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);
1 Data Dump (anything from a set of numbers with context to full-on data-visual stories); and,
1 News Roundup, which will highlight a sample of the great journalism happening around the West;
Reaction to and contextualization of breaking news, as needed.
Additionally, I’ll be throwing in all sorts of things, from on-the-ground reporter notebooks to teasers from upcoming books to the occasional fiction piece to throwbacks from my journalistic archives.
Can’t afford even that? No worries. Just sign up for a free subscription and get occasional dispatches, or contact me and we can work something out. Or maybe you’ve got some extra change jangling around in your pocket and are really hungry for this sort of journalism? Then become a Founding Member and, in addition to feeling all warm and fuzzy inside, you’ll receive some extra swag.
I just launched the Land Desk earlier this week and already subscribers are getting content! Today I published a Data Dump on a southwestern indicator river setting an alarming record. Also this week, look for a detailed analysis tracing the roots of the recent invasion of the Capitol to the Wise Use movement of the early 1990s. In the not-so distant future I’ll be publishing “Carbon Capture Convolution,” about the attempt to keep a doomed coal-fired power plant running by banking on questionable technology and sketchy federal tax credits. Plus the Land Desk will have updated national park visitor statistics, a look back on how the pandemic affected Western economies, and forward-looking pieces on what a Biden administration will mean for public lands.
Please subscribe to The Land Desk. Click here to read some of Thompson’s work that has shown up on Coyote Gulch over the years.
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.
‘It’s crazy to build 40,000 houses a year’ with natural gas infrastructure in Colorado
In 2010, after success as a wind developer, Eric Blank had the idea that the time for solar had come. The Comanche 3 coal-fired power plant near Pueblo had just begun operations. Blank and his company, Community Energy, thought a parcel of sagebrush-covered land across the road from the power plant presented solar opportunities.
At the time, Blank recalled on Wednesday, the largest solar project outside California was less than 5 megawatts. He and his team were looking to develop 120 megawatts.
It didn’t happen overnight. They optioned the land, and several times during the next 3 or 4 years were ready give up. The prices of solar weren’t quite there and, perhaps, the public policies, either. They didn’t give up, though. In 2014 they swung the deal. The site made so much sense because the solar resources at Pueblo are very rich, and the electrical transmission as easy.
Comanche Solar began operations in 2016. It was, at the time, the largest solar project east of the Rocky Mountains and it remains so in Colorado. That distinction will be eclipsed within the next several years by a far bigger solar project at the nearby steel mill.
Now, Blank has moved on to other things. He wants to be engaged in the new cutting edge, the replacement of natural gas in buildings with new heating and cooling technology that uses electricity as the medium.
“There’s too much benefit here for it not to happen,” he said in an interview.
California has led the way, as it so often has in the realm of energy, with a torrent of bans on natural gas infrastructure by cities and counties. Fearing the same thing would happen in Colorado, an arm of the state’s oil-and-gas industry gathered signatures with the intention of asking voter in November to prevent such local initiatives. An intervention by Gov. Jared Polis resulted in competing parties stepping back from their November initiatives.
In Colorado, Blank sees another route. He sees state utility regulators and legislators creating a mix of incentives and at the same time nudging along the conversation about the benefits.
“It will happen because the regulators and the Legislature will make it happen,” he says. Instead of natural gas bans, he sees rebates and other incentives, but also educational outreach. “Maybe someday you need a code change, but to me public policies are in this nuanced dance. The code change is way more acceptable and less traumatic if it is preceded by a bunch of incentives that allow people to get familiar with and understand (alternatives) than just come in from the outside like a hammer.”
Blank says he began understanding the value of replacing natural gas about a year ago, when conducting studies for Chris Clack of Vibrant Clean Energy about how to decarbonize the economy. “This is just another piece of that. I think building electrification is the next frontier.”
And it’s time to get the transition rolling, he says. It just doesn’t make sense to build houses designed for burning natural gas for heating, for producing hot water and for cooking. Retrofitting those houses becomes very expensive.
“It’s crazy to be building 40,000 new homes a year with natural gas,” he says. Once built for natural gas, it’s difficult and expensive to retrofit them to take advantage of new technology. But the economics of avoiding natural gas already exists.
To that end, Blank’s company commissioned a study by Group14 Engineering, a Denver-based firm. The firm set out to document the costs using two case studies. The study examined a newer 3,100-square-foot single-family house located in Arvada, about 10 miles northwest of downtown Denver. Like most houses, it’s heated by natural gas and has a water heater also powered by natural gas.
The study found that employing air-source heat-pumps—the critical technology used at Basalt Vista and a number of other no-gas housing developments—can save money, reducing greenhouse gas emissions—but would best be nudged along by incentives.
“For new construction, the heat pump scenarios have a lower net-present cost for all rates tested,” the report says. “This is due to the substantial savings from the elimination of the natural gas hookup and piping. Although net-present costs are lower, additional incentives will help encourage adoption and lower costs across the market.” The current rebates produce a 14% savings in net-present costs.
The same thing is found in the case study of a 28,000-square-foot office building in Lakewood, another Denver suburb.
The study digs into time-of-use rates, winter peak demand and winter-off peak use, and other elements relevant to the bottom lines.
The bolder bottom line is that there’s good reason to shift incentives now, to start changing what business-as-usual looks like. Blank points out that natural gas in every home was not ordinary at one time, either. It has largely come about in the last 50 to 60 years. With nudges, in the form of incentives, builders and others will see a new way of doing things, and electrification of buildings will become the norm.
Blank says he began to understand how electrification of building and transportation could benefit the electrical system that is heavily reliant on solar and wind and perhaps a little bit of natural gas when conducting studies last year with Clack at Vibrant Clean Energy .
“I was just blown away by the benefits of electrification (of buildings and transportation) to the electric system,” he says.
Greater flexibility will be introduced by the addition of more electric-vehicle charging and water heating by electricity, both of which can be done to take advantage of plentiful wind and solar during times when those resources would otherwise be curtailed, he explains.
Already, California is curtailing solar generation in late spring, during mid-afternoon hours, or paying Arizona to take the excess, because California simply does not have sufficient demand during those hours. Matching flexible demand with that surplus renewable energy allows for materially greater economic penetration of highly cost-effective new solar.
“In our Vibrant Clean Energy study, with building and transport electrification, we found that Colorado could get from roughly 80% to 90% renewables penetration before the lack of demand leading to widespread renewable curtailment makes additional investments in wind and solar uneconomic,” says Blank.
Electrification of new sectors also expands the sales base for distribution, transmission and other costs. Since the marginal cost of meeting this additional demand is low (because wind, solar, and storage are so cheap), this tends to significantly lower all electric rates.”
Colorado, he says, is unusually well positioned to benefit from this transition. It is rich with both wind and solar resources. Coal plants are closing, electricity costs flat or declining. Consumers should benefit. The time, he says, has come.
This is from the Aug. 14, 2020, issue of Big Pivots. To sign up for a free subscription go to BigPivots.com.
FromColorado Politics (Joey Bunch) via The Colorado Springs Gazette:
Sun and wind on the wide-open spaces of Colorado could fill a gaping hole in the region’s economy with new opportunities. Late last month, my friends over at The Western Way released a report detailing $9.4 billion in investments in renewable energy on the plains already. The analysis provides kindling for a hot conversation on what more could be done to help the region and its people to prosper from the next big thing.
Political winds of change are powering greener energy to the point that conservative organizations and rural farm interests are certainly paying attention, if not getting on board.
Gov. Jared Polis and the Democrats who control the state House and Senate have the state on course for getting 100% of its energy from renewable resources in just two decades. Those who plan for that will be in the best position to capitalize on the coming opportunities.
The eastern plains, economically wobbly on its feet for years now, doesn’t plan to be left behind any longer. Folks out there, battered by a fading population, years of drought and fewer reasons to hope for better days, are ready to try something new, something with dollars attached to it.
Renewable energy is not the whole answer for what troubles this region, but it’s one answer, said Greg Brophy, the family farmer from Wray, a former state senator and The Western Way’s Colorado director. The Western Way is a conservative group concerned about the best possible outcomes for business and conservation in a changing political and economic landscape…
It also makes a bigger political statement that bears listening to.
“It’s a market-based solution to concerns people have with the environment,” Brophy said. “Whether you share those concerns or not, a lot of people are concerned, and rather than doing some silly Green New Deal, we actually can have a market-based solution that can provide lower-cost electricity.”
Brophy was an early Trump supporter, candidate for governor and chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Ken Buck. He’s dismayed at the president for mocking wind energy. He thinks some healing of our broken nation could take place if people looked more for win-wins…
Renewable energy checks all the boxes. It helps farmers, it helps the planet, and it gives Republicans and Democrats in Denver and D.C. one less thing to argue about.
Largest behind-the-meter solar project in U.S. provides cost edge for steel mill expansion
What might be called the world’s first solar-powered steel mill will be moving forward.
EVRAZ North America plans construction of a long-rail mill at its Rocky Mountain Steel operation in Pueblo, Colo. This decision allows execution of an agreement reached in September 2019 for a 240-megawatt solar facility located on 1,500 acres of land at the steel mill.
It will be the largest on-site solar facility in the United States dedicated to a single customer. Another way of saying it is that it will be the largest behind-the-meter solar project in the nation.
The solar production from the project, called Bighorn Solar, will offset about 90% of the annual electricity demand from the mill.
Lightsource BP will finance, build, own and operate the project and sell all the electricity generated by the 700,000 solar panels to Xcel Energy under a 20-year power-purchase agreement. Lightsource says it is investing $250 million in the solar project.
Kevin B. Smith, chief executive of the Americas for Lightsource BP, said he expects construction to start in October. Commercial operations will begin by the end of 2021. He rates the solar resource at Pueblo as 8 on a scale of 10.
Several states had been vying for the long-rail mill, which will be able to produce rails up to 100 meters long, or about as long as a football field with its end zones, for use in heavy-haul and high-speed railways. The mill uses recycled steel from old cars and other sources. The new mill is to have a production capacity of 670,000 short tons, according to a 2019 release.
The Pueblo Chieftain and other Pueblo media reported the decision to go forward on Thursday evening, citing a report from the Pueblo Economic Development Corp.
The price of the solar energy was crucial to the decision for the siting in Pueblo, says Lightsource BP’s Smith.
“The long-rail mill is a go on the basis of the EVRAZ-Xcel Energy long term electricity agreement for cost-effective electricity,” Smith said in an email interview. “Xcel was able to provide that cost-effective pricing on the basis of the Lightsource BP solar project on the EVRAZ site, which provides cost effective energy to Xcel under a 20-year contract.”
That was also the message from Skip Herald, chief executive of EVRAZ North America in a 2019 release. “This long-term agreement is key to our investment in Colorado’s new sustainable economy,” he said.
Pueblo sweetened the pot, giving EVRAZ an incentive package reported to be worth $100 million, a portion of it to be used for environmental clean up of the site. In turn, EVRAZ needed to commit to keeping 1,000 employees, KOAA News reported in 2019. The new mill was expected to produce 1,000 new jobs that will pay between $60,000 and $65,000.
The solar farm will also help Xcel achieve 55% renewable penetration in its Colorado electrical supply by 2026. By then, two of the three coal-fired Comanche units that serve as a backdrop for the steel mill will have been retired. The new solar farm will surpass in size and production the nearby 156-megawatt Comanche solar project, which currently is the largest solar production facility east of the Rocky Mountains.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis issued a statement Thursday evening saying that he’s “thrilled that the steel mill’s new expansion has passed this important milestone. Pueblo workers have been making the world’s best steel for nearly 140 years, and with this addition, Pueblo’s next generation of steelworkers can count on good-paying jobs well into the future.”
The new steel mill was still tentative in September 2019 when Polis and various other dignitaries gathered on an asphalt parking lot on the perimeters of the steel mill to announce the solar deal.
With the early-autumn sun beating down, Pueblo Mayor Nick Gradisar spoke, saying that people had come to Pueblo from all over the world to make the stele that created the American West. For nearly 100 yeas, he said, the mill was the largest employer in the state of Colorado. His family, he said, was part of that story, his grandfather arrived from Slovenia in 1910 and worked at the steel mill for 50 years, while his father worked there for 30 years. (See video here).
Alice Jackson, chief executive of Public Service Co. of Colorado, the Xcel subsidiary, pointed to three years of negotiations that weren’t always easy but lauded the result as “perfective marriage of a variety of parties coming together” to show the world how to use renewable energy.
U.S. Senator Cory Gardner emphasized the combination of recyclable—the mill uses 1.2 million tons of material a year, he said—and renewable energy.
During his turn at the lectern, Polis, who had announced his candidacy for governor the prior year at a coffee shop in downtown Pueblo called Solar Roasters, emphasized the competitive edge that renewable energy provides.
“For those who wonder what a renewable energy future will look like, this is a great example of what that future will look like: low-cost energy for a manufacturing company that will stay in Pueblo and grow jobs for Pueblo residents,” he said.
Polis also pointed to symbolism on the Pueblo skyline, the smoke stacks of the Comanche power plants in the background. The steel mill—which once burned prodigious amounts of coal, with smudges of that past still evident—was the impetus for construction of the Comanche power station in the early 1970s. Now, as two of those three coal-burning units will be retired within a few years, another shift is underway.
“By working together to make change work for us, rather than against us, we can lead boldly in the future, create good jobs, create low-cost energy and cleaner air and do our part on climate,” he said.
Herald, the chief executive of EVRAZ, said his company will be making the “greenest steel products in the world.” It is a change, he said, that amazes him. “Just imagine recycled scrap metal being melted into new steel just a few hundred yards from where we stand in the electric arc furnace powered by the sun,” he said.
It is, he added, “one of the most amazing feats I’ve seen in my 40 years” in the steel industry.
This is from Big Pivots. Go HERE to be put on the mailing list.
Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist who publishes an e-magazine called Big Pivots. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303.463.8630.
FromThe High Country News (Jonathan Thompson) [July 23, 2020]:
By February, the spread of COVID-19 was already eroding the global economy. First, global travel restrictions depressed the oil market. Then, as the virus reached pandemic proportions, it began hurting even the healthiest industries, throwing the global economy into the deepest rut since the Great Depression.
The recession has been hard on clean energy, which was thriving at the end of last year despite unhelpful, even hostile, policies from the Trump administration. Between 2009 and 2019, solar and wind generation on the U.S. electrical grid shot up by 400%, even as overall electricity consumption remained fairly flat. Renewable facility construction outpaced all other electricity sources, but the disease’s effects have since rippled through the sector, wiping out much of its previous growth.
Global supply chains for everything from solar panels to electric car components were the earliest victims, as governments shut down factories, first in China, then worldwide, to prevent transmission of the disease. Restrictions on construction further delayed utility-scalesolar and wind installations and hampered rooftop solar installations and energy efficiency projects. The setbacks are especially hard on the wind industry, because new wind farms must be up and running by the end of the year to take advantage of federal tax credits. Meanwhile, the general economic slowdown is diminishing financing for new renewable energy projects.
Clean energy, which has shed more than 600,000 jobs since the pandemic’s onset, is only one of the many economic sectors that are hurting. In just three months, COVID-19 wiped out more than twice as many jobs as were lost during the entire Great Recession of 2008. The impacts have reverberated throughout the Western U.S., from coal mines to tourist towns, and from casinos to dairy farms. Some industries, including clean energy, bounced back slightly in June, as stay-at-home orders were dropped and businesses, factories and supply chains opened back up. But a full recovery — if it happens — will largely depend on government stimulus programs and could take years.
In just three months, COVID-19 wiped out more than twice as many jobs as were lost during the entire Great Recession of 2008.
Infographic design by Luna Anna Archey; Graphics by Minus Plus; Sources: Solar Energy Industries Association, BW Research Partnership, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Energy Information Administration, Taxpayers for Common Sense, Opportunity Insights Economic Tracker, Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, New Mexico Workforce Connection, Utah Department of Workforce Services.
Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Email him at email@example.com.
Colorado begins conversation about how to crimp natural gas use in new buildings
Colorado has started talking about how to curtail natural gas in new buildings necessary to achieve the dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions during the next 10 to 30 years as specified by state law.
Agreement has been reached among several state agencies and the four distribution companies regulated by the state’s Public Utilities Commission to conduct discussions about future plans for pipelines and other infrastructure projects of more than $15 million. The agreement proposes to take a long view of 10 to 20 years when considering natural gas infrastructure for use in heating, cooking and hot-water heating.
The four utilities—Xcel Energy, Black Hills Colorado, Atmos Energy, and Colorado Natural Gas—altogether deliver gas to 1.73 million customers, both residential and business.
Unlike a toaster or even a kitchen stove, which you can replace with relative ease and cost, gas infrastructure comes with an enormous price tag—and expectation of a long, long time of use. For example, it would have cost $30,000 per unit to install natural gas pipes at Basalt Vista, an affordable housing project in the Roaring Fork Valley. Alternative technology is being used there.
Gas infrastructure is difficult to replace in buildings where it exists. As such the conversation getting underway is primarily about how to limit additional gas infrastructure.
“Given the long useful lives of natural gas infrastructure investments, the (Colorado Energy Office) suggests that this type of forward-looking assessment should include any significant upgrades to existing natural gas infrastructure or expansion of the gas delivery system to new residential developments,” the state agency said in a June 8 filling.
This is adapted from the July 23, 2020, issue of Big Pivots. Subscribe for free to the e-magazine by going to Big Pivots.
Meanwhile, the three Public Utility Commission plans one or more informational session later this year to learn about expectations of owners of natural gas distribution systems by Colorado’s decarbonization goals and the implications for the capital investments.
HB 19-1261, a Colorado law adopted in May 2019, charged state agencies with using regulatory tools to shrink greenhouse gas emissions from Colorado’s economy 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050.
Utilities in Colorado have said they intend to close most of the coal plants now operating no later than 2030. The coal generation will be replaced primarily by renewables. That alone will not be nearly enough to meet the state’s ambitious decarbonization goals. Carbon emissions must also be squeezed from transportation—already the state’s leading source of carbon dioxide— buildings, and other sectors.
“No single strategy or sector will deliver the economy-wide greenhouse gas reductions Colorado needs to meet its science-based goals, but natural gas system planning is part of the silver buckshot that can get us there,” said Keith Hay, director of policy at the Colorado Energy Office in a statement.
“When it comes to gas planning, CEO is focused on opportunities to meet customers’ needs that will lead to a more efficient system, reduce overall costs, and reduce greenhouse gas pollution.”
Roughly 70% of Coloradans use natural gas for heating.
While gas utilities cannot refuse gas to customers, several real estate developers from Arvada to Pueblo and beyond have started crafting homes and other buildings that do not require natural gas. Instead, they can use electricity, passive solar, and a technology called air-source heat pumps to meet heating, cooling and other needs. Heat pumps provide a key enabling technology.
A glimpse of this low-carbon future can be seen at Basalt Vista, a housing project in Pitkin County for employees of the Roaring Fork School District and other local jurisdictions. The concept employed there and elsewhere is called beneficial electrification.
In setting out to ramp down growth in natural gas consumption, Colorado ranks among the front-tier of states, lagging only slightly work already underway in California, Minnesota and New York.
In the background of these discussions are rising tensions. In California, Berkeley a year ago banned natural gas infrastructure in new developments, and several dozen other cities and counties followed suite across the country.
Protect Colorado, an arm of the oil-and-gas industry, had been collecting signatures to put Initiative 284 on the ballot, to prevent restrictions on natural gas in new buildings. The group confirmed to Colorado Public Radio that it was withdrawing that and other proposals after negotiations convened by Gov. Jared Polis and environmental groups.
Emissions of methane—the primary constituent of natural gas and one with high but short-lived heat-trapping properties—can occur at several places along the natural gas supply chain beginning with extraction. Colorado ranked 6th in the nation in natural gas production in 2018, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency.
In 2017, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, 4% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States were the result of extraction, transmission, and distribution of natural gas. However, several studies have concluded that the EPA estimate skews low. One 2018 study 2018 estimated that methane emissions from the oil and gas supply chain could be as much as 60% higher than the EPA estimates.
Greenhouse gas emissions also occur when natural gas is burned in houses and other buildings, creating carbon dioxide. An inventory released in December 2019 concluded that combustion of natural gas in houses was responsible for 7.7% of Colorado’s energy-related greenhouse gas emissions.
Just how the shift from natural gas to electricity will affect utilities depends upon the company. For Atmos Energy, a company with 120,000 customers in Colorado, from Greeley to Craig, from Salida to Cortez, gas is just about everything.
Xcel’s talking points
Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility, sells both gas and electricity. In theory, it will come out whole. But it has been leery about moving too rapidly. Technology advances and costs declines have not yet arrived in the natural gas sector, observed, Jeff Lyng, director of energy and environmental policy for Xcel, in a June 8 filing with the PUC.
Still, Xcel is willing to have the conversation. Lyng pointed to efforts by Xcel to improve efficiency of natural gas use. The company is also participating in industry programs, including One Future, which are trying to limit methane emissions from the natural gas supply chain to less than 1%. For Xcel, he explained, that includes replacing older pipes with new materials that result in fewer emissions. It also means using the company’s purchasing power to push best practices that minimize emissions.
The company intends to offer options to customer, including incentives for electric water heaters programmed to take advantage of renewable energy when it is most readily available. That tends to be at night.
Xcel sees an opportunity to work with builders and developers to design all-electric new building developments to avoid the cost of installing natural gas infrastructure.
“This may require high-performance building envelope design, specifying certain appliances and, especially load management,” Lyng wrote in the filing. “Load management is key to ensuring these new electric devices interact with the power grid and are programmed to operate as much as possible during times when there is excess renewable energy or the lowest cost electricity on the system.”
Not least, Xcel conceded a role for air-source heat pumps, the crucial piece of technology employed in most places to avoid natural gas hookups. Heat pumps can be used to extract both cool and warm air from outdoor air as needed. Xcel sees the technology being an option when customers upgrade air conditioning units with spillover benefits for heating.
“Through this option, given the cooling and heating capacity of air source heat pumps, some portion of customer heating load can be offset through electrification, while maintaining their natural gas furnace or boiler as a back-up.”
Others think air-source heat pumps can have even broader application, especially in warmer areas of the state.
Short-term costs may be higher for electrified buildings. “This will improve over time as electric technologies decline in cost and as the electric system becomes cleaner,” Lyng said. Xcel, he added, favors a voluntary approach: pilot programs that expand.
Lyng, in his testimony, warned against trying to ramp up electrification too quickly. In 2019, he pointed out, the maximum daily demand for natural gas had the energy equivalent of 26,000 megawatts of electricity—more than three times the company’s electrical peak demand.
An unintended consequence may be adverse impacts to people of low income. The thinking is that as the demand for natural gas declines, the cost will actually go up per individual consumer.
“As a smaller and smaller pool of customers is left to pay for infrastructure costs, the large the cost impact will be for each remaining customer,” explained Dr. Scott England, from the state’s Office of Consumer Counsel, in a filing.
Social cost of methane?
Xcel has also explored the opportunities with renewable natural gas. At its most basic level, renewable natural gas involves harvesting biogas from wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairies. In its first such venture in Colorado, Xcel last fall began getting 500,000 cubic-feet per day of methane from the treatment plant serving Englewood, Littleton and smaller jurisdictions along the South Platte River in metropolitan Denver.
A bill introduced in Colorado’s covid-shortened legislative proposed to create a renewable gas standard, similar to that first specified by voters in 2004 for electricity. SB-150 proposed targets of 5%, 10% and 15% for regulated utilities, encouraging greater use of biogas from landfills, dairies and other sources.
The sponsor, Sen. Chris Hansen, D-Denver, said he plans to reintroduce the bill the next session,
Hansen said he may also introduce a bill that would require the PUC to apply the filter of a social cost of methane to its decisions when evaluating alternatives. This would be similar to the cost of carbon, currently at $46 a ton, now applied to resource generating alternatives.
Longer term, Xcel wants to explore opportunities to produce hydrogen from renewable energy to blend into the natural gas distribution system at low levels or converted back to synthetic gas.
The Sierra Club may push back on efforts to convert to synthetic gas. The organization recently released a report that found significant problems with renewable natural gas, a phrase that is now being used by some companies—not necessarily Xcel—to include far more than the biogas from landfills. The Sierra Club estimates that there’s enough “natural” biogas to meet 1% of the nation’s current needs for natural gas. Other estimates put it far higher.
There will be implications left and right from this transition from gas to electricity. Lyng pointed out that solar energy will have lower value, because of its inability to replace natural gas on winter nights.
For the testimony of Jeff Lyng and Keith Hayes and a few dozen more, as well as the filings as of July 29, go to the Colorado PUC website and look up case 20AL-0049G.
Click here to read the report. Here’s the executive summary:
Electricity generation and consumption has changed rapidly over the last ten years, driven by steep price drops for generation and technological innovations impacting utilities and consumers alike. After decades of research and development, market development, and production efficiency gains, renewable energy is now a proven and cost- effective way to deliver electricity across the country.
There is concern that the COVID-19 pandemic could negatively impact current and planned renewable energy facility investments and construction. Indeed, the pandemic is creating challenges to both supply and demand. While the risk to current and planned projects from the pandemic is unclear at this time, existing facilities should not be affected. The expectation is that these facilities will continue to provide a steady source of jobs and tax revenue to communities across the eastern plains. These benefits will prove valuable to communities as the pandemic takes a toll on many other sectors including leisure and hospitality, retail, and health care.
For Colorado’s eastern plains communities, renewable energy and advanced energy technologies have brought thousands of jobs, and investment has supported communities across the region. The intent of this study is to profile the renewable energy industry in Colorado’s eastern plains and measure the economic benefits it provides in terms of construction, investment, employment, and business activity. For the economic benefits estimates, the study not only details construction and operations for the region’s existing renewable facilities but offers a prospective look at the benefits realized by 2024. The following bullets highlight key findings and estimates of the size and growth of these benefits.
In 2018, Colorado’s eastern plains comprised 5.5 percent of the renewable energy capacity in the state and represented all the state’s wind energy and about 55 percent of the state’s solar capacity.
Renewable energy capacity has expanded rapidly in Colorado’s eastern plains. In 2010, there was 1,253 MW of nameplate capacity in nine wind facilities in Colorado’s eastern plains. By the end of 2020, another 3,707 MW of wind and solar capacity is expected to be operable in the eastern plains. By 2024, the eastern plains’ renewable capacity is expected to expand by more than 22 percent, adding 1,109 MW and bringing the region’s wind and solar capacity to 6,069 MW.
By 2024, the state is expected to add its largest solar facilities and first utility-scale battery storage components with the construction of the 250-MW Neptune solar plant and the 200-MW Thunder Wolf solar plant.
Renewable and Advanced Energy Employment
From 2015 to 2019, renewable and advanced energy employment increased by more than 40 percent in Colorado’s eastern plains, growing to an estimated 6,334 workers in 366 business establishments.
Wind is critical to the eastern plains’ employment base, combined with wind facility installation, operations, and maintenance, wind technologies employ about 70 percent of renewable and advanced energy workers on the eastern plains.
Since 2015, job opportunities for solar installation have increased significantly in the eastern plains. Solar installation jobs have risen from an estimated 42 jobs in 2015 to 151 jobs in 2019.
Economic Benefits of Construction and Investment
Renewable energy development on Colorado’s eastern plains has brought significant investment to the state. From 2000 to 2024, there will have been an estimated $9.4 billion in construction and investment activity in the eastern plains. By 2024, investment will have increased by 75 percent since 2016.
Although many purchases for renewable energy facilities are made out-of-state, Colorado has benefited from local spending on equipment, construction materials, design, project management, planning, and local workers. As a result, the direct economic benefit in Colorado of construction and investment in the eastern plains’ renewable facilities will total an estimated $2.7 billion from 2000 to 2024.
By 2024, thousands of Coloradans will have benefited from work supported by renewable energy investments. An estimated 3,158 state workers will be directly employed in the construction of the facilities from 2000 to 2024. In addition, components for a handful of the eastern plains’ wind facilities have either been manufactured or will be manufactured at Vestas plants in the state. These purchases will directly employ another 2,386 workers by 2024.
Beyond direct output and employment, renewable facility construction and investment has supported many ancillary industries throughout the eastern plains since 2000. Combined, the total direct and indirect benefits of renewable energy development in Colorado’s eastern plains will be an estimated 5. billion in total output ($2.7 billion direct output + $3.1 billion indirect and induced output) produced by 12,819 employees (5,544 direct employees + 7,275 indirect employees) earning a total of about $706.9 million ($355.6 million direct earnings + $351.3 million indirect earnings) from 2000 to 2024
Construction benefits are temporary, occurring only during construction. Economic Benefits of Annual Operations by 2024
The ongoing operations and maintenance of renewable facilities on Colorado’s eastern plains support long- term employment opportunities for hundreds of people in the state. By 2024, renewable facilities will support the direct employment of an estimated 352 workers.
By 2024, wind energy facilities will provide farmers, ranchers, and other landowners on Colorado’s eastern plains with $15.2 million in annual lease payments, up from an estimated $7.5 million in 2016.
Renewable energy projects will contribute an estimated $23.1 million in annual property tax revenue throughout districts in the eastern plains by 2024, up from an estimated $7.2 million in 2016.
Therefore, the total direct and indirect benefits in Colorado of annual renewable energy operations in the eastern plains will be an estimated $388.6 million in total output ($214.6 million direct output + $174 million indirect and induced output) produced by 1,089 employees (352 direct employees + 737 indirect employees) earning a total of about $56.7 million ($21.9 million direct earnings + $34.8 million indirect earnings) by 2024.
These benefits are likely to occur annually assuming similar business conditions and project parameters.
Energy policy expert Leah Stokes explains who’s pushing climate delay and denial — it’s not just fossil fuel companies — and what we need to do now
The first official tallies are in: Coronavirus-related shutdowns helped slash daily global emissions of carbon dioxide by 14% in April. But the drop won’t last, and experts estimate that annual emissions of the greenhouse gas are likely to fall only about 7% this year.
After that, unless we make substantial changes to global economies, it will be back to business as usual — and a path that leads directly to runaway climate change. If we want to reverse course, say the world’s leading scientists, we have about a decade to right the ship.
That’s because we’ve squandered a lot of time. “The 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s were lost decades for preventing global climate disaster,” political scientist Leah Stokes writes in her new book Short Circuiting Policy, which looks at the history of clean energy policy in the United States.
But we don’t all bear equal responsibility for the tragic delay.
“Some actors in society have more power than others to shape how our economy is fueled,” writes Stokes, an assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “We are not all equally to blame.”
Short Circuiting Policy focuses on the role of one particularly bad actor: electric utilities. Their history of obstructing a clean-energy transition in the United States has been largely overlooked, with most of the finger-pointing aimed at fossil fuel companies (and for good reason).
We spoke with Stokes about this history of delay and denial from the utility industry, how to accelerate the speed and scale of clean-energy growth, and whether we can get past the polarizing rhetoric and politics around clean energy.
What lessons can we learn from your research to guide us right now, in what seems like a really critical time in the fight to halt climate change?
What a lot of people don’t understand is that to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, we actually have to reduce emissions by around 7-8% every single year from now until 2030, which is what the emissions drop is likely to be this year because of the COVID-19 crisis.
So think about what it took to reduce emissions by that much and think about how we have to do that every single year.
It doesn’t mean that it’s going to be some big sacrifice, but it does mean that we need government policy, particularly at the federal level, because state policy can only go so far. We’ve been living off state policy for more than three decades now and we need our federal government to act.
Where are we now, in terms of our progress on renewable energy and how far we need to go?
A lot of people think renewable energy is growing “so fast” and it’s “so amazing.” But first of all, during the coronavirus pandemic, the renewable energy industry is actually doing very poorly. It’s losing a lot of jobs. And secondly, we were not moving fast enough even before the coronavirus crisis, because renewable energy in the best year grew by only 1.3%.
Right now we’re at around 36-37% clean energy. That includes nuclear, hydropower and new renewables like wind, solar and geothermal. But hydropower and nuclear aren’t growing. Nuclear supplies about 20% of the grid and hydro about 5% depending on the year. And then the rest is renewable. So we’re at about 10% renewables, and in the best year, we’re only adding 1% to that.
Generally, we need to be moving about eight times faster than we’ve been moving in our best years. (To visualize this idea, I came up with the narwhal curve.)
How do we overcome these fundamental issues of speed and scale?
We need actual government policy that supports it. We have never had a clean electricity standard or renewable portfolio standard at the federal level. That’s the main law that I write all about at the state level. Where those policies are in place, a lot of progress has been made — places like California and even, to a limited extent, Texas.
We need our federal government to be focusing on this crisis. Even the really small, piecemeal clean-energy policies we have at the federal level are going away. In December Congress didn’t extend the investment tax credit and the production tax credit, just like they didn’t extend or improve the electric vehicle tax credit.
And now during the COVID-19 crisis, a lot of the money going toward the energy sector in the CARES Act is going toward propping up dying fossil fuel companies and not toward supporting the renewable energy industry.
So we are moving in the wrong direction.
Clean energy hasn’t always been such a partisan issue. Why did it become so polarizing?
What I argue in my book, with evidence, is that electric utilities and fossil fuel companies have been intentionally driving polarization. And they’ve done this in part by running challengers in primary elections against Republicans who don’t agree with them.
Basically, fossil fuel companies and electric utilities are telling Republicans that you can’t hold office and support climate action. That has really shifted the incentives within the party in a very short time period.
It’s not like the Democrats have moved so far left on climate. The Democrats have stayed in pretty much the same place and the Republicans have moved to the right. And I argue that that’s because of electric utilities and fossil fuel companies trying to delay action.
And their reason for doing that is simply about their bottom line and keeping their share of the market?
Exactly. You have to remember that delay and denial on climate change is a profitable enterprise for fossil fuel companies and electric utilities. The longer we wait to act on the crisis, the more money they can make because they can extract more fossil fuels from their reserves and they can pay more of their debt at their coal plants and natural gas plants. So delay and denial is a money-making business for fossil fuel companies and electric utilities.
There’s been a lot of research, reporting and even legal action in recent years about the role of fossil fuel companies in discrediting climate science. From reading your book, it seems that electric utilities are just as guilty. Is that right?
Yes, far less attention has been paid to electric utilities, which play a really critical role. They preside over legacy investments into coal and natural gas, and some of them continue to propose building new natural gas.
They were just as involved in promoting climate denial in the 1980s and 90s as fossil fuel companies, as I document in my book. And some of them, like Southern Company, have continued to promote climate denial to basically the present day.
But that’s not the only dark part of their history.
Electric utilities promoted energy systems that are pretty wasteful. They built these centralized fossil fuel power plants rather than having co-generation plants that were onsite at industrial locations where manufacturing is happening, and where you need both steam heat — which is a waste product from electricity — and the electricity itself. That actually created a lot of waste in the system and we burned a lot more fossil fuels than if we had a decentralized system.
The other thing they’ve done in the more modern period is really resisted the energy transition. They’ve resisted renewable portfolio standards and net metering laws that allow for more clean energy to come onto the grid. They’ve tried to roll them back. They’ve been successful in some cases, and they’ve blocked new laws from passing when targets were met.
You wrote that, “Partisan polarization on climate is not inevitable — support could shift back to the bipartisanship we saw before 2008.” What would it take to actually make that happen?
Well, on the one hand, you need to get the Democratic Party to care more about climate change and to really understand the stakes. And if you want to do that, I think the work of the Justice Democrats is important. They have primary-challenged incumbent Democrats who don’t care enough about climate change. That is how Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was elected. She was a primary challenger and she has really championed climate action in the Green New Deal.
The other thing is that the public supports climate action. Democrats do in huge numbers. Independents do. And to some extent Republicans do, particularly young Republicans.
So communicating the extent of public concern on these issues is really important because, as I’ve shown in other research, politicians don’t know how much public concern there is on climate change. They dramatically underestimate support for climate action.
I think the media has a really important role to play because it’s very rare that a climate event, like a disaster that is caused by climate change, is actually linked to climate change in media reporting.
But people might live through a wildfire or a hurricane or a heat wave, but nobody’s going to tell them through the media that this is climate change. So we really need our reporters to be doing a better job linking people’s lived experiences to climate change.
With economic stimulus efforts ramping up because of the COVD-19 pandemic, are we in danger of missing a chance to help boost a clean energy economy?
I think so many people understand that stimulus spending is an opportunity to rebuild our economy in a way that creates good-paying jobs in the clean-energy sector that protects Americans’ health.
We know that breathing dirty air makes people more likely to die from COVID-19. So this is a big opportunity to create an economy that’s more just for all Americans.
But unfortunately, we really are not pivoting toward creating a clean economy, which is what we need to be doing. This is an opportunity to really focus on the climate crisis because we have delayed for more than 30 years. There is not another decade to waste.
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan
Such a short time ago, 80% emissions reduction seemed such a bold goal. A new report says far more is possible.
It seems like many years ago since Ben Fowke, chief executive of Xcel Energy, standing on a podium at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, announced that his company was confident it could decarbonize the electrical generation across its six-state operating area 80% by 2030 as compared to 2005 levels. This, he said, could be done using existing technology.
That declaration in December 2018 was national news. So was the company’s disclosure in December 2017 of the bids for renewables to replace the two coal-fired units it intended to retire at Pueblo, Colo. They came in shockingly low.
Now, 80% plans by 2030 are becoming almost commonplace. Consider the trajectory of Colorado Springs. The city council there, acting as a utility board, in June accepted the recommendation of city utility planners to shut down the city’s two coal plants, the first in 2023 and the second in 2030.
That was the easy decision. But the Colorado Springs City Council, in a 7-2 vote, also accepted the recommendation to bypass new natural gas capacity. Xcel is adding natural gas capacity to its portfolio in Colorado, although the plant already exists.
Colorado Springs is now on track to get to 80% reduction by 2030.
As a municipal utility, Colorado Springs was not required by Colorado to reduce its emissions 80% by 2030. That applies to those utilities regulated by the state, and municipalities are exempt. It is subject to broader economy wide goals of 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050.
A city utility planner says he believes the city can achieve 90% reduction by 2050.
“I do believe personally that in the next 10 years we will see some major advancements in the technology that will allow those technologies to go down and be more competitive,” says Michael Avanzi, manager of energy planning and innovation at Colorado Springs Utilities.
This, the study notes, can be done even while electricity costs decline. This finding contrasts sharply with studies completed more than 5 years ago, which found deep penetration of renewables would elevate costs. These lower costs are being reported across the country, the study found, even in those areas considered resource-poor for renewable energy generation. Colorado is the converse: It has excellent renewables, among the best mix in the nation.
The study is important and rich with detail. Among the seven members of a technical review committee was Steve Beuning, of Glenwood Springs-based Holy Cross Energy.
The findings, though, are best understood in terms of the policy assumptions, which are found in a separate study conducted by Energy Innovation, a San Francisco-based consultancy. Colorado gets several mentions, and it’s important to note that the chief executive is Hal Harvey, who grew up in Aspen. (Harvey has connections in high places; he inspired a column in late June by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times: “This Should Be Biden’s Bumper Sticker.”)
The conclusions describe an optimal set of policies to get the United States to 90% by 2035, including:
federal clean energy standards and, especially in the absence of that, extension of federal tax credits for wind and solar.
strengthening of federal authority to improve regional transmission planning by the Federal Energy Regulatory Authority.
reform wholesale markets to reward flexibility.
Researchers in California did not specifically examine the case of Colorado Springs but more broadly found that U.S. electrical utilities can tap existing gas-fired plants infrequently along with storage, hydropower, and nuclear power to meet demands even during times of extraordinarily low renewable energy generation or exceptionally high electricity demand. All told, natural gas can contribute 10% of electrical generation in 2035. That would be 70% less than the natural gas generation in 2019.
How did the California researchers decide how much natural gas would be needed to firm supplies? As the saying goes, the sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow. And when would these times of low renewables intersect those of high demand? The researchers studied weather records for seven years, 60,000 hours altogether, and in 134 regional zones within the United States, from earlier in this century. That worst-case time, during the seven years examined, was on the evening of Aug. 1, 2007, a time when solar generation had declined to less than 10% of installed solar capacity, and wind generation was 18% below installed capacity
Based on this, they found a maximum need for 360 gigawatts of natural gas capacity. In other words, no new natural gas generation was needed. We have enough already.
Peak demand in Colorado Springs usually occurs late on hot summer afternoons. The all-time record demand of 965 megawatts occurred on July 19, 2019. As Colorado Springs grows during the next three decades, it will possibly become Colorado’s largest city, with demand projected to push 1,200 megawatts (1.2 gigawatts) at mid-century.
For Avanzi and other utility planners charged with creating portfolios for consideration by elected officials, closing coal plants was an easy case to make. Coal has become expensive, severely undercut by renewables.
Also considered were 100% emission-free portfolios by 2030, 2040, and 2050. But they were seen as too risky and too costly, at least at this time.
Portfolio 17, the one ultimately adopted by the city council on June 25, calls for the Martin Drake plant to be closed in 2023 and the Ray Nixon plant in 2030.
Seven portable gas generators are to be installed at the Drake plant for use from 2023 to 2030, a need dictated by the existing transmission and not the inadequacy of renewables. Colorado Springs already has a gas plant, but the city council members accepted the recommendation of utility planners that no new plant will be needed. That vote was 7-2.
Writing in PV Magazine, Jean Haggerty pointed out that Colorado Springs was part of a trend among utilities to avoid building new natural gas bridges to renewable energy. Tucson Electric Power also plans to skip the gas bridge. And, on the East Coast, Florida Power & Light and Jacksonville’s municipal utility reached agreement to rely on existing natural gas and new solar generation when they retire their jointly owned coal plant, the largest in the United States.
In creating the portfolios, Avanzi says he relied upon mostly publicly available reports, especially the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s annual technology baseline and U.S. Energy Information Administration documents. For battery storage, he relied upon a study by energy consultant Lazard.
Colorado Springs’ plan calls for 400 megawatts of battery storage by 2030. Previously plans for a 25-megawatt battery of storage are expected to come on line in 2024.
All types of storage were examined. The single largest storage device in Colorado currently is near Georgetown, where water from two reservoirs can be released to generate up to 324 megawatts of electricity as needed to meet peak demands. The water then can be pumped uphill 2,500 feet to the reservoirs when electricity is readily available.
Colorado Springs studied that option. It has reservoirs in the mountains above the city. It found the regulatory landscape too risky.
The most proven, least risky, technology is lithium-ion batteries that have four-hour capacity and flow batteries with six hours capacity. They can meet the peak demand of those hot, windless summer evenings after the sun has started lessening in intensity.
FromThe New York Times (Hiroko Tabuchi and Brad Plumer):
They are among the nation’s most significant infrastructure projects: More than 9,000 miles of oil and gas pipelines in the United States are currently being built or expanded, and another 12,500 miles have been approved or announced — together, almost enough to circle the Earth.
Now, however, pipeline projects like these are being challenged as never before as protests spread, economics shift, environmentalists mount increasingly sophisticated legal attacks and more states seek to reduce their use of fossil fuels to address climate change.
On Monday, a federal judge ruled that the Dakota Access Pipeline, an oil route from North Dakota to Illinois that has triggered intense protests from Native American groups, must shut down pending a new environmental review. That same day, the Supreme Court rejected a request by the Trump administration to allow construction of the long-delayed Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would carry crude from Canada to Nebraska and has faced challenges by environmentalists for nearly a decade.
The day before, two of the nation’s largest utilities announced they had canceled the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would have transported natural gas across the Appalachian Trail and into Virginia and North Carolina, after environmental lawsuits and delays had increased the estimated price tag of the project to $8 billion from $5 billion. And earlier this year, New York State, which is aiming to drastically reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, blocked two different proposed natural gas lines into the state by withholding water permits.
The roughly 3,000 miles of affected pipelines represent just a fraction of the planned build-out nationwide. Still, the setbacks underscore the increasing obstacles that pipeline construction faces, particularly in regions like the Northeast where local governments have pushed for a quicker transition to renewable energy. Many of the biggest remaining pipeline projects are in fossil-fuel-friendly states along the Gulf Coast, and even a few there — like the Permian Highway Pipeline in Texas — are now facing backlash.
“You cannot build anything big in energy infrastructure in the United States outside of specific areas like Texas and Louisiana, and you’re not even safe in those jurisdictions,” said Brandon Barnes, a senior litigation analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence…
In recent years…environmental groups have grown increasingly sophisticated at mounting legal challenges to the federal and state permits that these pipelines need for approval, raising objections over a wide variety of issues, such as the pipelines’ effects on waterways or on the endangered species that live in their path…
Strong grass roots coalitions, including many Indigenous groups, that understand both the legal landscape and the intricacies of the pipeline projects have led the pushback. And the Trump administration has moved some of the projects forward on shaky legal ground, making challenging them slightly easier, said Jared M. Margolis, a staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.
For the Dakota and Keystone XL pipelines in particular, Mr. Margolis said, the federal government approved projects and permits without the complete analyses required under environmental laws. “The lack of compliance from this administration is just so stark, and the violations so clear cut, that courts have no choice but to rule in favor of opponents,” he said…
Between 2009 and 2018, the average amount of time it took for a gas pipeline crossing interstate lines to receive federal approval to begin construction went up sharply, from around 386 days at the beginning of the period to 587 days toward the end. And lengthy delays, Mr. Barnes said, can add hundreds of millions of dollars to the cost of such projects…
A slump in American exports of liquefied natural gas — natural gas cooled to a liquid state for easier transport — has also weighed heavily on pipeline projects. L.N.G. exports from the United States had boomed in recent years, more than doubling in 2019 and fast making the country the third largest exporter of the fuel in the world, trailing only Qatar and Australia. But the coronavirus health crisis and collapse in demand has cut L.N.G. exports by as much as half, according to data by IHS Markit, a data firm.
Erin M. Blanton, who leads natural gas research at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, said the slump would have a long-term effect on investment in export infrastructure. The trade war with China, one of the largest growth markets for L.N.G. exports, has also sapped demand, she said…
Last year in Virginia, a coalition of technology companies including Microsoft and Apple wrote a letter to Dominion, one of the utilities backing the Atlantic Coast pipeline, questioning its plans to build new natural gas power plants in the state, arguing that sources like solar power and battery storage were becoming a viable alternative as their prices fell. And earlier this year, Virginia’s legislature passed a law requiring Dominion to significantly expand its investments in renewable energy.
“As states are pushing to get greener, they’re starting to question whether they really need all this pipeline infrastructure,” said Christine Tezak, managing director at ClearView Energy Partners…
Climate will also play a larger role in future legal challenges, environmental groups said. “The era of multibillion dollar investment in fossil fuel infrastructure is over,” said Jan Hasselman, an attorney at the environmental group Earthjustice. “Again and again, we see these projects failing to pass muster legally and economically in light of local opposition.”
Delta-Montrose Electric splits the sheets with Tri-State G&T. Will others follow?
At the stroke of midnight [July 1, 2020], Colorado’s Delta-Montrose Electric Association officially became independent of Tri-State Generation and Transmission.
The electrical cooperative in west-central Colorado is at least $26 million poorer. That was the cost of getting out of its all-requirements for wholesale supplies from Tri-State 20 years early. But Delta-Montrose expects to be richer in coming years as local resources, particularly photovoltaic solar, get developed with the assistance of the new wholesale provider Guzman Energy.
The separation was amicable, the parting announced in a joint press release. But the relationship had grown acrimonious after Delta-Montrose asked Tri-State for an exit fee in early 2017.
Tri-State had asked for $322 million, according to Virginia Harmon, chief operating officer for Delta-Montrose. This figure had not been divulged previously.
The two sides reached a settlement in July 2019 and in April 2020 revealed the terms: Guzman will pay Tri-State $72 million for the right to take over the contract, and Delta-Montrose itself will pay $26 million to Tri-State for transmission assets. In addition, Delta-Montrose forewent $48 million in capital credits.
Under its contract with Guzman, Delta-Montrose has the ability to generate or buy 20% of its own electricity separate from Guzman. In addition, the contract specifies that Guzman will help Delta-Montrose develop 10 megawatts of generation. While much of that can be expected to be photovoltaic, Harmon says all forms of local generation remain on the table: additional small hydro, geothermal, and coal-mine methane. One active coal mine in the co-operative’s service territory near Paonia continues operation.
The dispute began in 2005 when Tri-State asked member cooperatives to extend their contracts from 2040 to 2050 in order for Tri-State to build a coal plant in Kansas. Delta-Montrose refused.
Friction continued as Delta-Montrose set out to develop hydropower on the South Canal, an idea that had been on the table since 1909, when President William Howard Taft arrived to help dedicate the project. Delta-Montrose succeeded but then bumped up against the 5% cap on self-generation that was part of the contract.
This is the second cooperative to leave Tri-State in recent years, but two more are banging on the door to get out. First out was Kit Carson Electrical Cooperative of Taos, N.M. It left in 2016 after Guzman paid the $37 million exit fee. There is general agreement that the Kit Carson exit and that of Delta-Montrose cannot be compared directly, Gala to Gala, or even Honeycrisp to Granny Smith.
Yet direct comparisons were part of the nearly week-long session before a Colorado Public Utilities Commission administrative law judge in May. Two Colorado cooperatives have asked Tri-State what it will cost to break their contracts, which continue until 2050. Brighton-based United Power, with 93,000 customers, is the largest single member of Tri-State and Durango-based La Plata the third largest. Together, the two dissident cooperatives are responsible for 20% of Tri-States total sales.
The co-operatives say they expect a recommendation from the administrative law judge who heard the case at the PUC. The PUC commissioners will then take up the recommendation.
In April, Tri-State members approved a new methodology for determining member exit fees. But United Power said the methodology would make it financially impossible to leave and, if applied to all remaining members, would produce a windfall of several billion dollars for Tri-State. In a lawsuit filed in Adams County District Court, United claims Tri-State crossed the legal line to “imprison” it in a contract to 250.
Tri-State also applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in a bid to have that body in Washington D.C. determine exit fees. FERC recently accepted the contract termination payment filing—rejecting arguments that it did not have jurisdiction. Jessica Matlock, general manager of La Plata Electric, said the way FERC accepted the filing does not preclude the case in Colorado from going forward.
Fitch, a credit-rating company, cited the ongoing dispute with two of Tri-State’s largest members among many other factors in downgrading the debate to A-. It previously was A. Fitch also downgraded Tri-State’s $500 million commercial paper program, of which $140 million is currently outstanding, to F1 from F1+.
“The rating downgrades reflect challenging transitions in Tri-State’s operating profile and the related impact on its financial profile,” Fitch said in its report on Friday. It described Tri-State as “stable.”
Disturbing reports that Republicans plan to sow fears of climate change solution
Merchants of fear have already been at work, preparing to lather up the masses later this year with disturbing images of hardship and misery. The strategy is to equate job losses with clean air and skies, to link in the public mind the pandemic with strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s as dishonest as the days of May are long.
“This is what a carbon-constrained world looks like,” Michael McKenna, a deputy assistant to Trump on energy and environment issues, told The New York Times.
“If You Like the Pandemic Lockdown, You’re Going to Love the Green New Deal,” warned the Washington Examiner. “Thanks to the pandemic lockdown of society, the public is in a position to judge what the ‘Green New Deal’ revolution would look like,” said the newspaper in an April editorial. “It’s like redoing this global pandemic and economic slump every year.”
What a jarring contrast with what I heard during a webinar conducted in Colorado during early May. Electrical utility executives were asked about what it will take to get to 100% emissions-free generation.
It’s no longer an idle question along the lines of how many angels can dance on a pinhead. The coal plants are rapidly closing down because they’re just too darned expensive to operate. Renewables consistently come in at lower prices. Engineers have figured out how to deal with the intermittency of solar and wind. Utilities believe they can get to 70% and even 80%, perhaps beyond.
Granted, only a few people profess to know how to achieve 100% renewables—yet. Cheap, long-lasting storage has yet to be figured out. Electrical transmission needs to be improved in some areas. Here in the West, the still-Balkanized electrical markets need to be stitched together so that electrons can be moved across states to better match supplies with demands.
This won’t cost body appendages, either. The chief executives predict flat or even declining rates.
Let’s get that straight. Reducing emissions won’t cost more. It might well cost less.
That’s Colorado, sitting on the seam between steady winds of the Great Plains and the sunshine-swathed Southwest. Not every state is so blessed. But the innovators, the engineers, and others, are figuring out things rapidly.
Remember what was said just 15 years ago? You couldn’t run a civilization on windmills! Renewables cost too much. The sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. You had to burn coal or at least natural gas to keep the lights on and avoid economic collapse. Most preposterous were the ambitions to churn vast mountains to extract kerogen, the vital component of oil shale. This was given serious attention as recently as 2008.
The economics have rapidly turned upside down, and the technology just keeps getting better along with the efficiency of markets.
As detailed in Big Pivots issue No. 10, Colorado utilities are now seriously talking about what it will take to get to 100% emission-free energy. Most of that pathway is defined by lower or at least flattened costs.
Now that same spirit of ingenuity has been turned to redirecting transportation and, more challenging yet, buildings. It will likely be decades before we retrofit our automotive fleet to avoid the carbon emissions and other associated pollution that has made many of our cities borderline unhealthy places to live. Buildings will take longer yet. Few among us trade in our houses every 10 to 15 years.
It’s true that we need to be smarter about our energy. And we are decades away from having answers to the heavy carbon footprint of travel by aircraft.
But run with fright from the challenge? That’s the incipient message I’m hearing from the Republican strategists. These messages are from old and now discredited playbooks of fear. People accuse climate activists of constantly beating the drum of fear, and that’s at least partly accurate. But there’s also a drive to find solutions.
Too bad the contemporary Republican Party dwells in that deep well of fear instead of trying to be a beacon of solutions.
Do you have an opinion you wish to share? Shorter is better, and Colorado is the center of the world but not where the world ends. Write to me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade announced a total of $7.3 million in Advanced Industries Accelerator grants Thursday to companies and educational institutions around the state, including in Northern Colorado and the Boulder Valley…
Sandbox Solar, Fort Collins — $250,000 — Currently, agriculture and renewable energy compete over the remnants of land space in our urban centers across the U.S. Sandbox Solar is developing a method, service, and technology for the two industries to exist compatibly and enable optimal land use. More distributed solar energy will be able to be deployed in strategic locations that keep agriculture in production. This relationship will increase the overall economics to the farmer and to solar developers…
Why Cycles dba Revel Bikes, Carbondale — $250,000 — Revel Bikes designs and builds the best, and most fun, full-suspension mountain bikes you’ll ever ride, and they do it in the most sustainable way possible. Their bikes, as well as their wheels and other high quality bike products, are created with superior materials for strength and performance, unique engineering for comfort and speed, and cutting edge technology for advancing the industry and diminishing the environmental footprint throughout the process.
Legislative mandates, plunging costs, but also consumer demand push shift
The rapid shift to renewables has three, and perhaps four powerful guiding forces. First were the legislative mandates to decarbonize electrical supplies. Colorado in 2019 set targets of 50% reduction economy wide by 2030 and 90% by 2040. New Mexico, a second state where Tri-State operates, has comparable goals.
A second and now more powerful driver pushing renewables have been plunging prices.
“It’s no longer just a green movement, it’s an economic movement,” said Duane Highley, chief executive of Tri-State Generation and Transmission, which delivers electricity to 43 member cooperatives in Colorado and three other states.
Tri-State recently signed contracts for 1,000 megawatts of wind and solar energy that will be coming online by 2024 at average price of 1.7 cents per kilowatt-hour.
“That’s an amazing price. That’s lower than anything we can generate with fossil fuels. It automatically gives us the head room, because of the savings just on energy, to accelerate the retirement of coal and do that affordably with no increases in rates,” said Highley. “We see downward rate pressure for the next 10 years, and beyond 2030, we see increases below the rate of inflation.”
The economics prevail in states that have not adopted mandates designed to reduce emissions.
“We see a green energy dividend that allows us to accelerate the closure of coal without raising rates. That’s a key and it’s a key for Tri-State to getting support from our board, which covers four states. Nebraska and Wyoming don’t have the same intensity of passion behind the renewable energy movement that New Mexico and Colorado do. But one thing all of our members can agree upon is low rates and low costs.”
At Holy Cross Energy, an electrical cooperative that is not supplied by Tri-State, chief executive Bryan Hannegan sees the same downward price pressures.
“The price of new power supply from the bulk grid is coming in below where we are today in the marketplace. That is actually putting downward pressure on rates,” he said. At Holy Cross, the cost of electricity accounts for half of what consumers pay, with the other half going to the poles, wires, trucks and overhead.
“We at Holy Cross are saying we will get to 70% clean energy by 2030 with no increase in our power supply costs. If we can do it—which is a big if—we will try to do it in a way that keeps our rates predictable and stable.”
A third driver of the move to renewables has been bottom-up pressure from customers. Both Vail Resorts and the Aspen Skiing Co. have pushed Holy Cross Energy to deliver energy untainted by carbon emissions. So have individual communities. Six of the member communities in Colorado Communities for Climate Action are served by Holy Cross. “That is driving us forward. We are hearing it from our customer base,” said Hannegan.
Yet a fourth driver may be choice, as consumers can demand to pick and choose their energy sources as is proposed in a bill about community choice aggregation introduced in the Colorado Legislature this year. Holy Cross has to deliver that clean energy “frankly before somebody else does.”
All three utilities represented on the webinar retain ownership in coal plants. Holy Cross Energy, however, has consigned the production from its small ownership of Comanche 3, located in Pueblo, Colo., to Guzman Energy. Both Tri-State and Platte River have plans to be out of coal in Colorado by 2030, although Tri-State has no plans yet announced to end importing coal from a coal plant at Wheatland, Wyo.
The report by the International Energy Agency points out that South Africa’s lockdown initially disrupted 75% of the global output of platinum, which is used in many clean energy technologies and emissions control devices.
Copper mining in Peru — which accounts for 12% of global production — ground to a halt, according to the report. Indonesia, which is the world’s top supplier of nickel, banned nickel ore exports earlier this year.
The report also points out that when it comes to lithium, cobalt and various rare earth materials, the top three producers control well over three quarters of the global output.
There are also stark vulnerabilities in the geographic concentration of refining operations, with China alone accounting for 50% to 70% of global lithium and cobalt refining. China is also responsible for 85% to 90% of processing rare earth materials into metals and magnets.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is again reinforcing the importance of responsible U.S. mineral development. During trade negotiations in June 2019, China threatened to cut off our access to rare earth minerals. Now, the COVID-19 shines a bright light on China’s dominance of critical mineral and other supply chains,” said the caucus’ executive vice chairman, Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo. ”This report should serve as a reality check that supporting a true all-of-the-above energy future in the U.S. will require strong investments in domestic mining,”
The rising installation of clean energy technologies is set to “supercharge” the demand for critical minerals, the agency predicts, and the already rapid growth was putting strains on supply even before the global pandemic.
Clean energy technologies, the report said, generally require more minerals than their fossil fuel counterparts.
As an example, an electric car uses five times as many minerals as a conventional car and an offshore wind plant requires eight times as many minerals as a gas-fired plant of the same capacity…
The most efficient coal-fired power plants, too, require a lot more nickel than the less efficient ones to produce higher combustion temperatures.
Since 2015, the report points out, electric transport and grid storage have become the largest consumers of lithium, accounting for 35% of the demand. And likewise, those users have driven demand for cobalt from 5% to nearly 25% in that same period.
Those demands, however, come with costs.
Congo, which controls the majority of the world’s supply of cobalt, nearly tripled its royalty rate in 2018 and has come under harsh scrutiny for its extraction practices in harsh conditions amid reports it also relies on child labor.
In its report, the agency recommends government and companies take a number of steps to ensure a steady supply chain and greater independence in the arena of critical minerals, including timely investments in new mines, periodic assessments, promotion of recycling of end of life materials to capture valuable minerals, and stepping up research and development in substitution materials…
Utah is the only state in the country that produces magnesium metal and is one of two U.S. states that produces potash.
While lithium is not being mined in Utah at this point, there is potential for U.S. Magnesium to produce it as a byproduct.
In a paper she wrote for the survey on battery metals’ demand, Mills details the potential of some of these elements to be “mined” in Utah as a byproduct of other metals, such as copper or uranium deposits revealing cobalt.
Utah hosts the only operating uranium and vanadium mill in the United States, Mills points out, and while there is not any uranium mining going on, the mill began producing vanadium from stockpiles in 2019. Vanadium can be used in high-capacity batteries used for large-scale energy storage applications.
Finally, Rio Tinto’s Kennecott operations in Utah puts it as the nation’s second largest producer of copper, which is unmatched in its ability to conduct electric currents.
In addition to copper, Kennecott is one of the largest producers of gold, silver, platinum group metals and molybdenum in North America, and could be a potential source of critical minerals such as rhenium and tellurium.
Rio Tinto is a member of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Critical Materials Institute and is jointly investigating with its experts on ways to extract additional critical minerals from the existing refining and smelting process.
Rhenium, one of the rarest elements, has the third-highest melting point and its nickel-based alloys are used in exhaust nozzles of jet engines. Its alloys are also used in oven heating elements and X-ray machines.
Mills said the state is engaged in research related to the production of tungsten — another critical mineral — which is the only other metal element with a higher melting point than rhenium.
The electric cooperative serving the cities of Delta and Montrose has agreed to a $136.5 million fee to exit the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association – showing that breaking up is not only hard to do, but expensive.
The Delta-Montrose Electric Association (DMEA) has since 2016 been sparring over renewable energy with Tri-State, a wholesale power production company serving 43 member electric cooperatives in Nebraska, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming.
Tri-State and DMEA reached an agreement in principle in July 2019, just days before the Colorado Public Utilities Commission was set to begin proceedings to set an exit fee for the cooperative.
Under the exit agreement, which would have DMEA leave Tri-State on June 30, the cooperative would pay a $62.5 million exit fee, $26 million for local Tri-State infrastructure and forgo the $48 million in equity the cooperative held as a member of Tri-State.
The DMEA-Tri-State agreement still must be submitted for final approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is now the regulator for Tri-State.
A number of Tri-State cooperatives have chafed under the association’s long-term contracts that limit local generation to 5% of demand, as they hoped to add more local renewable generation. DMEA’s contract ran to 2040. Tri-State was also criticized for still being heavily dependent on coal-fired generation.
The $88.5 million will be paid by DMEA or a third party, according to Tri-State. When the Kit Carson Electric Cooperative, in Taos, New Mexico, left Tri-State in 2016, its new electric wholesaler, Guzman Energy paid the $37 million exit fee, which it is recouping in the first few years of its contract with the co-op.
DMEA has about 28,000 members and Kit Carson has 29,000, but DMEA has more commercial and industrial members and about twice the electricity demand as Kit Carson, with an annual peak of 95 to 100 megawatts, according to Virginia Harman, a DMEA spokeswoman.
DMEA is in the final steps of completing a 12-year wholesale power purchase agreement with Guzman Energy, Harman said, adding that there would be no further comment until the agreement is completed…
Tri-State has also established a procedure for setting exit prices as several other members have asked for estimates, the association said. FERC must approve the methodology for future exit fees
“This will be the methodology going forward,” Boughey said. “Kit Carson and DMEA were one-offs.”
The coronavirus pandemic has mostly yielded bad news for renewable energy. Disruptions to supply chains and slowdowns in permitting and construction have delayed solar and wind projects, endangering their eligibility for the soon-to-expire investment tax credits they rely on. There’s another form of renewable energy, however, that might see a benefit from the recent global economic upheaval and emerge in a better position to help the United States decarbonize its electricity system: geothermal…
Unlike wind and the sun, subsurface heat is available 24/7, perpetually replenished by the radioactive decay of minerals deeper down. But compared to wind and solar farms, geothermal power plants are expensive to build. The cost can range from $2,000 to $5,000 per installed kilowatt, and even the least expensive geothermal plant in the U.S. costs more than double that of a utility-scale solar farm. Engineers have to drill thousands of feet into the ground to reach reservoirs of water and rock hotter than 300 degrees F in order for the plants to be economical. Plants generate electricity by pumping steam or hot water up from those reservoirs to spin a turbine which powers a generator.
Experts told Grist that drilling can account for anywhere between 25 to 70 percent of the cost of a project, depending on where it is, the method of drilling, and the equipment required. But now, the companies that supply the machinery and services for drilling are starting to slash rates.
That’s because they are the same suppliers the oil industry uses, but oil companies are idling drilling rigs and cutting contracts left and right. They’re getting pummeled by the largest oil price crash in decades, the result of plunging demand due to the pandemic and a glut in supply because of a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia. On Tuesday, the U.S. Energy Information Administration revised its short-term outlook for crude oil production, predicting a steep decline through 2021. All of the suppliers who are normally digging for oil are now eager for new business.
Tim Latimer, a former drilling engineer for the oil and gas industry and now the cofounder and CEO of Fervo Energy, a geothermal energy company (and a 2020 Grist 50 Fixer) said suppliers have already been willing to knock 10 percent off quotes they gave him a few weeks ago. In a recent Twitter thread, Latimer predicted that drilling costs could drop by as much as 20 to 40 percent. On top of that, interest rates are down, and recovery bills with new funding for clean energy are potentially around the corner.
Lowering the up-front cost of building a geothermal power plant would allow plant operators to bring down electricity prices, which could attract new interest in geothermal from utilities. “If you can bring that price down even a little bit,” Latimer said, utility buyers “get a lot more excited about it because they want to have something in their portfolio that can produce electricity at night.”
In California, which has set a target of 100 percent clean electricity by 2045, energy providers are starting to recognize the benefits of geothermal’s round-the-clock power and have agreed to purchase power from two new plants being built in the state. But in states where there isn’t as much pressure to decarbonize, it’s a tough sell: The cost of electrons from a geothermal plant can be more than three times as high as those from solar and wind.
Part of the problem, according to Susan Petty, the chief technology officer, president, and co-founder of geothermal company AltaRock Energy, is that utilities don’t place extra value on geothermal’s ability to generate electricity all the time. She said bringing drilling costs down will help, but it would help even more if there were parity in the tax incentives for renewables: This year, geothermal electricity projects were eligible for a 10 percent investment tax credit, compared to a 26 percent credit for solar and wind.
Geothermal faces other hurdles, like a lengthy permitting process that stretches out project timelines. It can be challenging to find investors during the early, risky stages of a project, before the viability of developing a given site has been proven. Geothermal also suffers from a PR problem — people just aren’t as familiar with it as they are with wind and solar. The technology has been around in the U.S. since the 1960s, but for these reasons and others, geothermal still only makes up 0.4 percent of the U.S. electricity mix.
Large electricity generators use lots of water to cool their coal-fired plants. As those units shut down, expect to see battles heat up over how the massive amounts of water can be repurposed.
Any newfound source of water is a blessing in a state routinely stricken by drought and wildfire, where rural residents can be kept from washing a car or watering a garden in summer, and where farm fields dry up after cities buy their water rights.
State water planners long assumed that the amount of water needed to cool major power plants would increase with the booming population. Planners in 2010 predicted that, within 25 years, major power plants would be consuming 104,000 acre-feet per year of their own water. The Colorado Sun found that their annual consumption will end up closer to 10% of that figure.
The 94,000 acre-feet of water that major power plants won’t be consuming is enough to cover the needs of 1.25 million people, according to figures included in the Colorado Water Plan of 2015. (That’s counting water permanently consumed in cities, and not counting water consumed by agriculture and certain giant industries, or water returned to rivers through runoff and wastewater treatment plants.)
Already, water once used by now-defunct power plants is flowing to households, shops and factories in Denver, Colorado Springs, Boulder and Palisade, because the local water utilities owned the water and supplied the plants. When the plants closed, the cities just put their own water back into municipal supplies, officials in those cities said…
In Pueblo, Black Hills Energy shut down a 100-year-old, coal-then-gas-fired power plant downtown. After decommissioning stations 5 and 6 near the Arkansas River in 2012, Black Hills donated the water to public use. Water that once cooled the plant now flows in the Arkansas through the city’s Historic Riverwalk, where gondoliers paddle and picnickers gather in the sun for art and music. Renowned Denver historic preservationist Dana Crawford has partnered with a local developer on plans to revive the art deco power plant as an anchor for an expansion of the Riverwalk, with shops and restaurants.
In Cañon City, water that cooled the closed W.N. Clark power plant is going down the Arkansas River as well, Black Hills Energy spokeswoman Julie Rodriguez said. It is likely being picked up by the user with the next legal right in line.
The San Miguel River on the Western Slope is gaining some water from closure of the coal power plant in Nucla — at least temporarily until Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, which owns the plant, finishes the tear down and reclamation, which requires some water. Spokesman Mark Stutz said Tri-State has made no decision on what to do with the water rights after that, but “we will listen to the input of interested stakeholders.”
Major power plants’ water consumption peaked in 2012 at about 60,000 to 70,000 acre-feet. It has dropped to about 47,000 acre-feet now and will fall further to about 27,000 acre-feet over the next 15 years, just from closures already announced. By the time the last coal plant closes, major power plant water consumption will have plummeted to about 10,000 acre-feet…
In the past 10 years, 13 coal power plant units in Colorado have shut down. Another 10 will close by 2036 or much earlier. The remaining four units are under review by their owners.
The last gas power plant built in Colorado was in 2015, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. All new power generation in Colorado since then has been renewable…
In the past 10 years, 13 coal power plant units in Colorado have shut down. Another 10 will close by 2036 or much earlier. The remaining four units are under review by their owners.
The last gas power plant built in Colorado was in 2015, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. All new power generation in Colorado since then has been renewable.
Technology has driven down the cost of wind and solar, and they now can provide power at a lower price per kilowatt-hour than coal-fired power in Colorado. Even accounting for the need to store electricity, bids to provide renewable energy have come in lower than the cost of coal-fired power.
Closure dates have been accelerating. Utilities are running scenarios on how they could shut down the last four coal-burning units in Colorado not already set for closure. They are Xcel Energy’s Pawnee in Brush and Comanche 3 in Pueblo, Platte River Power Authority’s Rawhide 1 near Wellington, and Colorado Springs Utilities’ Ray D. Nixon unit 1 south of the city.
Emissions controls and customers’ climate concerns are also driving the change, utility officials said.
For example, Platte River Power Authority already expects to be 60% wind, solar and hydro by 2023, and its board said it wants to reach 100% by 2030, spokesman Steve Roalstad said. A public review process started March 4 to discuss how best to achieve that. Closing the coal plant at Rawhide and even the adjacent gas plants by 2030 are options, but not certain, he said.
Early closing dates set for other coal plants could move up. PacifiCorp, a partial owner of three coal power units in Craig and Hayden in northwest Colorado, is pushing its partners, Tri-State and Xcel, for faster shut-downs. It wants to move more quickly to cheaper renewables…
As more power plants close in coming years, much of the water no longer needed will be water owned by the power companies themselves. Many were reluctant to talk about their water rights in detail.
Water court records show Xcel owns water from wells all over the metro area, and draws from Clear Creek. Xcel also owns 5,000 to 10,000 acre-feet in the Colorado River. That water is diverted to northern Colorado through the Colorado-Big Thompson tunnel under the mountains.
Xcel did say it is holding onto its water rights for now. It has been cutting its water purchases from cities, switching to its own water as power plants close.
On a smaller scale, Tri-State is now switching its J.M. Shafer power plant in Fort Lupton from city well water to its own water rights, city administrator Chris Cross said.
Water court records show another example of what can happen to utility-owned water: Xcel wants to use some of its Clear Creek water rights at a hydroelectric plant above Georgetown that is being renovated to produce more megawatts.
Some water might become available for other uses as more Xcel coal plants close, spokeswoman Michelle Aguayo said…
Closure of the power plants could open up arguments over where that water should go instead, explained Erin Light, state water engineer for the northwestern district.
“Every water right is decreed for an amount, a use and a place of use,” Light said. With the power plant gone, utilities can try to sell their rights, but other water users may dispute that in court.
Xcel, for example, owns 35,000 acre-feet of conditional water rights in reservoirs in the Yampa Valley that have never been built, she said. But “conditional” means the company gets the water only if it is actually needed, she explained. So when the Hayden power plant closes in the 2030s, Xcel would have to go back to water court to change the use or sell the rights, she said.
“Those conditional water rights become a lot more speculative if they are not operating a power plant,” she said. “Arguably, they would lose their conditional rights.”
Legislators are sufficiently concerned about speculators making money on Colorado’s water shortage that in March they passed Senate Bill 48 asking water officials to give them suggestions on how to strengthen current law against it.
Steve Lowe gazed into a gaping pit in the heart of the California desert, careful not to let the blistering wind send him toppling over the edge.
The pit was a bustling iron mine once, churning out ore that was shipped by rail to a nearby Kaiser Steel plant. When steel manufacturing declined, Los Angeles County tried to turn the abandoned mine into a massive landfill. Conservationists hope the area will someday become part of Joshua Tree National Park, which surrounds it on three sides.
Lowe has a radically different vision.
With backing from NextEra Energy — the world’s largest operator of solar and wind farms — he’s working to fill two mining pits with billions of gallons of water, creating a gigantic “pumped storage” plant that he says would help California get more of its power from renewable sources, and less from fossil fuels…
At Eagle Mountain, one of several abandoned mining pits would be filled with water, pumped from beneath the ground. When nearby solar farms flood the power grid with cheap electricity, Lowe’s company would use that energy — which might otherwise go to waste — to pump water uphill, to a higher pit.
When there’s not enough solar power on the grid — after sundown, or perhaps after several days of cloudy weather — the water would be allowed to flow back down to the lower pit by gravity, passing through an underground powerhouse and generating electricity…
The Eagle Mountain plant wouldn’t interrupt any rivers or destroy a pristine landscape. But environmentalists say the $2.5-billion facility would pull too much water from the ground in one of the driest parts of California, and prolong a history of industrialization just a few miles from one of America’s most visited national parks.
Lowe rejects those arguments, saying his proposal has survived round after round of environmental review and would only drain a tiny fraction of the underground aquifer.
The project’s fate may hinge on a question with no easy answer: How much environmental sacrifice is acceptable — or even necessary — in the fight against climate change?