After decades in which governments and industry groups have often assumed that the shift to renewable energy will be a financial burden, economists and analysts are increasingly making a case that the opposite is true: The transition will lead to cost-savings on a massive scale that will add to its momentum.
A recent paper by University of Oxford economists and mathematicians finds that a rapid transition to renewable energy would lead to global savings of $26 trillion compared to the costs of maintaining the current energy mix.
Another recent paper, published by the International Renewable Energy Agency, or IRENA, looks at previous technological revolutions to help understand the implications of rapid growth and falling costs of renewable energy.
The findings are providing some analytical heft to ideas that clean energy advocates have long argued about how the transition will lead to vast economic benefits as renewable energy continues to get cheaper.
The researchers who wrote the Oxford paper looked at how wind and solar power have gone from some of the world’s most expensive energy sources to some of the cheapest, and extrapolated those results to chart a future in which prices continue to plummet…
The paper’s authors sought to understand why so many high-profile forecasts have underestimated the pace of cost decreases for renewable energy, especially solar power. They found that most economic models do not adequately grasp the tendency of technologies to get much cheaper at times of rapid expansion and competition, and that models tend to be built in ways that are more likely to show gradual change.
The underlying idea is based on Wright’s Law, a concept developed by engineer Theodore Wright in the 1930s who wrote about how the costs of a technology declines as production increases.
“The more you deploy, the more the costs come down,” said Matthew Ives, an Oxford economist and co-author of the paper. “You get a feedback dynamic, which is runaway change.”
Forecasts that show a slow and expensive transition are harmful because they help to reinforce the idea that fossil fuels will continue to dominate our global energy supply for decades, Ives said. This idea can steer decisions for governments, companies and institutional investors.
Ives and three of his colleagues wrote the paper for the Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School. It is a working paper, which means it has not yet gone through peer review.
Solar farms are proliferating on undeveloped land, often harming ecosystems. But placing solar canopies on large parking lots offers a host of advantages — making use of land that is already cleared, producing electricity close to those who need it, and even shading cars.
Fly into Orlando, Florida, and you may notice a 22-acre solar power array in the shape of Mickey Mouse’s head in a field just west of Disney World. Nearby, Disney also has a 270-acre solar farm of conventional design on former orchard and forest land. Park your car in any of Disney’s 32,000 parking spaces, on the other hand, and you won’t see a canopy overhead generating solar power (or providing shade) — not even if you snag one of the preferred spaces for which visitors pay up to $50 a day.
This is how it typically goes with solar arrays: We build them on open space rather than in developed areas. That is, they overwhelmingly occupy croplands, arid lands, and grasslands, not rooftops or parking lots, according to a global inventory published last month in Nature. In the United States, for instance, roughly 51 percent of utility-scale solar facilities are in deserts; 33 percent are on croplands; and 10 percent are in grasslands and forests. Just 2.5 percent of U.S. solar power comes from urban areas.
The argument for doing it this way can seem compelling: It is cheaper to build on undeveloped land than on rooftops or in parking lots. And building alternative power sources fast and cheap is critical in the race to replace fossil fuels and avert catastrophic climate change. It’s also easier to manage a few big solar farms in an open landscape than a thousand small ones scattered across urban areas.
But that doesn’t necessarily make it smarter. Undeveloped land is a rapidly dwindling resource, and what’s left is under pressure to deliver a host of other services we require from the natural world — growing food, sheltering wildlife, storing and purifying water, preventing erosion, and sequestering carbon, among others. And that pressure is rapidly intensifying. By 2050, in one plausible scenario from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), supplying solar power for all our electrical needs could require ground-based solar on 0.5 percent of the total land area of the United States. To put that number in perspective, NREL senior research Robert Margolis says it’s “less land than we already dedicate to growing corn ethanol for biofuels.”
It works out, however, to 10.3 million acres. Because it is more efficient to generate power close to customers, some states could end up with as much as five percent of their total land area — and 6.5 percent in tiny Rhode Island — under ground-based solar arrays, according to the NREL study. If we also ask solar power to run the nation’s entire automotive fleet, says Margolis, that adds another 5 million acres. It’s still less than half the 31 million acres of cropland eaten up in 2019 to grow corn for ethanol, a notoriously inefficient climate change remedy.
Despite the green image, putting solar facilities on undeveloped land is often not much better than putting subdivisions there. Developers tend to bulldoze sites, “removing all of the above-ground vegetation,” says Rebecca Hernandez, an ecologist at the University of California at Davis. That’s bad for insects and the birds that feed on them. In the Southwest deserts where most U.S. solar farms now get built, the losses can also include “1,000-year-old creosote shrubs, and 100-year-old yuccas,” or worse. The proposed 530-megawatt Aratina Solar Project around Boron, California, for instance, would destroy almost 4,300 western Joshua trees, a species imperiled, ironically, by development and climate change. (It is currently being considered for state protected status.) In California, endangered desert tortoises end up being translocated, with unknown results, says Hernandez. And the tendency to cluster solar facilities in the buffer zones around protected areas can confuse birds and other wildlife and complicate migratory corridors.
The appeal of parking lots and rooftops, by contrast, is that they are abundant, close to customers, largely untapped for solar power generation, and on land that’s already been stripped of much of its biological value.
A typical Walmart supercenter, for instance, has a five-acre parking lot, and it’s a wasteland, especially if you have to sweat your way across it under an asphalt-bubbling sun. Put a canopy over it, though, and it could support a three-megawatt solar array, according to a recent study co-authored by Joshua Pearce of Western University in Ontario. In addition to providing power to the store, the neighboring community, or the cars sheltered underneath, says Pearce, the canopy would shade customers — and keep them shopping longer, as their car batteries top up. If Walmart did that at all 3,571 of its U.S. super centers, the total capacity would be 11.1 gigawatts of solar power — roughly equivalent to a dozen large coal-fired power plants. Taking account of the part-time nature of solar power, Pearce figures that would be enough to permanently shut down four of those power plants.
And yet solar canopies are barely beginning to show up in this country’s endless acreage of parking lots. The Washington, D.C., Metro transit system, for instance, has just contracted to build its first solar canopies at four of its rail station parking lots, with a projected capacity of 12.8 megawatts. New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport is now building its first, a 12.3 megawatt canopy costing $56 million. Evansville (Indiana) Regional Airport, however, already has two, covering 368 parking spaces, at a cost of $6.5 million. According to a spokesperson, the solar canopy earned a $310,000 profit in its first year of operation, based on premium pricing of those spaces and the sale of power at wholesale rates to the local utility.
Rutgers University built one of the largest solar parking facilities in the country at its Piscataway, New Jersey campus, with a 32-acre footprint, an 8-megawatt output, and a business plan that the campus energy conservation manager called “pretty much cash-positive from the get-go.” A new Yale School of the Environment study finds that solar canopies on parking lots could provide a third of Connecticut’s power, help meet the governor’s target of a zero-carbon electric sector by 2040, and incidentally serve environmental justice by reducing the urban heat island effect. So far, however, few such canopies exist in Connecticut, according to Kieren Rudge, the study’s author.
One reason such facilities are still scarce is that building solar on developed land can cost anywhere from two to five times as much as on open space. For a parking lot canopy, says Pearce, “you’re looking at more substantial structural steel with a fairly substantial concrete base.” It’s like putting up a building minus the walls. For a public company fixated on quarterly results, the payback time of 10 or 12 years can also seem discouragingly long. But that’s the wrong way to look at it, says Pearce. “If I can give you a greater-than-four-percent return on a guaranteed infrastructure investment that will last for 25 years minimum,” that’s a smart investment. It’s also possible to avoid the upfront cost entirely, with a third-party business or nonprofit paying for the installation under a power purchase agreement.
One other reason for the persistent scarcity, according to Blocking The Sun, a 2017 report from Environment America, a Denver-based coalition of state environmental groups, is that utility and fossil fuel interests have repeatedly undermined government policies that would encourage rooftop and parking lot solar. That report described anti-solar lobbying by the Edison Electric Institute, representing publicly-owned utilities; the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a lobbying group known for inserting right-wing language into state laws; the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity; and the Consumer Energy Alliance, a fossil fuel-and-utility front group, among others.
Throwing Shade, a 2018 report from the Center for Biological Diversity, gave a failing grade to 10 states for policies that actively discourage rooftop solar. These states — Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin — represent a third of the nation’s rooftop solar potential, but delivered just 7.5 percent in 2017. They typically make it difficult for homeowners or property owners to install solar and connect it to the grid, or they prohibit a third party from paying for the installation. Most also lack a net-metering policy, or otherwise limit the ability of solar customers to feed the excess energy they produce by day into the grid, to be credited against what they take back at other times. Most also lack renewable-portfolio standards, which would require utilities to generate, or purchase, a portion of their electricity from renewable energy sources.
It’s possible to overturn such rules. In 2015, a Nevada power company pushed the public utility commission to approve measures penalizing rooftop solar. A voter backlash soon drove the legislature, in a unanimous vote, to override the commission and restore pro-solar regulations. Voters could also go a step further and push state and local governments to encourage smarter solar power siting, with tax breaks for rooftop and parking solar, and also, says Rebecca Hernandez, for solar installations that incorporate multiple technical and ecological benefits.
That could mean added state incentives to build solar farms on brownfields, closed landfills, or degraded farmland, and not on more fragile or productive ecosystems. According to a 2019 Nature study, U.S. degraded lands now cover an area twice the size of California, with the solar potential to supply more than a third of the nation’s electrical power. It could also mean incentives for new technologies. For instance, “floatovoltaics” — solar panels floating on inland canals, wastewater lagoons, and other water bodies—are cheaper to build and more efficient because of natural cooling. In some circumstances, they also benefit wildlife, attracting herons, grebes, cormorants, and other waterfowl, probably to feed on fish attracted to the shade underneath.
Smarter incentives could also apply to working farms — for instance, in the dry, unprofitable corners of fields with huge, center-pivot irrigation systems, or in fields planted with shade-tolerant crops. Massachusetts already has the first such incentive program, targeting solar farms paired with pollinator plantings, or designed for grazing by sheep, as well as in other dual-purpose categories.
It’s possible zoning restrictions on solar farms could follow, especially in areas already anxious about the loss of farmland to subdivisions. But it’s unlikely. States are more likely to follow the example of California, where “net-zero energy” building codes, together with economic practicalities, now dictate that almost all new commercial and residential buildings incorporate solar power from the start. In that scenario, parking lots, long a drain on retail budgets and a blight on the urban landscape, will instead belatedly begin to play their part in generating power — and shading the world, if not saving it.
Richard Conniff is a National Magazine Award-winning writer whose articles have appeared in The New York Times, Smithsonian, The Atlantic, National Geographic, and other publications. His latest book is House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth. He is a frequent contributor to Yale Environment 360.
Here’s the release from The Nature Conservancy (Eric Bontrager):
The following is a statement by Kameran Onley, director of North American policy and government relations at The Nature Conservancy, after the U.S. House of Representatives approved the $1.7 trillion Build Back Better Act that includes the United States’ largest-ever investment in climate action:
“The Build Back Better Act would help us achieve the emissions cuts and nature gains we need to ensure a cleaner, healthier, safer future. It includes $555 billion in climate investments and stronger policies to address the climate crisis than we’ve ever seen before.
“These are vital investments for supporting a strong economy, a healthy population and a sustainable, resilient natural world.
“This bill would bring unprecedented investments in clean energy, climate-smart forestry and agriculture initiatives and a civilian climate corps. All are substantial and much-needed advances that would also create jobs and improve our quality of life. These are vital investments for supporting a strong economy, a healthy population and a sustainable, resilient natural world.
“Today’s progress on this bill, along with the newly enacted bipartisan infrastructure bill, gives us a healthy dose of the momentum and hope we need to fully tackle the twin climate and nature crises. They are also a promise to the world that the United States will live up to its climate commitments and lead the way on providing solutions. Together with recent international commitments to reduce methane emissions and global deforestation, this collective movement to get serious on climate action can make a tremendous difference and energize us for continued progress.
“As the bill heads to the Senate for consideration, we look forward to working with congressional leaders to ensure the final Build Back Better Act contains robust and effective climate provisions.”
Eighteen coal-fired power plants down. Another dozen to go as Colorado shifts its electricity supply system off fossil fuels.
The latest shutdown at the massive Martin Drake Power Plant in downtown Colorado Springs last week brings the share of electricity generated by burning coal statewide to less than 36%, federal Energy Information Administration data shows. That’s down from 68% a decade ago, though Colorado still lags behind the national 19% share. The state’s remaining coal plants are scheduled to close by 2040.
“If we can do this in the heart of the West, in a state that used to be one of the most reliant on coal generation, states across the nation can do it too,” Colorado Energy Office director Will Toor said.
A growing reliance on solar and wind energy alternatives “can be leveraged,” Toor said, for electric vehicles and electric-powered heating of buildings.
Air along Colorado’s Front Range no longer will be infused with the pollution that for nearly 100 years has risen from Drake’s towering chimneys. This means 201 tons a year less sulfur dioxide, 25 tons less lung-clogging particulates, 257 tons less carbon monoxide, and 1,007 tons less nitrogen oxides that lead to ozone smog, according to data from state air quality control officials.
Drake emitted more than 1.3 million tons a year of pollutants overall, including carbon dioxide and smaller amounts of benzene, hydrogen chloride, sulfuric acid and chloroform, state data shows.
Shifting beyond coal “will help improve air quality nearby and across the state,” Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment director Jill Hunsaker Ryan said.
Drake for decades has loomed as one of the nation’s last urban industrial coal plants. City-run utility crews relied on coal, burning up to 3,000 tons a day, to handle up to a third of local electricity demands. For now, utility workers are focusing on a delicate transition. They’ll supply electricity temporarily using portable natural gas generators, along with coal-fired power from the Ray Nixon power plant southeast of the city. The coal unit there isn’t scheduled to close until 2029…
Dismantling Drake will open about 50 acres along Fountain Creek in the heart of Colorado Springs, where leaders have created the America the Beautiful Park, a new soccer stadium and the Olympics Museum just north of the plant.
Future uses of that site depend on cleanup, followed by land and creek habitat restoration. When the chimneys come down, contractors will inject bleach 18 inches deep in the ground, and soil will be imported to the site, Colorado Springs Utilities chief executive Aram Benyamin said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, state health officials and community groups for years have pressed Colorado Springs leaders to cut pollution from Drake, particularly the sulfur dioxide. But government agencies never ordered a shutdown. In the end cost as well as the environment played a role, as city council members last year voted to close Drake ahead of their previously scheduled deadline of 2035.
Utilities with goals of producing 100 percent renewable energy in Colorado must figure out how to reliably deliver electricity when relying upon resources, primarily wind and sunshine, that aren’t always reliable.
The answer may lie in water, and some of that water may come from Colorado’s Yampa River.
Colorado’s two largest electrical utilities, Xcel Energy and Tri-State Generation and Transmission, are talking about the potential for green hydrogen and other possible storage technologies associated with their existing coal-fired power plants, at Hayden and Craig, in the Yampa Valley. Both plants are scheduled to shut down, with Hayden slated to close by 2028 and Craig by 2030.
Duane Highley, the chief executive of Tri-State, told member cooperatives in a meeting Aug. 4 that Tri-State and the State of Colorado have partnered in a proposed Craig Energy Research Station.
Hydrogen has been described as the missing link in the transition away from fossil fuels. It can be produced in several ways. Green hydrogen, the subject of the proposal at Craig, is made from water using electrolysis. The oxygen separated from the H2O can be vented, leaving the hydrogen, a fluid that can be stored in tanks or, as is in a demonstration project in Utah, in salt caverns. The hydrogen can then be tapped later as a fuel source to produce electricity or, for that matter, put into pipelines for distribution to fueling stations.
How much water will be required to produce green hydrogen isn’t clear. But the Yampa Valley’s existing coal-fired plants have strong water portfolios that could be used to create green hydrogen or another storage technology called molten salt. The latter is the leading candidate at the Hayden plant, co-owned by Xcel Energy and its partners.
Craig Generating Station in 2021 is projected to use 7,394 acre-feet of water, according to a Tri-State filing with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. By 2029, the last year of coal generation at Craig, Tri-State projects water use will decline to 4,270 acre-feet.
Xcel Energy also has water rights associated with its somewhat smaller two-unit Hayden Generating Station.
When Tri-State first announced last year its plans to close its coal units, some hoped the utility would allow the water to continue downstream, aiding fish and habitat in the Yampa Valley. The Yampa, arguably Colorado’s least trammeled river, since 2018 has been plagued by drought. In early August, water managers placed a call on the middle section of the Yampa River for only the third time ever.
Western Resource Advocates, which works in both energy and water, has supported the green hydrogen proposal. But there’s also hope that a water dividend will still be realized in this transition, resulting in more water available for the Yampa, which is a major tributary to the Colorado River.
“If we do it right, we have the chance to equitably share the impacts and solutions to climate change all across Colorado and the West, with benefits for communities, economies and the environment,” says Bart Miller, director of the Healthy Rivers Program for Western Resource Advocates.
Green hydrogen, similar to wind and solar in the past, has a cost hurdle that research at Craig, if it happens, will seek to dismantle. The federal government’s Energy Earthshots Initiative announced in June hopes to drive the costs down 80% by the end of the decade. That is the program in which Tri-State hopes to participate.
Tri-State’s Highley suggested at the meeting last Thursday that the Craig site should swim to the top of the proposals, because it is an existing industrial site, and the Craig and Hayden units also have high-voltage transmission lines. This is crucial. Those lines dispatch electricity to the Front Range and other markets but they can also be used to import electricity from the giant wind farms being erected on Colorado’s Eastern Plains as well as solar collectors on rooftops and in backyards.
In addition, Craig and Hayden have workforces that, at least in theory, could be transitioned to work in energy storage projects.
Western Resource Advocates, in a June 30 letter to the Department of Energy, made note of that consideration. “A green, zero-carbon hydrogen project at Craig Station is an opportunity to demonstrate how the clean energy transition can also be a just transition for fossil fuel-producing communities,” said the letter signed by Erin Overturf, the Clean Energy Program director.
Several state agencies will likely play a role, said Dominique Gomez, deputy director of the Colorado Energy Office, including the Office of Just Transition that was established in 2019 and the Office of Economic Development and International Trade.
At Craig, the vision is “to provide researchers access to the key resources necessary to perform their research, including water, transmission and site space,” Tri-State spokesman Mark Stutz said in an e-mail. “As the initial step, Tri-State and the state plan to engage a group of stakeholders to facilitate the development of the center.”
The Department of Energy has not indicated when it expects to announce the finalists or grant funding.
At Hayden, where the coal units are scheduled to close in 2028, Xcel Energy says it is in the early stages of studying potential for molten salt, the leading energy storage technology at this time, but also green hydrogen.
Water use will depend upon the size of the projects, said Xcel representative Michelle Aguayo in a statement. “It’s important to remember the amount of water used in power generation in Colorado is relatively small, representing 0.3% of water diversion in the state.”
Xcel already participates in a hydrogen pilot project in Minnesota, its home state for operations, and has proposed natural gas plants in North Dakota and Minnesota that are to be designed to use hydrogen technology when it becomes viable and cost-effective.
“As we’ve said before, we’re focused on identifying and exploring technologies that will allow us to bring our customers carbon-free energy by 2050, technologies that are not available or cost effective today,” she said.
Long-time Colorado journalist Allen Best publishes Big Pivots, an e-magazine that covers the energy and other transitions in Colorado. He can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
This report analyzes the energy, economic, environmental, and health outcomes of an illustrative clean energy standard (CES) design that reaches 80% clean electricity by 2030, and offers important information on the costs and benefits of such a policy.
The analysis is the first to map at a county scale the changes in air quality and related health benefits for the lower 48 states. It compares an 80×30 policy scenario to a range of alternative policies for reducing carbon from the energy sector and finds it is the top performer in terms of net climate benefits (climate benefits minus costs) and total health benefits. The analysis is also the first to look at the health impacts of projected air quality improvements by racial and ethnic groups.
The analyses in this brief were conducted over the last two years as part of the Clean Energy Futures project, an independent collaboration with researchers from Syracuse University; the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; Georgia Institute of Technology; and Resources for the Future.
The 80×30 CES has the largest net benefits of the 8 policies examined: The illustrative 80×30 CES has the largest estimated total and climate-related net benefits of other policies analyzed in the Clean Energy Futures project
Nationally, the estimated climate benefits of an 80×30 CES are large and outweigh the costs: Estimated climate benefits are $637 billion; estimated costs are $342 billion and include the cost of fuel, building new capital projects and retrofitting existing facilities, and operating energy facilities.
The additional health benefits from cleaner air would be immediate, substantial, and widespread.
Estimated 317,500 lives saved from 2020-2050 from reduced exposure to fine particulate matter and ozone
9,200 premature deaths avoided in 2030 when the policy reaches 80% clean electricity
Estimated $1.13 trillion in health savings due to cleaner air between now and 2050
Air quality improvements occur in every state by 2030
Air quality improvements are projected to occur for all racial and ethnic groups. Nationally, non-Hispanic Black people are estimated to experience the largest reductions in average population-weighted pollution exposures.
Top Ten States for Premature Deaths Avoided in the Year 2030: Ohio (771), Texas (737), Pennsylvania (582), Illinois (529), Florida (463), North Carolina (453), Indiana (441), Tennessee (424), Michigan (396), Georgia (377)
Authors and Clean Energy Futures Team
Charles Driscoll*, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Syracuse University
Kathy Fallon Lambert*, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Center for Climate Health, and the Global Environment (Harvard Chan C-CHANGE)
Peter Wilcoxen*, The Maxwell School, Syracuse University
Armistead (Ted) Russell, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology
Dallas Burtraw, Resources for the Future
Maya Domeshek, Resources for the Future
Qasim Mehdi, The Maxwell School, Syracuse University
Huizhong Shen, School of Environmental Science and Engineering, Southern University of Science and Technology
Petros Vasilakos, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology
Here’s the release from the Natural Resources Defense Council:
Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed SB21-246 [Electric Utility Promote Beneficial Electrification] today, making his state the first in the nation to pass an electrification policy with support from organized labor. The Colorado BlueGreen Alliance-backed legislation will help Coloradans upgrade to efficient electric appliances, furnaces, and water heaters that keep their bills low and air clean.
“Colorado has done a great job setting up tools for building owners to make their homes and businesses more efficient and climate-friendly,” said BlueGreen Alliance Director of Colorado and State Economic Transition Policy Chris Markuson. “The Colorado Property Assessed Clean Energy (C-PACE) program, which allows homeowners to finance energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements, is another great example of our state making it easy to upgrade. This bill will make efficient electric appliances even more affordable and help households and businesses connect with local qualified contractors to get the job done.”
The Colorado BlueGreen Alliance unites 20+ labor unions and environmental organizations committed to creating clean energy jobs and preserving a healthy and livable climate. SB21-246, which was sponsored by Senator Stephen Fenberg and Representatives Alex Valdez and Meg Froelich, works toward these goals in 3 key ways:
Saving money: SB21-246 will direct utilities to create incentives for households and businesses to upgrade to efficient electric appliances that reduce their bills—especially critical support for low-income families and seniors on fixed incomes
Reducing air pollution: By choosing to upgrade their appliances, households and businesses can eliminate a major source of indoor air pollution that is uniquely harmful for children, the elderly, and people with asthma
Creating good jobs: When households and businesses take advantage of these new incentives, they will support local family-sustaining jobs at a time when the economy needs them the most
“Colorado union members are hard at work fitting Colorado homes and businesses for the climate-friendly, cost-saving technologies of the future,” said Colorado AFL-CIO Executive Director Dennis Dougherty. “Because this legislation ensures that Coloradans participating in new upgrade programs work with licensed contractors who adhere to strong workforce standards like good training programs and livable wages, we can create new union jobs and new work for our existing union members at the same time.”
“The success of new climate-friendly technologies such as heat pumps and other heat transfer systems hinges on quality installation,” said Pipefitters Local 208 Business Manager Gary Arnold. “Pipefitters and plumbers have been helping Coloradans improve their household energy efficiency and reduce their utility bills for many years. This bill will help us bring our technical expertise to support even more homeowner investments, ensure optimal performance, and continue to guide the state in the transition to the clean energy economy.”
“The transition to pollution-free buildings is a once-in-a-generation job creation opportunity for our members,” said IBEW Local 68 Business Manager Jeremy Ross. “As businesses and industry take advantage of new rebates and incentives to upgrade to modern and clean electric systems, they create demand for local, qualified electrical workers.”
“Apprenticeship programs and living wages are two building blocks of a qualified local workforce,” said International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) Local 9 Business Manager Dwayne Stephens. “With this legislation in place, businesses looking for efficient and electric heating, cooling, and ventilation systems can trust that we’ll have a qualified contractor on the job.”
“Our members are ready to rebuild Colorado for a clean energy future,” said Colorado Building and Construction Trades Council Business Manager Jason Wardrip. “We’ve been equipping local homes and businesses with efficient electric appliances for a while now, and we feel confident that the new incentive programs and labor protections in this legislation will kick our work into high gear.”
“Partnerships between clean energy advocates and organized labor are essential for bold climate action,” said NRDC Building Decarbonization Advocate Alejandra Mejia Cunningham. “Climate policy is job creation policy, and climate progress relies entirely on the workers who are swapping out our old appliances, improving our energy efficiency, and producing the homegrown clean energy we need to power our future. When we coordinate with our partners in organized labor to write worker protections right into the legislation—from guaranteeing family-sustaining wages and benefits to creating workforce development opportunities—we can make sure our transition to pollution-free homes and buildings best serves Colorado’s rapidly-growing clean energy workforce.”
More information about this historic legislation is available here.
Small subsets of the electrical grid, or microgrids, that can stand alone in an emergency and keep critical services or businesses going, could be integrated into the Colorado Springs Utilities system in the coming years.
Utilities is working with Quanta Technology to identify the best locations for microgrids that could keep community services such as fire stations or wastewater treatment plants operational in a larger power outage, said Gabriel Caunt, principal engineer for the demand side management and distributed energy group within Utilities. The microgrids could also serve businesses with data centers that suffer major financial ramifications in a power outage, he said. Microgrids have been employed by military bases like Fort Carson for years to ensure power is available even when the larger grid goes down.
Fort Carson, which is home to several solar power projects, has a battery bank on the post that can supply power for several hours if electricity goes out.
The Utilities study will help determine “where the community can gain true resiliency value” from such grids, he said.
The microgrids include stand-alone generation, such as a solar array and battery, to provide power when the other parts of the grid are down.
The systems’ can also ensure excess electricity from renewable energy sources, such as solar panels and wind turbines, don’t have to be cut back because it is not meeting an immediate demand, Caunt said. Instead the electricity generation could be stored in batteries, he said.
Storing renewable electricity for peak demand times, such as when everyone is running their air conditioners, can help limit the need to build new power plants, said Keith Hay, director of policy and the Colorado Energy Office. As electric cars become more common, their batteries could help store electricity generated from renewable sources until it’s needed, he said.
Utilities granted Quanta a $398,000 contract to develop the Community Microgrid and Distributed Generation Plan by October and as part of that work the company will identify five candidate sites for a microgrid and design one, Caunt said. The work will be partially paid for by a $150,000 grant, said Natalie Watts, a spokeswoman for Utilities.
The city-owned utility has set an ambitious goal to cut its carbon emissions by 80% by 2030 and that could be reached without new microgrids, Caunt said. But the smaller grids will help Utilities make the most of solar panels that private companies are installing to meet their own sustainability goals.
To decarbonize grid, keep the nukes, say 2 Colorado researchers
Two Colorado researchers on renewable energy have a recommendation that might surprise some who embrace goals of 100% renewable or, at least, emission-free electricity.
Keep the existing nuclear reactors on line as long as possible, say Charles Kutscher, a fellow at the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute at the University of Colorado Boulder, and Jeffrey Logan, the associate director of the institute.
Writing in The Hill, the two Coloradans say that creating an emissions-free electric grid in the United States won’t be easy. 2020 was a record year for new U.S. wind and solar electricity capacity additions, but to achieve a carbon-free grid by 2035, annual installations of solar and wind must double or triple.
They also urge wringing as much efficiency out of transportation, buildings, and industrial sectors, hence lessening the amount of electricity that will be needed. But they also say it’s important to keep the existing nuclear fleet operating for as long as it’s safe to do so.
This is from Big Pivots, an e-journal that tracks the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. To subscribe, go to http://BigPivots.com.
They note that many analysts see a clear path to achieving 80 to 90% renewable electricity grid.
“Addressing that last 10 to 20% will also likely require long-term storage as well as grid modernization including improved market design.”
But if there are challenges and difficulties, they say, mostly it’s a matter of doing.
“Although some observers have called for a massive R&D effort to develop innovative solutions to the climate crisis, the truth is that we already have the technologies we need to solve most of the problem, and our chief focus must be on enabling and deploying them.”
What new NREL study says about achieving 100% renewable grids
While we might all like a definitive answer on what it will take to achieve an emission-free grid, a new study produced by 17 researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, both federal labs, offers a more squishy answer.
The study carefully works through the challenges, identifying three key ones:
1) the short-term variability problem, which has largely been solved;
2) the diurnal mismatch problem, which is partially solved, so further research is needed; and
3) the seasonal problem remains largely unsolved although some pathways have been proposed. Additional research is also needed.
Locally, yes, deep, deep penetration is possible, but getting close to achieving 100% renewables at a national scale for all hours of the year—well, there are significant unanswered questions.
“There is no simple answer to how far we can increase renewable deployment before costs rise dramatically or reliability becomes compromised,” said Paul Denholm, the principal energy analyst at NREL and lead author of the paper that was published in Joule, an energy journal.
“As far as the last few percent’ of the path to 100%, there is no consensus on a clear cost-effective pathway to address both the Balance Challenge and the Inverter Challenge at the national scale,” he said in a statement distributed by NREL.
“Studies have found no specific technical threshold at which the grid ‘breaks,’ and we can’t just extrapolate from previous cost analyses because, when it comes to the future, there are many non-linearities and unknown unknowns—things we don’t even know we don’t know yet.”
Colorado has some of the United States’ most ambitious climate goals, targeting 50% remissions reductions in 2030 and 90% emissions reductions by 2050. These goals are bolstered by sector-specific policies enacted in 2019 including legislation requiring the state’s dominant utility Xcel to cut emissions 80% by 2030, along with tax credits and partnerships to build charging stations and accelerate the zero-emission vehicle transition.
But new research shows the state’s existing policies, excluding those that are planned but not enacted as part of the state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Roadmap, will only reduce emissions 18% by 2050 – falling far short of Colorado’s climate ambition.
As debate intensifies around Colorado’s next steps on climate policy, new modeling from Energy Innovation and RMI shows implementing stronger policies, many of which are included as part of the state’s GHG Roadmap, can be a climate and economic boon. Ambitious decarbonization of the state’s electricity, transportation, industry, building, and land-use sectors can help limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius while adding more than 20,000 new jobs and $3.5 billion in economic activity per year by 2030 – and up to 36,000 jobs and $7.5 billion annually by 2050.
Cheap clean energy empowers decarbonization – but policy still needed
Colorado embodies the clean energy transition accelerating across the U.S. – a state where fossil fuels once underpinned energy supply and economic activity, but where fast-falling clean energy prices have made decarbonization the cheapest option.
Those favorable economics have made Colorado’s climate ambition possible, but the state is now embarking on the tougher task of determining how to achieve its emissions reductions goals..
Colorado could reap billions in economic growth from its climate ambition
So how can Colorado meet its climate action goals and build a clean energy economy? New modeling using the Colorado Energy Policy Simulator (EPS) developed by Energy Innovation and Colorado-based RMI outlines a policy package that can decarbonize the state’s economy and put it on a pathway to achieve the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recommended target of limiting warming to 1.5°C – while generating sustainable economic growth. Some of these policies overlap with those outlined in the state’s GHG Roadmap.
The free, open-source, peer-reviewed Colorado EPS empowers users to estimate climate and energy policy impacts on emissions, the economy, and public health through 2050 using publicly available data. All model assumptions, key data sources, and scenario development used by the EPS are documented online for full transparency. EPS models have been developed for nearly a dozen countries and several subnational regions, including California, Minnesota, Nevada, and Virginia. The Colorado EPS is one of at least 20 planned state-level EPS models being developed by EI and RMI…
Fortunately, the Colorado EPS finds implementing stronger policies across the state’s electricity, transportation, buildings, industrial, land-use, and agricultural sectors can put it on a 1.5°C -compliant pathway that meets Colorado’s emissions reductions goals. The associated air pollution reductions would also prevent 350 deaths and more than 10,000 asthma attacks per year by 2030, and more than 1,400 deaths and nearly 44,000 asthma attacks per year by 2050 – even with a conservative estimate, these monetized health and social benefits reach $21 billion annually by 2050.
This low-carbon transition would supercharge the state’s economy, generating more than 20,000 new jobs and $3.5 billion in economic activity per year by 2030, and adding nearly 36,000 new jobs and more than $7.5 billion to the economy per year by 2050. These jobs would be created by building new solar and wind projects, retrofitting buildings, installing vehicle charging infrastructure, and more. Increased economic activity would come from new jobs paying wages 25% higher than the national media wage, as well as savings from reduced expenditures on volatile fossil fuel supplies.
A policy pathway for Colorado to achieve its climate goals
The 1.5°C policy package introduced by the Colorado EPS incorporates all existing state policy that has been enacted into law, legally enforceable power plant retirements, improvements in building and transportation energy efficiency, and electric vehicle adoption; it then goes further to address the state’s unique emissions profile.
While electricity and transportation lead emissions in most states, industry generates the largest percentage of emissions with 32 percent, primarily from oil and gas production. A mix of electrification, energy efficiency, hydrogen fuel switching, and methane leak reduction drive industrial emissions reductions under this 1.5°C Scenario. Several regulations have been proposed and legislation has been introduced in the state legislature to address these sectors, particularly methane leak reduction and beneficial electrification.
Rapid decarbonization of the state’s electricity sector is foundational to reducing emissions across all other sectors as an increasingly clean grid powers electrification of demand from buildings, industry, and transportation. The 1.5°C Scenario implements an 80% clean electricity standard by 2030 which rises to 100 percent by 2035. This would expand Xcel’s 80% emissions reduction target to cover all state utilities, accelerate the target date from 2035, and make the target legally enforceable – in line with Biden administration efforts to implement an 80% by 2030 clean energy standard. Under this scenario battery storage would increase seven-fold over existing state targets, transmission capacity would double, and additional demand response capacity would increase grid flexibility and reliability.
Colorado is already targeting a 40% reduction in transportation emissions by 2030, which would add 940,000 light-duty electric vehicles on the road. The 1.5°C Scenario would go even further, primarily by requiring all new passenger car and SUV sales be electric by 2035 and all new freight truck sales be electric by 2045. These goals align with ambitious zero-emission light-duty vehicle goals adopted by 10 states as well as the multi-state agreement targeting zero-emission medium- and heavy-vehicles signed by 15 states (including Colorado) and the District of Columbia, would add nearly 1.5 million electric vehicles by 2030, and ensure most on-road vehicles are electric by 2050.
Buildings would be transitioned away from fossil fuels through increased efficiency targets for new buildings and deep efficiency retrofits of existing buildings, along with a sales standard requiring all new building equipment sales be fully electric by 2030 to shift gas heating and cooking equipment to highly efficient electric alternatives.
Here’s the release from the International Energy Agency:
World’s first comprehensive energy roadmap shows government actions to rapidly boost clean energy and reduce fossil fuel use can create millions of jobs, lift economic growth and keep net zero in reach
The world has a viable pathway to building a global energy sector with net-zero emissions in 2050, but it is narrow and requires an unprecedented transformation of how energy is produced, transported and used globally, the International Energy Agency said in a landmark special report released today.
Climate pledges by governments to date – even if fully achieved – would fall well short of what is required to bring global energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to net zero by 2050 and give the world an even chance of limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5 °C, according to the new report, Net Zero by 2050: a Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector.
The report is the world’s first comprehensive study of how to transition to a net zero energy system by 2050 while ensuring stable and affordable energy supplies, providing universal energy access, and enabling robust economic growth. It sets out a cost-effective and economically productive pathway, resulting in a clean, dynamic and resilient energy economy dominated by renewables like solar and wind instead of fossil fuels. The report also examines key uncertainties, such as the roles of bioenergy, carbon capture and behavioural changes in reaching net zero.
“Our Roadmap shows the priority actions that are needed today to ensure the opportunity of net-zero emissions by 2050 – narrow but still achievable – is not lost. The scale and speed of the efforts demanded by this critical and formidable goal – our best chance of tackling climate change and limiting global warming to 1.5 °C – make this perhaps the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director. “The IEA’s pathway to this brighter future brings a historic surge in clean energy investment that creates millions of new jobs and lifts global economic growth. Moving the world onto that pathway requires strong and credible policy actions from governments, underpinned by much greater international cooperation.”
Building on the IEA’s unrivalled energy modelling tools and expertise, the Roadmap sets out more than 400 milestones to guide the global journey to net zero by 2050. These include, from today, no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects, and no further final investment decisions for new unabated coal plants. By 2035, there are no sales of new internal combustion engine passenger cars, and by 2040, the global electricity sector has already reached net-zero emissions.
In the near term, the report describes a net zero pathway that requires the immediate and massive deployment of all available clean and efficient energy technologies, combined with a major global push to accelerate innovation. The pathway calls for annual additions of solar PV to reach 630 gigawatts by 2030, and those of wind power to reach 390 gigawatts. Together, this is four times the record level set in 2020. For solar PV, it is equivalent to installing the world’s current largest solar park roughly every day. A major worldwide push to increase energy efficiency is also an essential part of these efforts, resulting in the global rate of energy efficiency improvements averaging 4% a year through 2030 – about three times the average over the last two decades.
Most of the global reductions in CO2 emissions between now and 2030 in the net zero pathway come from technologies readily available today. But in 2050, almost half the reductions come from technologies that are currently only at the demonstration or prototype phase. This demands that governments quickly increase and reprioritise their spending on research and development – as well as on demonstrating and deploying clean energy technologies – putting them at the core of energy and climate policy. Progress in the areas of advanced batteries, electrolysers for hydrogen, and direct air capture and storage can be particularly impactful.
A transition of such scale and speed cannot be achieved without sustained support and participation from citizens, whose lives will be affected in multiple ways.
“The clean energy transition is for and about people,” said Dr Birol. “Our Roadmap shows that the enormous challenge of rapidly transitioning to a net zero energy system is also a huge opportunity for our economies. The transition must be fair and inclusive, leaving nobody behind. We have to ensure that developing economies receive the financing and technological know-how they need to build out their energy systems to meet the needs of their expanding populations and economies in a sustainable way.”
Providing electricity to around 785 million people who have no access to it and clean cooking solutions to 2.6 billion people who lack them is an integral part of the Roadmap’s net zero pathway. This costs around $40 billion a year, equal to around 1% of average annual energy sector investment. It also brings major health benefits through reductions in indoor air pollution, cutting the number of premature deaths by 2.5 million a year.
Total annual energy investment surges to USD 5 trillion by 2030 in the net zero pathway, adding an extra 0.4 percentage points a year to global GDP growth, based on a joint analysis with the International Monetary Fund. The jump in private and government spending creates millions of jobs in clean energy, including energy efficiency, as well as in the engineering, manufacturing and construction industries. All of this puts global GDP 4% higher in 2030 than it would reach based on current trends.
By 2050, the energy world looks completely different. Global energy demand is around 8% smaller than today, but it serves an economy more than twice as big and a population with 2 billion more people. Almost 90% of electricity generation comes from renewable sources, with wind and solar PV together accounting for almost 70%. Most of the remainder comes from nuclear power. Solar is the world’s single largest source of total energy supply. Fossil fuels fall from almost four-fifths of total energy supply today to slightly over one-fifth. Fossil fuels that remain are used in goods where the carbon is embodied in the product such as plastics, in facilities fitted with carbon capture, and in sectors where low-emissions technology options are scarce.
“The pathway laid out in our Roadmap is global in scope, but each country will need to design its own strategy, taking into account its own specific circumstances,” said Dr Birol. “Plans need to reflect countries’ differing stages of economic development: in our pathway, advanced economies reach net zero before developing economies. The IEA stands ready to support governments in preparing their own national and regional roadmaps, to provide guidance and assistance in implementing them, and to promote international cooperation on accelerating the energy transition worldwide.”
The special report is designed to inform the high-level negotiations that will take place at the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) of the United Nations Climate Change Framework Convention in Glasgow in November. It was requested as input to the negotiations by the UK government’s COP26 Presidency.
“I welcome this report, which sets out a clear roadmap to net-zero emissions and shares many of the priorities we have set as the incoming COP Presidency – that we must act now to scale up clean technologies in all sectors and phase out both coal power and polluting vehicles in the coming decade,” said COP26 President-Designate Alok Sharma. “I am encouraged that it underlines the great value of international collaboration, without which the transition to global net zero could be delayed by decades. Our first goal for the UK as COP26 Presidency is to put the world on a path to driving down emissions, until they reach net zero by the middle of this century.”
New energy security challenges will emerge on the way to net zero by 2050 while longstanding ones will remain, even as the role of oil and gas diminishes. The contraction of oil and natural gas production will have far-reaching implications for all the countries and companies that produce these fuels. No new oil and natural gas fields are needed in the net zero pathway, and supplies become increasingly concentrated in a small number of low-cost producers. OPEC’s share of a much-reduced global oil supply grows from around 37% in recent years to 52% in 2050, a level higher than at any point in the history of oil markets.
“Since the IEA’s founding in 1974, one of its core missions has been to promote secure and affordable energy supplies to foster economic growth. This has remained a key concern of our Net Zero Roadmap,” Dr Birol said. “Governments need to create markets for investments in batteries, digital solutions and electricity grids that reward flexibility and enable adequate and reliable supplies of electricity. The rapidly growing role of critical minerals calls for new international mechanisms to ensure both the timely availability of supplies and sustainable production.”
The full report is available for free on the IEA’s website along with an online interactive that highlights some of the key milestones in the pathway that must be achieved in the next three decades to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
The social cost of carbon is mentioned twice in the 196-page transportation bill that was introduced into the Colorado’s legislative session in early May. It’s not clear exactly how it will have any more effect than the 55-mph speed limit on one of the interstate highways through Denver. Likely, if this bill passes, it’s part of a bigger puzzle.
But the mention frames transportation differently than ever before in Colorado. Transportation always was about the balance between mobility and the ding to the public treasury, the taxes we pay. This adds a new metric to the discussion, a new dimension of costs.
I wouldn’t advise wading through the 107-word sentence in Senate Bill 21-260 where social cost of carbon is first mentioned. It’s not exactly the sort that Gabriel Garcia Marquez would craft. The gist is that our vehicles pollute, and the pollution has a social cost. It goes on to instruct the methodology of the social cost of carbon be employed, to get an assessment of the environmental costs over time and put into dollar figures. Alone, this does not alter Colorado’s path on transportation, but it does set a new tone.
More telling is “greenhouse,” a word that shows up 42 times in the bill along with 3 mentions of “ozone,” a component greenhouse gas and part of the unhealthy air found along the northern Front Range.
This is a climate bill. It has to be. Transportation will become the No.1 source of greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado as the big coal-fired power plants begin closing in 2022. Gina McCarthy, speaking at the recent 21st Century Energy Transition Symposium, called transportation the “big kahuna.” She was speaking from her federal perch as Biden’s climate advisor, but it’s also true in Colorado.
Colorado has taken steps to produce small waves in decarbonization of transportation. Now it needs a big wave, say those involved in transportation efforts, and this is it.
It’s also a congestion bill. I’m guessing I heard the word “congestion” used or alluded to a dozen times when Gov. Jared Polis, legislators, and several others spoke on the interior steps of the Capitol on May 4. Alec Garnett, the House speaker, talked about the ability to immediately tell you’re leaving Utah or Wyoming when entering Colorado. This bill provides for new funding sources that aim to deliver more asphalt and concrete.
The bill is also a compromise, as was best described by Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, a Republican. He talked about highway expansions he wants to see in Colorado Springs, the widening of Powers Boulevard and more. “These simply cannot be accomplished without a much greater infusion of state and federal dollars,” he said. Suthers, a former state attorney general in Colorado, also said he is a political realist—suggesting compromise is inevitable.
“Transportation can’t be a partisan issue. It’s too important to the quality of life of our residents in Colorado Springs,” he said.
Kevin Priola, a Republican state legislator from the Brighton area, also spoke on behalf of the bill. He’s been a big booster of transportation electrification in Colorado, showing up at a bill signing with Gov. Jared Polis in 2019 near East High School in Denver.
At the Capitol, he spoke about congestion on Interstate 76, now bumper to bumper instead of the occasional car that he saw from his grandfather’s farm when he was a boy. But highway widening cannot be the whole answer. “We can’t just continue to bulldoze mountains and widen lanes,” he said.
Most bills run 10 to 20 pages. This one runs to 196 pages. This is Longs Peak, not Rabbit Mountain outside of Lyons. Or, for those in Durango, Engineer Mountain instead of Perins Peak. It’s sweeping, with a little bit for everybody, most fundamentally new ways to collect revenue. But there’s a distinct shift in direction, a big pivot, if you will.
Are there comparable pivots? Others might point to funding changes of the last 30 years, including 1992, the last time Colorado passed a gas tax increase. A case may be made for 1973, the year when the first bore of the Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel Complex was opened, followed by the second bore in 1978.
This is from the May 12, 2021, issue of Big Pivots, an e-journal. To sign up, go to http://BigPivots.com
I’d make the argument for 1930. That’s the year that the state began plowing snow on Berthoud Pass, a clear recognition of the ascendancy of the automobile. Before, there was no way to drive across the Continental Divide during winter.
Now the pivot is toward electrification and, more broadly yet, decarbonization through a variety of pathways. And, in an odd reversal of my thesis about 1930, it opens the door partway to the idea of a Front Range passenger train. Carl Smith, representing the railway workers’ union, pointed out that rail workers losing their jobs on ferrying coal from mines to markets could transfer their skills to passenger rail.
Elise Jones, executive director of the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, emphasized electrification of transportation. The bill proposes to put more than $730 million toward electric vehicle solutions. That, she said, represents “one of the biggest investments in transportation electrification by any state anywhere in the country.”
The bill, said Jones, recognizes the scale of the challenge as Colorado seeks to expand the number of electric vehicles – currently 36,000 on state highways – to nearly a million by the end of the decade.
“To support these new EVS, Colorado will need 111 times more charging stations by 2030, and this bill would put a significant down payment on that infrastructure,” she said.
Jones also noted the funding proposed by the bill for all types of electric mobility, from electric bikes and transit to school buses and trucks, but also rideshare vehicles like Uber and Lyft. “It includes money to replace the dirtiest vehicles on the road with zero-emissions buses and delivery trucks.”
Travis Madsen, who runs the transportation program at SWEEP, elaborated on this theme when I talked to him. “I think the bill is an essential piece of achieving Colorado’s climate targets,” he said.
“We need to step up the pace, and this bill will provide some needed juice to get this (transition) moving faster,” he said.
Madsen directed my attention beyond our cars to the fleets of trucks and delivery vehicles. Section 11 of the bill proposes a clean-fleet enterprise within the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment – the agency given the most significant responsibility for creating rules to decarbonize the economy – to provide incentives for the shift in fuels. This new clean-fleet enterprise will be allowed to “impose a delivery fee to be paid” by those getting the goods by delivery of motor vehicle. Nudge, nudge.
A personal aside here: I live on the edge of one of metropolitan Denver’s small but up-and-coming commercial areas. There’s a daily parade of diesel-powered trucks delivering wine, beer, fruits, and all other manner of items to be consumed in the restaurants of Olde Town Arvada. Moreover, I have wheeled around the warehouse districts along I-70 and I-76 on Denver’s east and north side. The size of the fleets of Amazon and others astound me.
But then there’s the issue of how we wheel about on a daily basis. In September 2020 the Denver Regional Council of Governments issued the 2019 Annual Report on Roadway Traffic Congestion in the Denver Region, which noted that vehicles miles traveled per capita had actually declined in 2019, a second straight year. On weekends, the VMT per person was down to 25.4 miles.
Of course, with population growth of 1.4%, there was just as much travel.
Some people seem to think covid will dent this, perhaps permanently. I’m skeptical.
This transportation bill aims to deliver leverage. Section 28 would require the Colorado Department of Transportation and metropolitan planning organizations (think RTD) to “engage in an enhanced level of planning, analysis, community engagement, and monitoring with respect to transportation capacity projects and specifies what that entails and also requires CDOT to conduct a road usage charge study and an autonomous vehicle study.”
To me, this doesn’t say I’ll have to ditch my car. But there’s some jostling here.
Madsen sees this as a crucial section, along with the AQCC rulemaking on transportation emissions that is expected this summer. “I think there’s going to be a lot of push and pull over whether and how Colorado invests in transportation differently to reach the GHG roadmap targets,” he says. He points out that the state roadmap calls for growth in vehicle travel to be cut in half.
In Denver itself, densification is rapidly underway. Some people don’t feel the need to have their own cars. “That will be an important way we can accommodate more people without causing a dramatic increase in everyone driving,” says Madsen.
I’m skeptical—not about the goals, but whether local governments can be nudged into making land use decisions that actually impact greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. I’ve been hearing this conversation for decades with no real gain.
A couple of weeks ago I drove to the western precincts of Arvada amid the rolling hills just short of Highway 93, the road between Golden and Boulder. These huge projects — Candelas and Leyden Ranch—have wonderful open spaces and uplifting views, exactly what people from elsewhere expect in Colorado. (If you don’t mind some wind occasionally).
These housing projects are also absolutely car centric. They’re VMT disasters. In this, they are more typical than not among the 40,000 to 50,000 houses being built in Colorado annually, the number of which have been going up during the last 4 or 5 years.
The bill got its first legislative hearing on [May 10, 2021], dragging on for 7.5 hours in the Senate Finance Committee before being passed, with amendments, on a 4-3 party-line vote. So much for Sutherland’s pitch for bipartisanship.
The social cost of carbon mention remained intact. Colorado first began using that metric as a result of 2019 legislation, which requires the Public Utilities Commission to evaluate electrical generation projects with the federal social cost of carbon, which was then $46 per ton of carbon dioxide emissions. This tilts the table against coal generation, although as a practical matter, the table is heavily tilted toward lower cost renewables. Two other bills being considered by legislators this session would also add social cost of carbon to the PUC matrix when evaluating programs that would reduce natural gas use in buildings and elsewhere.
But the practical effect of social cost of carbon in the transportation bill?
In response to my questions, Will Toor, executive director of the Colorado Energy Office, said the goal of the social cost of carbon is to provide “a consistent approach across relevant agencies. We are ensuring that we are doing cost benefit analyses and accounting using an appropriate social cost of carbon and making sure in multiple pieces of legislation that we use the same social cost of carbon at the PUC, C-DOT, CDPHE, etc.”
Madsen—who took Toor’s job at SWEEP when Toor joined the Polis administration in early 2019—said he thinks the practical effect will depend on a future rulemaking at the Air Quality Control Commission. That may occur later this year.
“The social cost of carbon will help illustrate the value of reducing emissions (either through transportation and land-use planning to reduce overall vehicle travel, or through electrification measures),” he said.
Have a different take on this transportation bill? Happy to publish other viewpoints. email@example.com.
Here’s a gust column from Scott Fetchenhier that’s running in The Durango Herald:
State leaders need to take action to protect the places in Southwest Colorado that we know, love and call home from the pollution that threatens our air, water and climate.
I live in and represent San Juan County, where my constituents and I are reliant on Tri-State Generation and Transmission for our electricity. As the second largest electricity provider in the state, Tri-State is a key player in reducing greenhouse gas pollution in our state, which is why we need Senate Bill 200.
Our rural mountain communities are dependent on bold steps toward climate pollution reductions for our visitor-based, snow-reliant economies. We have seen the impacts of climate change in our county: unprecedented beetle kill, the 416 Fire in 2018 and the Ice Lake Fire in October 2020. Wind-blown dust from the Four Corners lands on our snowpack and causes the snow to melt off more quickly. We often see rain in December and March instead of snow because of higher temperatures.
We know that without big actions to reduce emissions, we will continue to see increasingly severe and frequent natural disasters.
With these impacts in mind, it’s great that Tri-State seems to have heard its members’ calls for carbon reductions of at least 80% by 2030. Last fall, Tri-State announced a commitment to 80% carbon reductions by 2030 from electricity delivered to Colorado customers as part of its Responsible Energy Plan. This Responsible Energy Plan is a big step in the right direction for Tri-State and the communities it serves, and we want to make sure it happens. However, the plan is currently only a voluntary commitment and my constituents need certainty that Tri-State will honor that commitment.
In fact, last fall San Juan County passed a county resolution urging state leaders to hold Tri-State accountable to 80% emissions reduction by 2030. Part of that resolution reads: “The evidence of climate change is impacting daily lives in San Juan County with near-historic drought, unprecedented smoke from fires across Colorado and the U.S., and rapidly increasing temperatures, and the urgency for our electric utility to take bold, immediate steps toward reducing emissions couldn’t be more clear.”
And we’re not the only ones. Four other communities in Tri-State’s service territory have also passed similar resolutions, including the Town of Telluride, Summit County, the Town of Rico and San Miguel County.
Southwest Colorado can better prepare to combat and be resilient to climate change if we know we can count on our power provider to reduce carbon emissions significantly in the next 10 years. I thank Tri-State for its voluntary commitment to 80% reductions by 2030 in response to its member communities’ advocacy, and I ask our state leaders to ensure that Tri-State gets there in a timely and equitable way that allows Coloradans to generate clean electricity locally rather than import coal from other states. SB-200 takes care of that.
Tri-State is one among several utilities and industries that we need to be able to count on to do their part to reduce emissions in Colorado. While I appreciate the efforts that state leaders have underway to reduce carbon emissions, the reality is that Colorado’s utilities are not on track to meet our climate goals. In fact, we are at risk of increasing climate pollution in Colorado in the coming years, especially with the volume of people predicted to be moving to our state in the next 20 years.
To successfully meet the state’s climate pollution targets, we need not only the incentives and rule-makings that state leaders are working on now, but also clear and enforceable targets in each sector of our economy, starting with electricity.
Our mountain communities need to be able to count on utilities like Tri-State to reduce emissions and there is language in SB 200 that will ensure just that. I urge Gov. Jared Polis and the Colorado Legislature to support SB 200 in order to keep us on track to cut greenhouse gas pollution and protect the communities we all love.
Scott Fetchenhier is a San Juan County Commissioner based in Silverton. He originally came to Silverton to work in the mines as both a geologist and laborer. He owns a gift shop in Silverton and has been in business almost 40 years.
Editor’s Note: Tri-State Generation and Transmission is the provider of most of the power for La Plata Electric Association, the co-op that serves many of our readers.
Details of a proposed solar farm in western Pueblo County were discussed during a virtual public meeting Thursday. The Turkey Creek Solar Farm, if approved by Pueblo County Commissioners during the permitting process, will be built by 174 Power Global of Irvine, California, to supply solar power for Black Hills Energy. It will be located just north of U.S. Highway 50 one mile east of the Fremont/Pueblo County line. Approximately 1,200 to 1,400 acres will be used for the project, according to Ed Maddox, project development lead for 174 Power Global. The land will be leased from Gary Walker of Walker Ranches.
“We do consider both lease agreements and purchase options with land owners,” on projects like Turkey Creek, Maddox said. “In this particular case the land owner is a large local land owner who wants to continue to own and operate the ranch as it is, and leasing provides the best solution.” The permitting process is expected to take the remainder of the year with construction starting in 2022. “Over the 12- to 14-month construction period for Turkey Creek, we will have an average of about 300 workers during construction and that will vary from a minimum of about 150 to 450 or more workers during peak construction,” said Stephanie Lauer, environmental permitting manager for 174 Power Global. Once the solar farm begins operations in 2023, “We will have about three to five full-time workers who are responsible for daily maintenance of the facility and monitoring of all the systems,” Lauer said.
Additional local labor will be needed several times a year for vegetation mowing and washing of the panels. The solar panels will be aligned in rows running north to south and will be attached to a tracking system which allows the panels to track the sun from east to west as it moves. “They will be 10- to 14-feet high when they are tilted to their highest position,” Maddox said. When motorists are driving on U.S. 50 they will see portions of the solar farm, but the panels will not obstruct the view of the mountains, Maddox said.
Travelers will not be affected by glint or glare from the panels because of their dark grey color which will absorb light, not reflect it. Wildlife fencing will ensure pronghorn, elk and cattle will be able to access the underpass that allows animals to move under the highway.
The solar farm will generate enough electricity to power 46,000 homes each year, said Taylor Henderson, project developer for Out- shine Energy. Only a handful of questions came from the audience. One local landowner asked how the construction will impact traffic on Stone City Road. Lauer said she did not think the road will be used as workers will get to the site at two access points along U.S. 50.
As the national climate advisor, Gina McCarthy has the ear of President of Joe Biden in all matters climate.
But in the opening session of the 21st Century Energy Transition Symposium on Tuesday, she barely mentioned climate except to vaguely affirm “the science” and to describe the Biden response to climate change as a “very different framing than we’ve had before.”
The framing she described is that of opportunity in the clean energy economy—including the potential for Colorado to be part of the solutions needed in the energy shift.
“We have to look at the opportunities (in a clean energy economy) and get people excited about the benefits it brings to them,” she said before describing cleaner air and jobs.
“(Biden) embraced this not as a wonky science problem but fundamentally a people problem,” she said.
McCarthy described her job as sitting at the table with the cabinet secretaries, making sure that there’s a climate change overlay in all matters, whether housing or transportation, and helping knit together the response. It isn’t to be just an Environmental Protection Agency problem or a Department of Energy problem.
“It has to be a whole government approach because without that we would lose these synergies and these momentums,” she said.
Biden, she said, saw the response to climate change delivering answers to how we get out of the pandemic and restart the economy. Economic strategies that result in investment of “tremendous resources in a way that wins the clean energy future” will also fuel economic growth. As for covid and climate, addressing their challenges both require acceptance of science.
Another major driver of Biden’s view of domestic policy was the new lens of equity, including that of environmental or energy justice. The pandemic showed that impacts did not hit all communities equally, and by extension, energy systems of the past had more deleterious impacts to some groups than others. This understanding should be seen less as a challenge than a reckoning, said McCarthy.
Not all answers to reducing greenhouse gas pollution are yet evident, even if there are strong winds in the sails of renewable generation of electricity. That’s OK, she said.
“We don’t always need the answer,” she said. “We need to be leaning forward and looking at where we want to go.”
That was a theme in the two-day conference. In session after session, speakers described both clear direction going forward in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from energy, but uncertainties that they hope will be resolved in the next 5 to 10 years.
“That we don’t have all the answers shouldn’t be a barrier to action in the short term,” said Bryan Willson, executive director of the Energy Institute at Colorado State University.
“We don’t need to let the perfect get in the way of the good,” said Steven Hamburg, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund. If uncertainties should not delay forward movement of the broad strokes of action, he counseled caution to avoid “big and expensive mistakes.”
Executives at Colorado’s two largest electrical utilities, Xcel Energy and Tri-State Generation & Transmission, described a similar mix of bold actions and uncertainty.
In 2020, coal-fired generation delivered 26% and natural gas 38% of electricity distributed by Xcel. The company projects coal generation will fall to 4% and natural gas 16% by 2030.
That remaining coal-fired power will come from Comanche 3, the only coal-fired plant in Colorado that Xcel plans to continue operating, but at a reduced rate. Why not also close Comanche 3?
Alice Jackson, chief executive of Xcel’s Colorado division, explained that continuing operation of Comanche 3 will ensure a softer financial transition for Pueblo County, where the plant is located. The plant will also be needed to ensure reliability, as storage needs technological advancement and lower prices. “It’s really a broad evaluation and not just one factor,” she said.
Tri-State also awaits some technological innovation. It plans to close its three units at Craig in 2025, 2028 and 2029. Duane Highley, the chief executive, said Tri-State has closely been monitoring technological innovation in hopes of technology that can store energy for days, not just hours. “We’re looking hard at hydrogen and also looking at ammonia,” he said. QUESTION
Transmission also figures prominently into the thinking about the energy systems of the next decade. One Colorado energy official calls it the “secret sauce” necessary for deep decarbonization.
In Colorado, electrical demand is projected to grow 50% in the next 30 years as we electrify transportation and, a little more slowly, replace fossil fuels in heating our homes and water. Xcel has proposed investment of $1.7 billion in new transmission lines in eastern Colorado. Other utilities have not yet played their cards.
But some energy analysts see need for even more ambitious investment in a grid that better links different parts of the country so that renewable energy can be matched with demands.
The Texas disaster in February helps illustrate why. Texas was ill-equipped for the deep freeze. It lost natural gas generation because of lack of winterization. But it almost completely lost wind generation, which plummeted from 68,000 megawatts to 2,000 megawatts as the storm began dropping a rare three-inch snowfall on Houston. Had Texas been connected with regions of the country where the sun was shining or the wind blowing, it might have imported enough power to keep on the lights.
It wasn’t just Texas, though. The same loss of wind generation that accompanied the deep freeze posed worrisome problems to Fort Collins-based Platte River Power Authority, which issued a precautionary warning. Tri-State also noted the loss of wind generation in the still atmosphere that accompanied the cold.
More transmission can allow utilities to draw on a broader menu of renewables in such situations, even on a daily basis. The Great Plains boast great winds, the Southwest blazes with solar.
How is this knitting together to be done? Transmission in western states must inevitable cross the vast public lands. In Colorado, 36.2% of the state is administered by federal land agencies, principally the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. New Mexico is close behind at 35%. Wyoming is 48%. In Utah, it’s 70%.
“On public lands, as important as they are, a balance has to be struck,” said McCarthy, “but the balance cannot get in the way of effectively addressing climate change, which is an existential threat to all of us.” And, she added, hewing to the sales pitch of the Biden administration, “to take advantage of the economic benefits that a clean energy jobs provide.”
McCarthy, a live wire herself in her public appearances, also pointed to the joint announcement by the federal transportation and energy departments of a plan to expand use of rights of way for highway and railroads for transmission. This will help more expeditious investment in transmission, she said.
“There are probably 20 areas where we would be able to immediately make investments in transmission in ways to utilize those rights of ways to open up new transmission and opportunities for renewable energy,” she said.
Colorado has a goal of 80% decarbonization of the electrical grid by 2030 and 50% decarbonization of its economy altogether. Biden had offered a far more aggressive target, 100% decarbonization of the electrical grid by 2035 and a 50% to 52% economy wide target.
To push this decarbonization of electricity, McCarthy said she leans toward a clean energy standard, as advocated by Holy Cross Energy, an electrical cooperative, and 12 other utilities from New York to California, in a letter sent to Biden in April. The letter called for a federal requirement that electrical utilities be able to supply 80% of their power from non-carbon sources by 2030 as compared to 2005 levels.
“If you nationalize, you get some terrific opportunities,” said McCarthy. “Most of us are shifting from cap and trade, because of the complexity, but looking more at direct investments and things like the clean electricity standard.”
Carbon pricing, she added, “is not something that is going away. I just find it less satisfying.”
In all this, the Biden administration sees need for more research. McCarthy mentioned technological innovations that have occurred in the last 50 years since the United States put Neil Armstrong’s footprint on the moon. The federal government has often played a role in instigating technological innovation, she said, using federal funds to spur innovation and investment in the private sector.
McCarthy said the Department of Energy has billions of dollars of loans and an accelerator that uses the green bank model.
Colorado State University has already played a role in the Biden administration’s view of innovation, Ritter told McCarthy in what he described as a “shameless plug.”
A group of researchers and academics at CSU was the source of an idea contained in the Biden campaign Energy and Environment Platform. That idea, to create an advanced research project agency for climate, also called an ARPA-C, within the Department of Energy, has become part of the Biden budget proposal.
It would stand alongside the existing ARPA-E, which is devoted to technical solutions. For example, it recently announced a $35 million grant program for ideas to reduce emission of methane from oil and gas supply chains, coal mines and other sources.
CSU’s idea, Ritter explained, is to offer a multi-disciplinary—and not purely technical approach—to climate solutions. Those in the social sciences would be included.
“When you are making a shameless plug, it’s good to be telling the truth,” McCarthy replied. “It’s well deserved.”
Another small but important piece of the giant puzzle that Holy Cross Energy has set out to solve was revealed Tuesday.
The electrical cooperative serving members in the Vail-Aspen-Rifle area has agreed to purchase electricity from a solar and battery storage project being built by Ameresco Inc. Near Glenwood Springs, on the Spring Valley Campus of Colorado Mountain College, the company will install solar panels capable of generating a maximum of 4.5 megawatts of electricity.
Adjacent to the solar panels it will operate battery storage with a capacity of 5 megawatts (or 15 megawatt hours). Batteries will be charged with electricity generated by the solar panels.
The batteries can be tapped to supply electricity during times of peak demand on a daily basis. In the Vail-Aspen area, peak demand typically occurs in evening hours, with the strongest demand during winter months.
The lithium-iron-phosphate batteries can also augment Holy Cross’s electrical generation during times of disruption, such as caused by wildfires or storms.
“That battery and local generation is an important part of the infrastructure that is real important to creating a resilient energy system for the future,” said Steve Buening, the vice president for power supply and programs at Holy Cross.
The battery storage will be able to have 5 megawatts of power vs. 15 megawatt-hour of capacity. Beuning compares the 5 megawatts to what happens when you press on the gas pedal of an internal-combustion car, while the mega-watt hour is how much the gas tank can hold.
With 45,000 members, Holy Cross is among the larger of Colorado’s 22 electrical cooperatives. As of 2018 it was responsible for 2.2% of electrical sales in the state.
Holy Cross has been assembling disparate pieces of infrastructure, some in and among the communities it services, others hundreds of miles away, as it pursues a goal of completely decarbonizing its electrical supply by 2030.
In addition to the new solar-plus-storage complex near Glenwood Springs, Holy Cross plans a 5-megawatt solar farm on McCain Flats, near the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport. Construction is scheduled to begin this spring.
Complementing this local generation will be electricity generated for Holy Cross at the Arriba wind farm, to be constructed during the next year along Interstate 70 near the eponymously named town 120 miles southeast of Denver. The wind farm will have 100 megawatts of capacity, enough to supply roughly a third of demand by Holy Cross members.
In storage, Holy Cross has something of the same approach, a mixture of local and smaller and elsewhere and larger.
Directors of Holy Cross in 2020 adopted a plan that lays out potential strategies, including pumped-storage hydro. Water in pumped-storage projects is released to generate electricity to meet peak demands, then pumped uphill again when electricity is more abundant and hence cheaper.
It’s not new technology. Colorado has two such projects, the larger and older being near Georgetown. There, the Cabin Creek project uses a 1,200 feet vertical drop between two reservoirs to generate a maximum of 324 megawatts. The system went on-line in 1967 but has been upgraded since then.
Bryan Hannegan, the chief executive of Holy Cross, has spoken about the value of small pumped-storage hydro projects in the Aspen-Vail area, perhaps combined with larger capacity pumped-storage projects elsewhere.
Why the battery storage now for Holy Cross instead of waiting for prices to tumble further. Prices of battery storage have dropped about 80% in the last decade and are projected to decline even more, from $137 per kilowatt-hour to as low as $100 by 2023, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
Holy Cross decided that the prices were already good enough.
“One thing that may be holding back investment in utility-scale energy storage is concerns about being an early adopter at higher prices than in the future if battery prices continue their downward trend,” says Buening.
That being noted, the savings are good enough already to yield lower costs of electricity for Holy Cross members.
“We were ready to go ahead,” he says.
Xcel is also planning 275 megawatts of battery storage as it closes two coal-fired power units at Pueblo in the next several years. In a recent filing with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, the utility plans even more in the years beyond 2024. It’s Colorado’s largest utility with 52.5% of Colorado’s electrical sales for 2018.
Photo at top is rendering of the solar-plus-storage project at the Spring Valley Campus near Glenwood Springs.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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);
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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.
Six home battery among strategies to contour demand around intermittent resources
On the cusp of deep penetration of renewable energy that most would have thought impossible just a decade ago, Holy Cross Energy has now started working to contour demands around those intermittent renewables.
Consider the six Tesla Powerwall battery packs installed in recent months in the homes of Holy Cross Energy members. They look vaguely like sleek, slender, and small refrigerators. They serve a similar purpose, storing a perishable, renewable energy, to be tapped when demand peaks.
Peak demand in the Holy Cross service area between Vail, Aspen, and Parachute typically occurs during winter evenings. If tests in coming months bear out expectations, Holy Cross hopes to have 100 more batteries installed among its 55,000 metered members by the end of 2021.
Power+, as the pilot project is called, is among several programs launched by Holy Cross Energy to juggle demand to better match supplies of renewables.
This transition to clean energy has been accelerating. In 2019, renewables were responsible for 44% of electrical generation consumed by Holy Cross members. By the end of 2022, renewables may have delivered more than 70% of electricity for the year.
The biggest single stride will come from a wind farm near Arriba, located about 120 miles east of Denver along Interstate 70. This wind farm will deliver 100 megawatts for Holy Cross, enough to supply a third of total demand. It’s slated for completion by New Year’s Eve 2021. Hunter Solar, a solar installation near Bennett, 35 miles southeast of Denver, will deliver another 30 megawatts by July 2022.
Construction of a 5-megawatt solar farm near the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport is expected to begin when the snow melts next spring, with service beginning next summer.
The three projects together will get Holy Cross to 70% renewables of annual energy production in 2022.
Next comes the work to reach 80%. Holy Cross expects to hit that level by the end of 2024—and perhaps even 85%.
And this just in: a press conference on Monday, Dec. 14, for “a special announcement regarding the next chapter in HCE’s commitment to a clean energy future.”
In early 2020, Holy Cross invited proposals for new electrical generation. This time, it said, it favored local sources. Too, the projects needed to lower costs, with the savings to be transferred to Holy Cross customers.
That invitation yielded 51 proposals. Among the first chosen was a 4.5-megawatt solar array to be constructed near the Colorado Mountain College Spring Valley Campus, between Glenwood Springs and Carbondale. Several other projects chosen have not been announced pending final scrutiny of contract details.
In deciding which projects to pursue, Steve Beuning, the vice president for power supply and programs at Holy Cross, describes several considerations:
First, does the new generating source create a situation of over-supply? “Over-supply is when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing and our members aren’t using much energy,” explains Beuning.
An office building sitting empty is costing somebody lots of money. Ditto for a rarely used wind farm or solar array. Construction is not cheap, even if the wind and sunshine are free. Best is when demand can take full advantage of all renewable resource production.
Second, does the proposed solar farm or other resource clash with the utility’s existing contract with Public Service Co. of Colorado, a subsidiary of Xcel Energy? Xcel is a major provider of electricity for Holy Cross. The contract, which was initiated in the early 1990s, specifies the circumstances under which Holy Cross can substitute supplies against those contractually committed to Holy Cross by Xcel.
“What we don’t want to do is buy energy twice,” says Beuning.
Third, what Impacts will occur to the delivery system of Holy Cross? Will the electrical wires already strung accommodate the new energy? A related but more abstract consideration has to do with reliability. How does this new generation affect grid stability? For example, will the loss of generation cause the lights to flicker or, worse yet, cause your computer to crash—causing you to lose that document you had slaved on for an hour but forgot to save!
One solution to this need to maintain steady deliveries may be through development of autonomous, local, so-called micro-grids. The Power+ program from Holy Cross is an example of a micro-grid that helps a single retail customer. In the future the concepts behind this program could be expanded to cover multiple customers with backup supply.
Power+ is one among several programs that seeks to buffer these rough edges between demand by consumers and new renewable energy supplies. Take Power+, the program that will put Tesla batteries into homes. During times of oversupply, they provide storage for consumption later, when renewable production is less but demand may be more.
Holy Cross offers incentives for those participating, but other members benefit, too, as the storage allows members, not just those houses with batteries, to take full advantage of lower-cost renewable energy.
Peak Time Payback, another voluntary program, also works at the fulcrum of supply and demand. Those members participating agree to get messages that request deferring electrical demand. Participants could then choose to delay using their washers and dryers during the evening, Presidents’ Weekend or some other time when Vail and Aspen are bustling and everybody is getting ready to watch the latest Netflix offering. The same thing can be achieved during a time of hot weather by moving the thermostat of an air conditioner up a few degrees, to reduce electricity use.
The intent of this program is to shave peak demand, typically during two or three hours blocks. This averts the need for Holy Cross to buy electric capacity on the open market at its most expensive moments. Participating Holy Cross members can, to the extent they alter their demands, benefit from preferred rates.
GreenUp, another pilot program, provides the flip-side to Peak Time Paybacks. It is premised on the fact that there are blocks of time when wind and solar forecasters predict an abundance of renewable energy. Again, there are financial incentives, but this time inverse to those intended to shave peak demand. In this case, consumers are encouraged through lower costs to actually use electricity when its plentiful.
“We will make the decisions to trigger the program based on our forecast for wind and solar, and the member would make the decisions about any behavior changes to access the reduced rates,” says Beuning. “We will communicate the program timing through a text or e-mail.”
Other utilities offer similar demand-side management programs in an effort to contour supplies with demands more efficiently. It made sense even when most electricity was generated by burning fossil fuels. Deepening penetration of intermittent renewables will require even greater juggling of demand.
The arrival of electric cars and other vehicles will pose both additional challenges but also offer opportunities for optimizing the balance between supplies and demands.
Holy Cross in recent years has gained a national reputation for innovation and boldness. Platte River Power Authority, which serves four member cities along the northern Front Range, has also started to turn heads.
In 2018, both Colorado utilities adopted ambitious goals for 2030. Holy Cross was first, with its target of 70% renewables and 70% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in its generating portfolio by 2030. Just a few months later, Platte River Power Authority adopted a resolution calling for 100% carbon-free electricity by 2030.
Now, the two utilities face many of the same challenges, as do other utilities. Platte River’s directors noted that 10 conditions would have to be addressed to achieve its 2030 target. Among those conditions is the need for matured battery storage technology along with steep cost declines.
Another is for a regional transmission organization, or RTO. An RTO enables more efficient access to the electric grid and pairs demands with renewables across a broader geographic area. The idea of improved dispatch and transmission is to allow Colorado and California to work more in tandem, along with Utah and Arizona and other states. An alternate idea would have Colorado sharing energy and demands with states in the Great Plains and their bounteous supplies of wind.
Integration of geographically diverse markets will give Holy Cross greater flexibility, says Beuning, allowing it to deepen the penetration of renewable energy. Think of using California sun to heat water in the late afternoon, or Colorado wind helping address the evening reduction in solar generation in the desert Southwest.
Twenty-five years ago, changes were few from year to year. Now, they’re happening at an almost blinding pace.
The race is on toward 100% carbon-free electricity, but there’s a lot of hard work ahead.
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.
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 email@example.com or 303.463.8630.
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.
The report looked at how much renewable energy potential each state had within its own borders and found that almost every state could deliver all its electricity needs from instate renewable sources.
And that’s just a start: The report found that there’s so much potential for renewable energy sourcing, some states could produce 10 times the electricity they need. Cost remains an issue, as does connecting all of this capacity to the grid, but prices have dropped significantly, and efficiency continues to improve. Clean energy is not only affordable but could be a big boost to the economy. Locally sourced renewables create jobs, reduce pollution, and make communities more climate resilient.
So where are the opportunities? Rooftop solar, the study found, could supply six states with at least half of their electricity needs. But wind had the greatest potential. For 35 states, onshore wind alone could supply 100% of their energy demand, and offshore wind could do the same in 21 states. (The numbers overlap a bit.)
The study follows a similar report conducted a decade ago and shows that the clean energy field has made substantial progress in that time.
The Revelator spoke with Maria McCoy, a research associate at the Institute and report co-author, about what’s changed and how to turn all the potential into reality.
What’s changed in the 10 years since you last looked at the potential for instate renewable energy?
There’s definitely been technology improvements in all the energy sources, but especially solar. Obviously there’s the same amount of sun, but the solar panels themselves have a higher percentage of solar photovoltaic efficiency. Most states, on average, had 16% more solar potential this time around than they did a decade ago.
And for the other technologies, it’s a matter of either more space being available or the technologies themselves improving. Wind turbines now can generate a lot more energy with the same amount of wind.
Where do you see the most potential?
There’s been a lot of development in offshore wind and I think it’s on the cusp of really becoming a big player in the clean energy field. But regulations, including at the federal level, have blocked it from happening at scale in the United States. Whereas in Europe there’s already some incredibly efficient offshore wind farms that are generating a lot of electricity. Those companies are just starting to move into the U.S. market.
But it’s onshore wind that has the biggest potential. Our research found that some states could generate over 1,000% of their energy with onshore wind if they really took advantage of it.
Your report didn’t consider the potential of large-scale solar. Why?
We looked at the potential of rooftop solar rather than large-scale solar because as an energy democracy organization, we’re really focused on distributed and community-owned energy. But it’s also because pretty much every state has enough capacity to completely be powered by large-scale solar. It just then becomes an issue of land-usage debates and other challenges.
Your research shows there’s a ton of potential for renewables across the country. How do we realize that potential?
Continued support for renewable energy is a big one. There are a lot of credits that are phasing out and without renewing those, it will make it a little bit tougher for the market.
We were looking at just the technical ability to produce the energy and not necessarily the cost effectiveness, but we did recognize in the report that the costs have come down. The cost of solar PV, for example, has dropped 70%. So this is not really a pie-in-the-sky goal. It’s definitely gotten a lot more feasible and many cities are already doing it or planning to in the near future.
I think the will is there and people want renewable energy, it’s just a matter of fighting the status quo. A lot of these utilities have been using the same business model for decades and they’re not really keeping up with where things are going and where the community wants things to go.
They’re holding on to their fossil fuel infrastructure and their business model that profits off building more fossil gas plants when solar plus storage is already a cheaper energy source for customers. And wind is very cheap. If utility regulators and state and national policy could hold these utilities accountable to serving the public, which is their job as regulated monopolies, we could finally get to see some of this potential becoming a reality.
Having the ability to generate energy locally and store it and use it locally will create jobs and provide a lot of resilience to the grid and communities. And with climate change, I think that’s becoming more and more important.
Was there anything that surprised you about your findings?
We definitely expected things to be better but I don’t know if we expected them to be this much better in 10 years. Seeing all this potential and these ridiculously high percentages — I mean, being able to generate greater than 1,000% of the electricity we need with renewables in some states is just a sign of how abundant clean energy is.
And it’s kind of sad, I guess, that some states aren’t even able to get to 25% or 50% clean energy goals in their renewable portfolio standards. I would hope that the train starts rolling a little faster.
And I hope our research can inspire others who think maybe their state doesn’t have a lot of renewable energy capacity in their area to realize that they do, and it could provide for all that they need and more.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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 email@example.com or 303.463.8630.
Accelerating clean energy development is critical—here’s how we do it the right way.
We are at the beginning of an enormous global buildout of clean energy infrastructure. This is good news for climate mitigation—we need at least a nine-fold increase in renewable energy production to meet the Paris Agreement goals. But this buildout must be done fast and smart.
Renewable energy infrastructure requires a lot of land—especially onshore wind and large-scale solar installations, which we will need to meet our ambitious climate goals. Siting renewable energy in areas that support wildlife habitat not only harms nature but also increases the potential for project conflicts that could slow the buildout—a prospect we cannot afford. Building renewables on natural lands can also undermine climate progress by converting forests and other areas that store carbon and serve as natural climate solutions.
Fortunately, there is plenty of previously developed land that can be used to meet our clean energy needs—at least 17 times the amount of land needed to meet the Paris Agreement goals. But accelerating the buildout on these lands requires taking pro-active measures now.
1. Get in the Zone: Identify areas where renewable energy buildout can be accelerated
Establishing renewable energy zones based on both energy development potential and environmental considerations can steer projects away from natural lands and support faster project approval—it’s a win-win for people and nature.
2. Plan Ahead: Consider habitat and species in long-term energy planning and purchasing processes
Governments and utilities make long-term plans to guide how they will meet energy demand and climate goals. They also establish purchasing processes for securing new renewable energy generation and transmission. When nature is considered in this planning and purchasing, renewable energy development can be directed to places that are good for projects and low impact for wildlife and habitat.
Learn More: TNC’s Power of Place project in the U.S. and renewable energy planning initiative in India are demonstrating how to integrate nature into energy planning processes.
3. Site Renewables Right: Develop science-based guidelines for low-impact siting
Siting guidelines help developers evaluate potential impacts to natural habitat and steer projects to low-impact areas. Such guidelines are even more effective when regulators and lenders set clear standards and expectations for their implementation.
4. Choose Brownfields Over Greenfields: Facilitate development on former mine lands and industrial sites
Using former mines, brownfields and other industrial sites for renewable energy development can turn unproductive lands into assets, create jobs and tax revenue for local economies, and support goals for climate and nature. These sites can be ideal for renewable energy projects, as they often have existing transmission infrastructure and enjoy strong local support for redevelopment. It’s an approach that benefits communities, climate and conservation.
Learn More: TNC’s Mining the Sun work in Nevada and West Virginia demonstrates that developing solar on former mining lands can support renewable energy and local redevelopment goals.
5. Buy Renewables Right: Make corporate commitments to buy low-impact renewable energy to meet clean energy goals
Corporate sourcing of renewable energy is growing rapidly around the world. When companies buy renewable energy from projects that avoid impacts to wildlife and habitat, they can support their sustainability goals for climate and nature.
6. Invest for Climate and Nature: Apply lending performance standards to ensure renewable energy investments are clean and green
Financial institutions influence renewable energy siting through their environmental and social performance standards, due diligence processes, and technical assistance, all of which can require or incentivize developers to locate projects in low-impact areas.