down the road for decades when it comes to climate change — will be on our side, unless we also know that they’re not taking a single dollar from the merchants of our planet’s destruction,” Levin wrote in an op-ed for BuzzFeed News a few days after the encounter.
Biden has struggled to capture the support of the progressive arm of the Democratic constituency, and his exchange with Levin deepened the doubts of the Sunrise Movement, which, since its creation in 2017, has become an influential force in Democratic politics. The group was an early champion of the Green New Deal, which was initially mocked by politicians, including Nancy Pelosi, as being overly ambitious and impractical. By 2019, however, 16 of the Democrats running for president had endorsed it. Biden was not among them.
When Biden released his initial climate plan in June 2019, it fell far below what youth climate activists demanded, focusing more on market-driven changes rather than federal mandates to limit emissions. It shied away from a carbon tax, for example, instead favoring policies that finance emission-cutting efforts by the private sector. That December, the Sunrise Movement gave Biden an “F” rating, deriding his plan for its lack of specificity and saying it fell far short of promises made by other presidential candidates, such as Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Polls from the time showed that Biden lost more than three-quarters of voters younger than 45. “We don’t have to beat around the bush,” one Sunrise member said. “Young people ain’t voting for Joe Biden.”
But in the months following the primaries, Biden abandoned his moderation in favor of a bolder, more progressive climate stance, largely as a result of pressure from the Sunrise Movement. In late July, Biden released a radically progressive, $2 trillion climate plan, the most ambitious blueprint ever released by a major party nominee and the culmination of months of collaborating with members of the Sunrise Movement.
Just days after releasing his plan, Biden held a virtual fundraiser. “I want young climate activists, young people everywhere, to know: I see you,” he said. “I hear you. I understand the urgency, and together we can get this done.”
In his plan, Biden calls for the complete elimination of carbon pollution by 2035. He also promises to rejoin the international Paris climate accord, which Trump withdrew the U.S. from in 2017. While Trump continues to dismiss the science behind climate change, Biden’s plan uses climate science and the projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as a foundation. Biden’s plan will focus on investing in renewable energy development and creating incentives for industry to invest in energy-efficient cars, homes and commercial buildings. Biden has pledged to end new oil, gas and coal leases on public land and has said he will emphasize more solar and wind energy projects on BLM land.
Despite their initial reservations, many environmental organizations and climate activists have been won over by Biden’s new approach. In August, the Sierra Club officially endorsed him. The Sunrise Movement, which agonized publicly over the choice, said that though it would not formally endorse Biden — the group has an endorsement process with specific benchmarks, including requiring candidates to sign a “no fossil-fuel money pledge,” in which lawmakers promise not to accept money from PACs or from donors in the extractive energy sector — it would campaign for him. “What I’ve seen in the last six to eight weeks is a pretty big transition in upping his ambition and centering environmental justice,” Varshini Prakash, co-founder and executive director of the group, told the Washington Post.
In August, Biden named Kamala Harris as his running mate — a signal to his constituency that she would bring accountability to the promises he has made regarding climate action. Harris, who has a strong record of environmental action, made it a centerpiece of her own failed run for the presidency. She and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive congresswoman from New York, introduced the Climate Equity Act, which would establish an executive team and an Office of Climate and Environmental Justice Accountability to police the impacts of environmental legislation on low-income and communities of color. Harris has also said that she wants to eliminate the filibuster — which is a tool most often used for hyper-partisan gridlock — in order to clear the way for the passage of the Green New Deal, a progressive package that aims to mitigate the worse impacts of climate change while transforming the U.S. economy toward equity, employment and justice in the country’s workforce.
If Biden is elected, his nomination to lead the Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management will have great significance for his climate agenda. Potential nominees include Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona and the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee; Ken Salazar, Obama’s Interior secretary; and John Podesta, a lifelong Democratic operator and former chief of staff under Obama, who is credited with envisioning that era’s most memorable conservation and environmental achievements, such as the Climate Action Plan and an economic recovery bill that invested $90 billion in renewable energy and energy efficiency.
Biden has signaled that he’d name a preservation-minded Interior secretary. When Trump withdrew William Perry Pendley’s nomination, Biden responded on Twitter. “William Perry Pendley has no business working at BLM and I’m happy to see his nomination to lead it withdrawn,” Biden wrote. “In a Biden administration, folks who spend their careers selling off public lands won’t get anywhere near being tapped to protect them.”
FOLDED NEATLY ON THE COUNTERTOP that divides Tye Hess’s kitchen from his living room was a large navy flag decorated with stars and a bright red stripe and the declaration: TRUMP 2020, NO MORE BULLSHIT. It was a sunny afternoon in July in Redlands, a suburb of Grand Junction. The streets and culs-de-sac in Hess’ neighborhood are named after the local wine scene; Hess lives on Bordeaux Court.
“How many flags have you sold this week?” I asked. He exhaled loudly. “Quite a few, probably like 20,” he said.
Hess has short brown hair, bright blue eyes and a small gap between his teeth. He was wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt and casually sipped a ruby grapefruit White Claw as we spoke.
“On Friday, I’m getting much more in, and I’m just going to start handing them out to people saying that if they want to donate to buy more, they can,” he told me. “I feel guilty, ya know?” He laughed. “It’s just something I believe in, so I don’t feel like charging for them. I’ve made plenty of money off these, and I can afford to give some away. But if somebody wants to donate money to buy another one, I’ll do that. Just keep it going.”
Hess typically sells the flags for $25. When I met him, he had already sold more than 200, hand-delivering each one, and setting up the deals through social media. Previously, he worked for a coal mine, overseeing methane flaring outside of Paonia, Colorado, and then working as an independent contractor, installing granite countertops, carpet and tile. He supplements his income by running his own e-commerce store. He views his flags project as a personal campaign trail. “We have to do everything we can to get him re-elected,” he said. Hess, who is 42, only registered to vote a few months before we met, and this election will be his first.
We were waiting for a customer named Eric Farr, who was picking up today’s flag. Hess threw away the White Claw, opened his refrigerator, and grabbed a Coors Light. The doorbell rang.
Farr seemed surprised to see me, even though Hess had told him a reporter would be at the handoff. “You’re not some super liberal lady who is going to spin everything I say, are you?” he asked. I promised him that I wouldn’t. “OK,” he said.
Farr was born in the mid-1980s at St. Mary’s Medical Center, in Grand Junction. He grew up riding a Yamaha YZ125 motorbike, honing a talent and a love for motocross on the dips and yaws of the town’s bluffs, managed for motorized use by the BLM. He had traveled widely, competing professionally on his Yamaha and sponsored by Jägermeister. “I have been all over the world, but never wanted to live anywhere else,” he told me. “I just want to keep the public lands open, like the BLM area. It’s just free and open space. I just want to keep a lot of it open for the motorcycles and side-by-sides.”
As we talked about the land, I asked Farr what he thought of Trump’s refusal to fill the position of director at the BLM. “With everything going on, I haven’t seen anything about (Trump’s) approach to public lands,” Farr replied, referring to the pandemic and the ongoing demonstrations for Black lives. “It seems like Trump is about letting the states do what they feel is best with their public lands. So I think he’s got enough on his plate that he doesn’t really have time. As important as public lands are, there are a million other things that are just as important that he’s focused on.”
I asked whether Farr was worried about future generations being able to mountain bike, e-bike and dirt-bike the rocky plateaus and canyons, the same lands that have been such a large part of his own life.
“I get real upset when people dump their trash out there, because that’s going to get them shut down quicker than anything probably,” he said. He thought Trump was the country’s best hope for a return to aspects of his childhood he values: “constitutional values,” he said, “what the founding fathers tried to instill into our country.” He told me that he wants his children — he has two children under 7 and a baby on the way — to experience the same freedom that he feels he grew up with. “I’m not a Democrat, I’m not a Republican,” Farr told me. “I’m a patriot. Trump is like our savior basically. He’s our only hope.”
“Yep, I just barely registered (to vote) because of Trump and seeing these idiots,” Hess said, referring to the social justice activists protesting in Grand Junction following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. “I’ve had plenty of disagreements, and I never seen such rude comments (on social media). Then you fight back and they play the victim.”
Hess took another Coors out of the refrigerator and handed it to Farr. “It’s just ignorance and — like you said — victim mentality,” Farr said to Hess, taking the beer.
I tried to steer the conversation back to the Interior Department, but they wanted to focus on what they called the gall of the “radical socialist left.” Though both Hess and Farr’s lives have been intimately connected to the public lands in the Grand Junction area, the fate of those landscapes has not factored into their calculus for November’s election.
About a week later, a lightning bolt 18 miles north of Grand Junction ignited the Pine Gulch Fire, a blaze that became the largest wildfire in Colorado’s history. By early September, it had burned around 140,000 acres, mostly on BLM land. It pushed northwest, forcing evacuations for residents who live next to abandoned wells in the town of De Beque, down the road from Rifle, the home of Shooters Grill.
For weeks, Grand Junction was shrouded in wildfire smoke. Since we first talked, Hess and his fiancée had moved to the rural edges of the county. From Hess’ home, he could barely make out the rows of peach trees just beyond his property line under the dense sepia-toned sky. In a photo he sent me, the sun burned an electric scarlet; he told me he was worried for the wildlife.
I imagined what someone standing in the new headquarters of the BLM might be able to see. When I visited the office in July, the sky was bright blue and clear, with mere scraps of clouds offering a respite from the heat. From its north-facing windows, you could see the Grand Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area, where Farr loves to ride. To the southeast was the place known as Lunch Loops, the mountain biking area that Shrader can pedal to in just minutes from her front door, and the entrance to Colorado National Monument.
Due to the pandemic, most employees were telecommuting, and very few people were there, save for a few construction workers fixing electrical issues on the third floor. They were from Shaw Construction, one of the BLM’s neighbors in the building. The BLM also shares the building with Chevron, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, Laramie Energy and ProStar Geocorp, a mapping company. In the middle of a move, the BLM headquarters was a scene in flux, a place still trying to realize itself.
Along the halls of the BLM’s office, large murals of iconic scenery — Colorado National Monument, Black Canyon of the Gunnison — leaned against bare walls, waiting to be hung. I remembered talking to Hess about his city as a new nexus for public-lands management, and asking him what he thought about moving the BLM headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction. Hess just laughed: “The BLM headquarters is here?”
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
A state agency has informed the West Elk Mine in the North Fork Valley that it may have violated the law by failing to get a stormwater permit when it built a road and well pads in a national forest roadless area this year.
The action by the state Water Quality Control Division comes as the underground coal mine remains under a cessation order by the state Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety prohibiting further surface-disturbing activities in the roadless area. That agency says the mine has failed to maintain a legal right to enter the roadless area.
The mine has been seeking to expand its operations beneath about 1,700 acres in the Sunset Roadless Area of the Gunnison National Forest. To do so it needs to build roads and drill wells to vent methane produced during mining.
A Colorado-specific Forest Service roadless rule includes an exemption allowing for the possibility of building of temporary roads by coal mines on some 20,000 acres in the North Fork Valley. In March, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Forest Service improperly failed to consider keeping another roadless area out of the exception area, and ordered a district court to vacate the entire exception area. But before a district court judge did that in June, the mine’s owner, Arch Resources, built about a mile of road in the Sunset Roadless Area.
Even with the district judge’s action, the company is continuing to argue to the state and in court that the appeals court upheld its coal lease rights beneath the roadless area and it can keep building roads and pads there. It has warned of a temporary mining shutdown and layoffs if it can’t proceed with that work this year…
This month, an official with the Water Quality Control Division wrote to the mine in a compliance advisory letter that an inspection showed about 3,960 feet of road and two methane vent borehole pads in the roadless area. According to the letter, a stormwater discharge permit is required for those surface disturbances. It said the state had no record of a discharge permit being applied for or obtained, and an existing permit held by the mine doesn’t authorize discharges at those locations. The letter says it “provides notification of potential violations of the Colorado Water Quality Control Act.”
The letter gave the mine until Aug. 20 to apply for a permit or permit modification.
Allison Melton, a staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity conservation group, said she spoke to the Water Quality Control Division this week and was told the mine submitted that paperwork after receiving the letter. She said she understands the discharge application will be subject to a 30-day public comment period…
The advisory letter the mine received said the letter isn’t a notice of violation, and the Water Quality Control Division will determine if formal enforcement action is deemed necessary.