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: email@example.com.
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?
The La Plata Electric Asso- ciation (LPEA) Board of Directors voted at its meeting last week to award the Geothermal Greenhouse Partnership (GGP) $13,000 from its Renewable Generation Funds Grant program to support a solar installation to generate electricity for the GGP site in Centennial Park.
Projects were selected based on visibility to the local community, level of innovation, and the potential to blend renewable technologies with educational elements and community engagement.
Grant monies are sourced from LPEA’s Local Renewable Generation Fund — an opt-in fund to which LPEA members can contribute to support the development of renewable energy generation projects in the service territory.
For more information on the program, LPEA members should call 382-3505.
FromThe Guardian (Patrick Greenfield and Jonathan Watts):
The world’s largest financier of fossil fuels has warned clients that the climate crisis threatens the survival of humanity and that the planet is on an unsustainable trajectory, according to a leaked document.
The JP Morgan report on the economic risks of human-caused global heating said climate policy had to change or else the world faced irreversible consequences.
The study implicitly condemns the US bank’s own investment strategy and highlights growing concerns among major Wall Street institutions about the financial and reputational risks of continued funding of carbon-intensive industries, such as oil and gas.
JP Morgan has provided $75bn (£61bn) in financial services to the companies most aggressively expanding in sectors such as fracking and Arctic oil and gas exploration since the Paris agreement, according to analysis compiled for the Guardian last year.
Its report was obtained by Rupert Read, an Extinction Rebellion spokesperson and philosophy academic at the University of East Anglia, and has been seen by the Guardian.
The research by JP Morgan economists David Mackie and Jessica Murray says the climate crisis will impact the world economy, human health, water stress, migration and the survival of other species on Earth.
“We cannot rule out catastrophic outcomes where human life as we know it is threatened,” notes the paper, which is dated 14 January.
Drawing on extensive academic literature and forecasts by the International Monetary Fund and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the paper notes that global heating is on course to hit 3.5C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. It says most estimates of the likely economic and health costs are far too small because they fail to account for the loss of wealth, the discount rate and the possibility of increased natural disasters.
The authors say policymakers need to change direction because a business-as-usual climate policy “would likely push the earth to a place that we haven’t seen for many millions of years”, with outcomes that might be impossible to reverse.
“Although precise predictions are not possible, it is clear that the Earth is on an unsustainable trajectory. Something will have to change at some point if the human race is going to survive.”
The investment bank says climate change “reflects a global market failure in the sense that producers and consumers of CO2 emissions do not pay for the climate damage that results.” To reverse this, it highlights the need for a global carbon tax but cautions that it is “not going to happen anytime soon” because of concerns about jobs and competitiveness.
The authors say it is “likely the [climate] situation will continue to deteriorate, possibly more so than in any of the IPCC’s scenarios”.
Without naming any organisation, the authors say changes are occurring at the micro level, involving shifts in behaviour by individuals, companies and investors, but this is unlikely to be enough without the involvement of the fiscal and financial authorities.
The Kominek family farm is a green expanse of hay and alfalfa in northern Colorado. The family has planted and raked crops for half a century, but as yields declined over recent years, the farm began losing money. In late 2017, Byron Kominek went looking for more profitable alternatives, including installing solar panels and selling electricity to the utility. But Boulder County’s land-use codes made it difficult to use their 24 acres for anything but farming.
So the Komineks found a compromise: a solar array with plants growing beneath, between, and around rows of photovoltaic panels.
Construction is slated to begin this spring on a 1.2-megawatt solar array on the Kominek farm. Some 3,300 solar panels will rest on 6-foot and 8-foot-high stilts, providing shade for crops like tomatoes, peppers, kale, and beans on a five-acre plot. Pasture grasses and beehive boxes are planned for the perimeter…
If successful, the project could serve as a model for other cash-strapped farmers, by transforming underperforming fields into potentially money-making hubs of clean energy and fresh food.
Xcel Energy, the state’s biggest utility, has agreed to pay for each kilowatt-hour delivered from the Kominek’s solar array to the grid. Their neighbors can buy into the project, too. Participants invest in a percentage of the array, then receive credits on their monthly utility bills. Their investment also helps defray some of the farmers’ upfront construction costs.
The vegetables will be sold through a community farm-share program, which allows neighbors to invest in the project in exchange for boxes of produce.
This marriage of agriculture and solar photovoltaics — known by the awkward name “agrivoltaics” — is an emerging niche within the broader solar power industry.
In the United States, less than 5 megawatts’ worth of solar arrays have crops planted beneath them, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, or NREL. That’s barely a speck of the country’s 71,300 megawatts of installed solar capacity. The farm-plus-solar sector is relatively bigger in Japan, where the concept first emerged over a decade ago. Hundreds of projects now exist, including a 35-megawatt solar array that hovers over fields of ginseng, herbs, and coriander.
Proponents say that this approach could allow for widespread renewable energy development without displacing much-needed land for food. Recent studies suggest that it could lead to more efficient energy and crop production by creating a cooler, moister microclimate.
In a recent test in Arizona, scientists compared crops planted under solar panels with those grown in direct sunlight. They found that total fruit production for red chiltepin peppers was three times higher on the plots under the panels, and cherry tomatoes doubled production. Some of these plants used significantly less irrigation water, in part because the shaded soil retained more moisture. Solar panels placed with plants were also substantially cooler during the day — and therefore operated more efficiently — than the usual ground-mounted arrays, according to the study last year by NREL and the Universities of Arizona and Maryland.
A project in South Deerfield, Massachusetts, delivered similarly promising results. Early field tests showed that Swiss chard, broccoli, and similar vegetables produced about 60 percent more volume compared to plants beneath a full sun.
Kominek’s project, called Jack’s Solar Garden, will provide more opportunities to study agrivoltaics. NREL, in nearby Golden, Colorado, plans to track how plants and panels perform together in Boulder County’s hot, dry climate. “If the structures help keep in moisture, and we have less evaporation, we’ll need less water to grow the same amount or even more [crops],” said Jordan Macknick, the lead energy-water-land analyst for NREL.
Macknick leads NREL’s low-impact solar initiative along with biologist Brenda Beatty. Since 2015, researchers have developed more than 25 sites around the country that combine solar panels with food crops, native vegetation, or pollinator-friendly plants.
Jack’s Solar Garden will be the biggest of the group and the first to include all three types. NREL is also adding solar projects in Puerto Rico, including one on a coffee plantation and another one on pasture lands for cattle.
“We’re really just at the very beginning of understanding the benefits of agrivoltaics and what they could mean not only for the energy sector but also for the agricultural sector,” Macknick said.
Agrivoltaics, also called “solar sharing,” first took off in Japan in 2004, after an engineer, Akira Nagashima, developed a stilted steel structure that raises panels 10-feet high. Available land is scarce in Japan, a country with ambitious targets for developing renewable energy. (Not coincidentally, floating solar arrays — which sit atop irrigation ponds and reservoirs — also got their start in Japan, in 2007.) Recently, Nagashima has begun studying how shade-intolerant crops might fare beneath solar arrays. His research team recently found that corn yields slightly improved in a solar-sharing system.
Beyond research sites, however, pairing corn and other cash crops with solar may present significant challenges. On existing plots, smaller tractors can navigate the narrow spaces between rows of panels. But combine harvesters and other industrial equipment are too wide and bulky to fit through the gaps. Most crops grown beneath panels must be picked by hand. The work is manageable at the scale of a community garden, but it can be grueling, back-breaking work at an industrial scale. Farmers are developing machines to pick strawberries, melons, and tomatoes, which also might bump against the panels.
For farms big and small, a lack of rural infrastructure remains a “key impediment” to boosting adoption of agrivoltaics, said Chad Higgins, an associate professor of biological and ecological engineering at Oregon State University. Power lines and electrical equipment might not be equipped to handle the addition of solar power. Roads and communications networks likewise might need to be expanded to support far-flung operations, he said.
Still, if farmers and engineers can address such hurdles, the potential for agrivoltaics is immense, given how much of the planet’s land is devoted to agriculture.
From the Platte River Power Authority via The Loveland Reporter-Herald:
Platte River Power Authority will hold public focus group meetings as the power provider works to update the plan that details how it will continue to deliver electricity to customers in Loveland, Estes Park, Fort Collins and Longmont as it moves toward more renewable resources.
Platte River will hold sessions in each of those four communities, facilitated by Colorado State University’s Center for Public Deliberation, to receive input from residents and business owners as it updates its Integrated Resource Plan. A new such plan is produced every five years, using input, technology and best practices to lay out a mix of power sources.
This plan is being completed in 2020, one year early, because the power provider’s board of directors decided to pursue a 100% carbon-free energy mix by 2030. Currently, about 30% of the energy delivered by Platte River is carbon-free, a number that will increase to 50% by 2021 with new wind and solar power sources and could reach 60% by 2023, according to a press release.
Jason Frisbie, general manager and CEO, said in a press release that Platte River made significant progress on this updated plan last year and is now looking for input from businesses and residents regarding the “energy future of Northern Colorado.”
The meetings are scheduled for 6-8 p.m. on each of the following dates:
March 4, 17th Avenue Place Event Center, 478 17th Ave. in Longmont.
March 5, Ridgeline Hotel, 101 S. St. Vrain Ave. in Estes Park.
March 11, Embassy Suites, Devereaux Room, 4705 Clydesdale Parkway, Loveland.
March 12, Drake Centre, 802 W. Drake Road, Suite 101, Fort Collins.
To attend a focus group, RSVP to 970-229-5657 or online at cpd.colostate.edu/events/platte-river-power-community-focus-groups/
The Colorado generation and transmission co-op announced a major renewable expansion it thinks can save money.
Duane Highley arrived in Colorado last year with a mission: Transform one of the nation’s heaviest coal-based wholesale electricity providers to something different, cleaner and greener.
As the new chief executive of Tri-State Generation and Transmission, Highley began meeting with legislators and other state officials, whose general reaction was of skepticism and disbelief, he recalled.
“‘Just watch us,’” he says he answered. “We will deliver.”
Last week, Highley and Tri-State took a step toward that goal by announcing plans for a major expansion of renewable generation. The power wholesaler will will achieve 50% renewable generation by 2024 for its Colorado members, up from 32% in 2018. Unlike its existing renewables, much of which comes from federal dams, Tri-State plans six new solar farms and two more wind farms.
With continued retirement of coal plants, Tri-State expects to achieve 70% carbon-free electricity for its Colorado customers by 2030. Those customers represent two-thirds of the wholesaler’s demand across four states.
“The prices of renewables have fallen dramatically in the last 10 years,” Highley said in an interview with the Energy News Network. Solar and wind have dropped “significantly below the operating costs of any other project. It gives us the headroom to make these changes,” he said, adding that he expects downward pressure on rates for member cooperatives.
The politics and the economics of clean energy have aligned. “It helps us accelerate the ride off coal,” Highley said. The temptation, he added, was not to wait, but rather to announce the shift sooner, before details had been lined up.
Here’s the release from Western Resource Advocates (Julianne Basinger):
Western Resource Advocates today welcomed Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association’s announcement that it plans to add more than 1,000 megawatts of renewable wind and solar resources to its energy generation.
Tri-State announced more details of its Responsible Energy Plan today at a news conference featuring Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.
“Tri-State’s plan signals a welcome and important shift toward a clean, lower-cost energy future,” said John Nielsen, director of Western Resource Advocates’ Clean Energy Program. “Tri-State’s coal plant retirements and increased investments in renewable energy will save its customers money and will significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions that drive climate change and other harmful air pollution. We look forward to continuing to work with Tri-State to develop ways to achieve further carbon reductions and increased energy efficiency, while also seeking ways to help coal-reliant communities transition to new economic opportunities.”
Tri-State’s Responsible Energy Plan sets a target of 50 percent renewable energy generation by 2024 that will be achieved, in part, through the development of the more than 1,000 megawatts of new wind and solar generation announced today. The renewable energy plan comes after Tri-State last week announced it will close two coal-fired power plants in Colorado and New Mexico.
Tri-State announced its board has created a contract committee to discuss changes to its existing member contracts that would allow distribution cooperative members to self-supply more of their own electricity through locally sited renewable generation. The results of that discussion are expected to be announced in April. Tri-State also said it will increase electric vehicle infrastructure in the rural areas it serves.
From Conservation Colorado (Garrett Garner-Wells):
New polling released today highlighted climate change as the top issue in Colorado’s upcoming presidential primary, 10 points higher than health care and 15 points higher than preventing gun violence.
The survey of likely Democratic presidential primary voters conducted by Global Strategies Group found that nearly all likely primary voters think climate change is already impacting or will impact their families (91%), view climate change as a very serious problem or a crisis (84%), and want to see their leaders take action within the next year (85%). And by a nearly three-to-one margin, likely primary voters prefer a candidate with a plan to take action on climate change starting on Day One of their term over a candidate who has not pledged to act starting on Day One (74% – 26%).
Additionally, the survey found that among likely primary voters:
85% would be more likely to support a candidate who will move the U.S. to a 100 percent clean energy economy;
95% would be more likely to support a candidate who will combat climate change by protecting and restoring forests; and,
76% would be more likely to support a candidate who will phase out extraction of oil, gas, and goal on public lands by 2030.
These responses are unsurprising given that respondents believed that a plan to move the U.S. to a 100 percent clean energy economy will have a positive impact on future generations of their family (81%), the quality of the air we breathe (93%), and the health of families like theirs (88%).
Finally, likely primary voters heard a description of Colorado’s climate action plan to reduce pollution and the state’s next steps to achieve reductions of at least 50 percent by 2030 and at least 90 percent by 2050. Based on that statement, 91% of respondents agreed that the Air Quality Control Commission should take timely action to create rules that guarantee that the state will meet its carbon reduction targets.
Here’s the release from Tri-State Corp (Lee Boughey, Mark Stutz):
Increasing renewables to 50% of energy consumed by members by 2024, adding 1 gigawatt of renewables from eight new solar and wind projects.
Reducing emissions with the closure of all coal plants operated by Tri-State, cancelling the Holcomb project in Kansas and committing not to develop additional coal facilities.
Increasing member flexibility to develop more local, self-supplied renewable energy.
Extending benefits of a clean grid across the economy through expanded electric vehicle infrastructure and beneficial electrification.
In the most transformative change in its 67-year history, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association today announced actions of its Responsible Energy Plan, which dramatically and rapidly advance the wholesale power supply cooperative’s clean energy portfolio and programs to serve its member electric cooperatives and public power districts.
“Our cooperative and its members are aligned in our transition to clean power,” said Rick Gordon, chairman of Tri-State and director at Mountain View Electric Association in eastern Colorado. “With today’s announcement, we’re poised to become a new Tri-State; a Tri-State that will provide reliable, affordable and responsible power to our members and communities for many years to come.”
Tri-State’s clean energy transition significantly expands renewable energy generation, meaningfully reduces greenhouse gas emissions, extends the benefits of a clean grid to cooperative members, and will share more flexibility for self-generation with members, all while ensuring reliable, affordable and responsible electricity.
“We’re not just changing direction, we’re emerging as the leader of the energy transition,” said Duane Highley, Tri-State’s chief executive officer. “Membership in Tri-State will provide the best option for cooperatives seeking a clean, flexible and competitively-priced power supply, while still receiving the benefits of being a part of a financially strong, not-for-profit, full-service cooperative.”
Accelerated additions of renewable projects drive 50% renewable energy by 2024
Tri-State today announced six new renewable energy projects in Colorado and New Mexico, which along with two projects previously announced and yet to be constructed, will result in more than 1 gigawatt of additional emissions-free renewable resources being added to Tri-State’s power supply portfolio by 2024.
For the first time, four solar projects will be located on the west side of Tri-State’s system, including near Escalante Station and Colowyo Mine, which are scheduled to close by the end of 2020 and by 2030, respectively.
The eight long-term renewable energy projects of varying contract lengths to be added to Tri-State’s resource portfolio by 2024 include:
• Escalante Solar, a 200-megawatt (MW) project located in Continental Divide Electric Cooperative’s service territory in New Mexico. Tri-State has a contract with Turning Point Energy for the project. The solar project is on land near Escalante Station, which will close by the end of 2020.
• Axial Basin Solar, a 145-MW project in northwest Colorado in White River Electric Association’s service territory. Tri-State has a contract with juwi for the project. The project is located on land near the Colowyo Mine, which will close by 2030.
• Niyol Wind, a 200-MW project located in eastern Colorado in Highline Electric Association’s service territory. Tri-State has a contract with NextEra Energy Resources for the project.
• Spanish Peaks Solar, a 100-MW project, and Spanish Peaks II Solar, a 40-MW project, located in southern Colorado in San Isabel Electric Association’s service territory. Tri-State has contracts with juwi for both solar projects.
• Coyote Gulch Solar, a 120-MW project located in southwest Colorado in La Plata Electric Association’s service territory. Tri-State has a contract with juwi for the project.
• Dolores Canyon Solar, a 110-MW project located in southwest Colorado in Empire Electric Association’s service territory. Tri-State has a contract with juwi for the project.
• Crossing Trails Wind, a 104-MW project located in eastern Colorado in K.C. Electric Association’s service territory. Tri-State has a contract with EDP Renewables for the project.
The construction and operation of these projects will result in hundreds of temporary construction jobs and contribute to permanent jobs and tax base within Tri-State members’ service territories.
“By 2024, 50% of the energy consumed within our cooperative family will be renewable,” said Highley. “Accelerating our renewable procurements as technology improved and prices dropped results in the lowest possible renewable energy cost today for our members, and likely of any regional utility.”
Since 2009, Tri-State has contracted for 15 utility-scale wind and solar projects, as well as numerous small hydropower projects. By 2024, Tri-State will have more than 2,000 megawatts of renewable capacity on its 3,000-megawatt peak system, including:
800 megawatts of solar power from 9 projects (3 existing, 6 to be constructed by 2024)
671 megawatts of wind power from 6 projects (4 existing, 2 to be constructed by 2022)
600 megawatts of large and small hydropower (Including federal and numerous small projects)
Collectively, Tri-State’s renewable portfolio can power the equivalent of nearly 850,000 average homes.
Greenhouse gas emissions significantly reduced to meet Colorado, New Mexico goals
Tri-State is significantly decreasing greenhouse gas emissions to meet state laws and goals, and with the closures of all coal facilities it operates, will eliminate 100% of its greenhouse gas emissions from coal in New Mexico by the end of 2020 and in Colorado by 2030. The early closures of Escalante Station, Craig Station and Colowyo Mine were announced last Thursday, following the early retirement of Nucla Station in 2019.
By closing Craig Station, Tri-State is committed to reducing carbon emissions from units it owns or operates in Colorado by 90% by 2030, and reducing emissions from Colorado electric sales by 70% by 2030.
Tri-State also is committing to not develop additional coal facilities, and has cancelled its Holcomb coal project in southwestern Kansas. The air permit for the project will expire in March 2020.
“With the retirements of all coal facilities we operate, a commitment to not pursue coal in the future, and a significant increase in renewables, Tri-State is making a long-term and meaningful commitment to permanently reduce our greenhouse gas emissions,” said Highley.
Plan extends benefits of a clean grid and electric vehicles to rural areas
As Tri-State rapidly transitions to a clean grid, it is working with its members to extend the benefits of low-emissions electricity to replace higher-emission transportation, commercial and residential energy uses.
“By extending the benefits of a cleaner power supply to vehicles, homes, farms and businesses, we ensure that rural energy consumers save money while further reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” said Highley.
To expand rural electric vehicle charging networks, Tri-State will fund electric vehicle charging stations for each member, and will work with members to further promote electric vehicle usage. Tri-State will promote and increase its beneficial electrification, energy efficiency and demand-side management programs with its members, including support through the new Beneficial Electrification League of Colorado and other state chapters, and will study potential emissions reductions associated with beneficial electrification.
Increasing member flexibility for developing local renewable energy resources
As a cooperative, Tri-State’s members are working together to increase local renewable energy development and member self-supply of power. In November 2019, Tri-State expanded opportunities for member community solar projects up to 63 megawatts system-wide, and is finalizing recommendations for partial requirements contracts.
“Our membership has moved quickly over the past six months to advance recommendations for flexible partial requirements contracts, which will be considered by our board by April 2020 and which Tri-State will implement upon the board’s approval,” said Gordon.
Partial requirements contracts provide flexible options for members that desire to self-supply power, while ensuring other members are not financially harmed. A Contract Committee of the Tri-State membership is currently reviewing partial requirements contract options.
Center for the New Energy Economy advisory process informs plan
To develop the Responsible Energy Plan, Tri-State collaborated with a diverse advisory group, facilitated by Colorado State University’s Center for the New Energy Economy (CNEE) and former Colorado Governor Bill Ritter. This group included representatives from the states Tri-State serves including academic, agricultural, cooperative, environmental, rural and state government interests.
“These advisors rolled up their sleeves to work with us on the details that make our energy transition vision a reality,” said Highley. “We are grateful to Governor Ritter and the CNEE advisory group for their good-faith contributions and efforts to find common ground in the pursuit of ambitious but actionable commitments, and challenging but attainable goals.”
Tri-State maintains financial strength and stable rates through transition
Tri-State’s strong financial position and cooperative business model helps ensure wholesale rates remain stable, if not lower, during its transition.
“We are favorably positioned to successfully transition to clean resources at the lowest possible cost,” said Highley. “The low costs of renewable energy and operating cost reductions help to counterbalance the cost to retire coal generation early, keeping our wholesale rates stable with even cleaner electricity.”
Tri-State is a not-for-profit cooperative of 46 members, including 43 electric distribution cooperatives and public power districts in four states that together deliver reliable, affordable and responsible power to more than a million electricity consumers across nearly 200,000 square miles of the West. For more information about Tri-State and our Responsible Energy Plan, visit http://www.tristate.coop.
Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association Inc. said by 2024 it will draw from renewable sources at least half of the energy it sends to member power cooperatives.
In a news conference also attended by Gov. Jared Polis on Wednesday, the Westminster-based power generator said it would build two wind farms and four solar farms in Colorado and New Mexico to generate an additional gigawatt of energy for its 43 member co-ops in Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming and New Mexico.
Tri-State CEO Duane Highley said the plan puts the company at the forefront of the shift away from fossil fuels.
“Membership in Tri-State will provide the best option for cooperatives seeking a clean, flexible and competitively-priced power supply, while still receiving the benefits of being a part of a financially strong, not-for-profit, full-service cooperative,” he said at the news conference.
The partial shift away from non-renewable sources of power comes amid ongoing disputes among Tri-State, Brighton’s United Power Inc. and La Plata Energy Association Inc. at the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. The two co-ops filed suit in November, claiming Tri-State is refusing to give them permission to explore deals with other power suppliers and effectively holding them hostage while it tries to become a federally regulated entity…
Tri-State has maintained it cannot release United and La Plata while other co-op customers revise the rules for terminating contracts…
In a statement, La Plata said it supports Tri-State’s push toward renewable energy, but said the power provider’s rules are preventing it from creating its own series of renewable energy sources to meet its local carbon reduction targets.
“While Tri-State’s future goal will help meet our carbon reduction goal, we do not yet know what the costs of its plan will be to our members and what LPEA’s role will be for producing local, renewable energy into the future,” said La Plata Energy Association CEO Jessica Matlock.
Member co-ops are required to buy 95% of their power from Tri-State.
Why Tri-State will shelve coal in Colorado and New Mexico and the big challenges that remain: Will Tri-State ‘family’ stay intact?
Tri-State Generation and Transmission announced [January 9, 2020] that it will close its Escalante Station coal-burning units in New Mexico in 2020 and all of its coal-burning units at the Craig Station in Colorado by 2030. One and probably two coal mines near the Craig units will be closed.
Sharply widened price disparities between aging coal plants and new renewable resources play a prominent role in the closures. So do the growing pressures of member cooperatives to decarbonize and take advantage of lower-cost and more distributed renewable resources. Yet another factor was the pressure exerted by advocacy groups, including the Sierra Club, with its extensive grassroots-organizing efforts.
New laws setting decarbonization goals in both Colorado and New Mexico figure into the closures. Legislatures in both states adopted laws last year calling for economy wide decarbonization, in Colorado’s case a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and 95% by 2050. New Mexico’s law requires 80% electrical generation be renewable by 2040 and 100% carbon free by 2045.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, in his State-of-the-State address Thursday morning, said Tri-State’s plans within Colorado will reduce the utility’s greenhouse gas emissions 90% by 2030.
As of 2018, renewables—including hydropower—constituted 32% of Tri-States sales to members, while coal represented at least 47% and possibly more, depending upon the source of electricity purchased from other sources. Tri-State expects to be at 50% by 2024 and higher yet by 2030, said Duane Highley, the chief executive of Tri-State, at a Thursday tele-press conference.
The closures were not particularly surprising. Highley, who took the reins at Tri-State last April, told Colorado Public Utilities Commissioners in October to “watch our feet” while promising decarbonization by 2030.
But major questions remain for Tri-State, including perceptions of its long-term financial viability. S&P Global Ratings in November lowered ratings for Tri-State and for Moffat County, where Craig Station is located, from A to A-. Reading the news, some were reminded of another Colorado wholesale supplier, Colorado Ute. Overbuilt in coal generation, it went into a death spiral and then bankruptcy in 1991. Tri-State got the Craig units from that bankruptcy
Most prominent of Tri-State’s challenges will be to hang onto its existing members in what in the past has been described as a family. The family has been squabbling, particularly among Colorado’s 18 member cooperatives. One will soon leave, two more are negotiating to leave, and a fourth has informally asked for a buy-out number. Together, they represent 33% of Tri-State’s electrical demand.
Next Wednesday, Tri-State will announce details of what it calls its aggressive and transformative Responsible Energy Plan. The plan results from a process convened in July 2019 and overseen by former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter’s Center for the New Energy Economy. The task force included multiple environmental groups as well as Tri-State.
The extent and location of new local resources in Tri-State’s generating portfolio may not be answered immediately, says Erin Overturf, deputy director Western Resource Advocates’ clean energy program. The group was among those who participated in development of the Responsible Energy Plan.
Some of those not at the table remain unhappy that they were not.
“From our perspective, we want Tri-State to clean up their carbon footprint, but we would like to be part of this,” said Jessica Matlock, the chief executive of Durango-based La Plata Electric, one of two co-ops that have formally asked the price of breaking their current all-requirements contracts. “We haven’t been involved in any of the discussions, the formulation of strategies. We would actually like to develop a large amount of renewable energy in the Four Corners and supply that to Tri-State. We don’t think they should just develop large-scale resources on the Eastern Slope. They should diversify their resources and look to the co-ops to be partners.”
While the Four Corners has what Matlock describes as “phenomenal” solar potential, land in the United Power service territory north and east of Denver has become too valuable for 200-megawatts solar farms, says John Parker, chief executive of the 93,000-member cooperative. He’s more interested in seeing whether Tri-State can execute its energy pivot without raising rates.
Rates of Tri-State going forward matter entirely to United, says Parker, whose co-operative now is responsible for 19% of Tri-State’s total electrical demand. He said United charges 20% more for residential electricity than does Xcel Energy, a neighboring and sometimes competing utility. United has somewhat higher costs for distribution of electricity to customers owing to the more rural nature of its service territory But Tri-State’s wholesale cost to United provides the larger explanation. “Tri-State is 75% of our cost of doing business,” says Parker.
But will new transmission be needed to access new renewable supplies, as Tri-State representatives have indicated previously? If so, that could cause rates to rise further, Parker fears.
“I think the biggest question that we have as far as this announcement is how are they going to pay for it,” says Kathleen Staks, director of external affairs for Guzman Energy.
Highley, in the teleconference, repeatedly said that rates will remain stable and might even decline even as Tri-State accelerates deprecation on its plants in the two states. Asked specifically if his guarantees of stable rates also applies to the cost of new generation, he replied that yes, it does. The costs of renewable generation are just that good.
Guzman Energy financed the exit of Kit Carson Electric Cooperative in 2016 from its all-requirements contract, which had been set to expire in 2040. It was the first Tri-State member to leave, a dispute that began in 2005 when Tri-State first asked members for contract extensions in order to build another coal plant, this one in Kansas. Guzman has since helped the cooperative based in Taos N.M., to build its solar potential. Luis Reyes, Kit Carson’s chief executive, says that Kit Carson will to be able to meet its peak day-time demand from locally generated solar resources by 2021. Kit Carson, says Matlock, provides La Plata the blueprint for what it hopes to achieve.
In closing the plants early, Tri-State will accelerate their financial depreciation. Value of the two generating stations at Craig at $400 million. Their original end-of-life dates were 2038 and 2044. The depreciation of those units is being accelerated to 2030. Highley suggested that retirement of one of those units, Craig Unit 2, which is co-owned with four other utility partners, could happen earlier.
Tri-State owns the 253-megawatt Escalante Generating Station without partners and values it at $270 million. Its original end of life had been put at 2045.
Still standing will be the two major generating stations in which it has a minority interest. It has 464 megawatts of the total 1,710 megawatts of capacity at Laramie River Station near Wheatland, Wyo., and 419 megawatts of the 1,629 megawatts at Springerville, in eastern Arizona. As for the future of those plants, said Highley, look at what happens legislatively in Arizona and Wyoming.
Evidence had been mounting that Tri-State, despite several relatively small additions of renewable, was being bypassed by the energy transition. The first evidence came in late 2017, after Xcel Energy had announced plans to retire Comanche 1 and 2, two aging coal-burning units at Pueblo, Colo. The bids it had received by that December for wind, solar and even storage shocked most energy analysts, drawing national attention. Conveniently, most of that new generation approved by the Colorado PUC will be located relatively close to existing transmission.
Then, in August 2018, the Rocky Mountain Institute released a report, “A Low-Cost Energy Future for Western Cooperatives,” which examined the Tri-State fleet in terms of risks, including a carbon price and load defection. That analysis concluded only the Laramie River Station in Wyoming made sense economically going forward. Key to the lower-cost of the Wyoming plant is the relative proximity to the Powder River Basin, lowering transportation costs, and a low-price contract continuing into the 2030s.
Since that 2018 study, says Mark Dyson, a co-author, prices of renewables have continued to dive. He cites one example of a project approved late last year that will deliver solar plus storage at a price of around $25 a megawatt. In some cases, he said, that’s lower the cost of coal itself delivered to a plant. And solar itself now is commonly in the lower $20s per megawatt-hour, a price unheard of even two years ago.
Tri-State in 2019 rebuffed an offer from Guzman to buy three Tri-State units (two at Craig, one at Escalante) and shut them down, replacing the 800 megawatts of lost generating capacity with wind, solar and natural gas generation.
“We would finance the early shutdown of these coal plants, giving Tri-State a substantial cash infusion, in the vicinity of a half-billion dollars, and we would replace the portfolio (that would be lost) with in excess of 70% renewables,” said Chris Riley, president of Guzman Energy, in an interview for Energy News Network. The offer included purchase of the Colowyo Mine.
Guzman said it would also cover the costs of dismantling the three units as well as remediation costs, which are expected to be substantial. The remediation, however, would be subject to negotiation, Riley said. In addition, Guzman offers to assist communities that would be affected by early retirement of the coal units. At least part of Guzman’s sources of funding were foundations.
In its announcement, Tri-State pledged $5 million in local community support in New Mexico to the affected communities, including Grants and Gallup.
It made no similar offer for the Craig community. And, some observers have noted, Tri-State has made little outreach to the affected communities under Highley. However, he said he planned to meet with community members next week. The Craig Daly Press reports that the news hit the Yampa Valley hard.
Highley also promised to continue work Gov. Jared Polis and legislative leaders in terms of the transition but did not say exactly what Tri-State is seeking with legislators. Colorado legislators last session created a Just Transition office, but the agency still lacks an executive director and also funding. Meetings of the advisory committee, which consists of state officials and legislators and local representatives, were held in October and December.
Ultimately 600 Tri-State employees directly involved in the extraction or burning of coal will be directly impacted along with 100 employees who are not directly involved in mining or combustion. It will, said Highley, “result in a significant downsizing of our company.”
However, Tri-State now expects to expand markets to accommodate the application of energy to other uses, including transportation and home heating, a concept called beneficial electrification. Just what it has in mind there will become more clear next week.
This expansion could partially offset loss of members. Delta-Montrose Electric, which represents 4% of Tri-State’s load, will leave Tri-State in May and will instead be supplied by Guzman Energy. Poudre Valley REA, the second-largest member cooperative in terms of demand, at 8%, informally asked for a buy-out number in 2018 but, unlike United and La Plata, has taken no additional action. Directors adopted a goal of 80% carbon-free electricity by 2030.
Both United and La Plata are skirmishing legally with Tri-State at both the Colorado Public Utilities Commission and at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. They have asked the Colorado PUC to determine a fair and just exit fee.
Tri-State’s response to the complaints is an offer to provide a partial-requirements contract, one that allows greater ability of local co-ops to generate their own resources. At the press conference, Highley said he is confident that the committee tasked with the details will deliver an acceptable product by April. But patience is publicly wearing thin at United Power. “We’ve spent 18 months trying to change this contract, and all that we have gotten from Tri-State is delays, evasions and excuses,” Parker said in press release issued last week.
Colorado is leading the Mountain West’s clean energy economy.
With nearly 60,000 clean energy workers now, the state’s potential reached new heights in 2018 with strong employment growth across cleantech sectors (4.8%)—far outpacing overall national (1.5%) and statewide (2.4%) job growth.
According to Clean Jobs Colorado 2019 (downloadable PDF) report, Colorado’s is now among the top 10 states for jobs in three sectors: wind energy (3rd), bioenergy (9th), and overall renewable energy (6th). The state fell just outside the Top 10 in solar energy (11th). However, the majority of Colorado’s clean energy job growth came from energy efficiency and clean vehicles, which grew 7.2% and 22.5%respectively.
Analyzing the state geographically,the employment analysis found that while Denver and Boulder accounted for nearly one out of every three clean jobs in the state, about 20 percent (29,000) are in areas outside the Denver, Boulder, Colorado Springs, and Fort Collins metro areas. Additionally, all 64 counties in the state are home to clean energy workers, with 11 counties supporting at least 1,100. Denver led all counties with more than 13,200 jobs, followed by Arapahoe (7,600) and Jefferson (5,800) counties. By density, Jackson, Denver, and Boulder counties led the state in clean jobs per 1,000 employable residents. All 64 counties in Colorado are home to clean energy workers, with 11 counties supporting over 1,000 jobs.
Smart policies such as the Zero-Emission Vehicle standards adopted by Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission in August and Gov. Polis’ roadmap to 100% renewable energy will help ensure that Colorado’s clean energy economy keeps growing. And businesses have noticed, with Colorado clean energy employers predicting they’ll add jobs more than twice as fast in 2019 (10.3%) as 2018.
Colorado Job Sector Toplines
Energy Efficiency – 34,342 jobs
Renewable Energy – 17,073 jobs
Solar Energy – 7,775 jobs
Wind Energy – 7,318 jobs
Clean Vehicles – 3,323 jobs
Biofuels – 2,045 jobs
Energy Storage – 1,692 jobs
Grid Modernization – 1,272 jobs
ALL Clean Energy Sectors – 59,666 jobs
Other Highlights from 2018
Clean energy jobs also now employ 26,000 more workers than the state’s entire fossil fuel industry (10,022)
8,100 workers Coloradans located in rural areas work in clean energy
64% of clean energy workers are employed by businesses with fewer than 20 total employees
Colorado clean energy employers are projecting 10.3% employment growth for 2019.
Construction (37.6%) and professional services (40.7%) make up the majority of clean energy jobs.
9.6% of Coloradans employed in clean energy are veterans
Denver led all counties in Colorado with 13,200 jobs, followed by Arapahoe (7,600) and Jefferson (5,868) counties
Ethan Bates and Cody Sauve adjust the wiring box on a solar array outside their Delta High School classroom. Bates’ father was a coal mine foreman. Luna Anna Archey/High Country News
Boulder County Solar Contractor Residential Commerical. Photo credit: Flatiron Solar
At a picnic table in a dry grass field, a group of elementary school students watched as high school senior Xavier Baty, a broad-shouldered 18-year-old in a camouflage ball cap and scuffed work boots, attached a hand-sized solar panel cell to a small motor connected to a fan. He held the panel to face the setting Colorado sun, adjusting its angle to vary the fan speed.
“Want to hear a secret?” he asked the kids around him. “This is the only science class I ever got an A in.”
As he readily acknowledges, Baty hasn’t been the most enthusiastic science student at Delta High School. This class, however, is different. Along with a group of other seniors and a few juniors, Baty is enrolled in “Solar Energy Training.” The class not only provides a science credit needed for graduation; it also trains students for careers in solar energy or the electrical trades. It allows Baty to work with his hands, something he enjoys, while positioning him for employment in a fast-growing industry.
In Colorado’s North Fork Valley, solar energy — along with a strong organic farm economy and recreation dollars — is helping to fill the economic hole left by the dying coal industry, which sustained the area for more than 120 years. When the mines still ran, graduating seniors could step immediately into good-paying jobs. But in the past five years, two of Delta County’s three mines have closed. Approximately 900 local mining jobs have been lost in the past decade. Ethan Bates, for example, another senior in the solar energy training class, is the son of a mine foreman who lost his job when the Bowie Mine outside Paonia closed in 2016. Now, he’ll graduate as a certified solar panel installer.
National environmental and climate groups often discuss “just transitions” for fossil-fuel dependent communities like Delta, or Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. Mining companies are going bankrupt, while every year, solar and other renewables get cheaper. Such economic shifts are complex, but one thing is clear: If the transition to renewables is to truly account for the communities and economies it undercuts, it will include programs like Delta High School’s solar training. The class positions young people for success in a coal-free future, and does so from the ground up, attentive to the needs and cares of the local community.
National environmental and climate groups often discuss “just transitions” for fossil-fuel dependent communities like Delta, or Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. Mining companies are going bankrupt, while every year, solar and other renewables get cheaper. Such economic shifts are complex, but one thing is clear: If the transition to renewables is to truly account for the communities and economies it undercuts, it will include programs like Delta High School’s solar training. The class positions young people for success in a coal-free future, and does so from the ground up, attentive to the needs and cares of the local community.
SCIENCE TEACHER BEN GRAVES started the class four years ago. Described by a student as “cool” but with a “mad-scientist vibe,” Graves has a salt-and-pepper beard and dresses casually in trail-running shoes and hardwearing khaki pants. In class, he is affable but authoritative.
As a teacher, Graves sees his main duty as educating young people and creating good citizens. But to do right by his students, he needs to set them up for success under the current economic realities. And that requires classes like solar training. “I think we have to be doing some sort of trades education,” he said. “For a kid with a high school diploma, working service is really all you can do without more training.”
Many students in the solar class, like Baty, weren’t particularly successful in traditional science classes. They’re kids who haven’t “played the school game,” as Graves put it, of college admission and standardized tests. For these students, training in electrical trades has now joined ranks with welding and agriculture programs offered by the high school.
In the past four years, the class has helped install two solar arrays behind Delta High School. Students have done much of the work designing the structures and digging the trenches to lay conduit cables. This year for their final project, they will take apart and fully re-install one of the solar arrays. According to Graves, teachers at other local schools are keen to integrate solar training into their classes. Solar Energy International, a local nonprofit and a major catalyst behind the Delta class, is working to integrate solar training into science curriculum across the region.
These projects are a boon to public school budgets, which lost a tax base when the mines closed. On a school day, the projects can supply about 10% of Delta High School’s energy demand — up to 30% on weekends. Thanks to a municipal cap, Graves said, the school has reached the limit on how much solar it can install, but even the current amount makes a difference.
“The facilities folks at first waved it away as a class project,” Graves said with a laugh. “Now, maintenance sees it as a real way to reduce demand charges. It went from us pushing some of this stuff on the administration to them saying, ‘Wait a second, we actually want this.’”
The economics of renewables are changing Delta at the county level, too. The area’s electric cooperative, Delta-Montrose Electric Association (DMEA) is ending its contract with its wholesale power supplier, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association. Tri-State long required that buyers like DMEA purchase 95% of their electricity from the utility, limiting the amount of solar and other renewables local co-ops could produce. The company is notorious for its continued reliance on coal-fired power plants.
For many Delta residents, solar offers a certain self-sufficiency and local independence they find appealing, as evidenced by DMEA’s defection from corporate control. It’s also cheaper: DMEA can cut customer costs by increasing its share of renewable power. As a rural electric co-op, DMEA’s members call the shots, and in October 2018, they voted to raise money and sell stocks in order to buy out their Tri-State contract. Politically, Delta County might not be an obvious leader in renewable energy; it voted for President Trump by about 70%. But solar panels on homes and businesses are increasingly common, with demand sometimes outstripping the capacity of local solar firms.
In the school district where Graves works, DMEA has encouraged the adoption of solar by funding solar arrays at every high school in its service area. Through SEI, the co-op has administered grants for Graves’ class, and it funds solar trainings for teachers across the area.
FROM AN EDUCATIONAL VIEW, the solar class’ value rests in its capacity to combine technical training and scientific learning outside the traditional grade structure. This dynamic was on full display on a bright fall day in October. The class was participating in an energy reduction contest against other Delta County high schools. Sponsored by the Colorado Energy Office, the Renew Our Schools program promotes student-run energy efficiency projects. At the end of the five-week competition, the winning school would receive $12,000.
The contest transformed the kids from students to energy auditors. Graves sent them out to prowl the hallways, counting light bulbs and measuring the energy used by the tech lab’s computers. In the hallways, every other light fixture is dark, the bulbs removed by solar students. At a separate table, another group used the data to calculate savings if the building’s sodium vapor bulbs were replaced by LED lights. Lights, the kids found, account for about half of the school’s peak power demand.
All this activity halted when tragedy struck in early November. Gannon Hines, a senior who hoped to use his solar skills upon graduating, died in a car accident. Three other students were in the car, and one remains badly hurt. Graves did not try to teach in the dark days of mourning that followed; instead, he simply let the students talk and remember their friend. He contemplated calling off the competition, but Hines had been one of the class’ more enthusiastic members.
“We talked about whether to stop or to keep going with the competition, and we decided to keep going for Gannon,” said Allora McClellan, another senior.
On the final day of the competition, just before Thanksgiving, it was clear Delta was going to lose, and some of the students were frustrated. They had redoubled their efforts after the heartbreak but came up short. It’s easier for smaller schools to show large energy-use cuts, and Delta is the largest school in the district. Students grumbled about an unfair contest. (In December, the school was awarded $2,000 by the state for their efforts. The funds will help replace fluorescent bulbs with LEDs.)
As the hour wound down toward lunch, Graves watched a group of students finish some final kilowatt calculations. A few were already drifting toward the door.
“Hey,” he said, “let’s finish our work.”
This story was originally published at High Country News on December 13, 2019.
Kit Carson Electric Cooperative recently signed a contract that will give it enough solar capacity backed by storage to meet all of its peak daytime needs by 2021, about nine months earlier than had previous been expected.
An agreement reached recently with solar developer Torch Clean Energy will give Kit Carson 21 megawatts of additional solar capacity, to a new total of 38 megawatts of solar. The deal will also produce 15 megawatts of storage capacity, the first for the cooperative.
Mindful of the wildfires in California and Colorado during recent years, location of the battery storage was chosen with the goal of improving resiliency of vital community functions in Kit Carson’s three-county service area. The majority of the battery storage will be at Taos, to meet needs of a hospital and emergency services in cases of disruption. The rest will be located near the Angle Fire ski area. If wildfire should cause power losses, the batteries will provide for four hours of electricity for pumping of water into the community water tank.
“If for some reason, we were separated from the grid, we would at least have some battery storage for a couple of hours,” said Luis Reyes, chief executive of the 23,000-member cooperative.
Battery storage will also help Kit Carson shave costs of transmission paid to the Public Service Co. of New Mexico and to Tri-State Generation and Transmission, said Reyes. Prices of neither solar nor storage have been divulged, but they will be.
Kit Carson first invested in solar in 2002. Then, in 2010, members of the coop voted to adopt a goal of 100% renewables.
In 2016, the coop began negotiating with wholesale provider Tri-State Generation and Transmission for an exit fee. It also hooked up with Guzman Energy, then a new full-requirements power supplier. With Guzman paying the $37 million exit fee, Kit Carson and Guzman in 2017 accelerated investments in solar energy.
According to the media kit on Kit Carson’s website, a collaboration of Kit Carson and Guzman, the co-op will save $50 million to $70 million over the life of the 10-year contract. Unlike the contract with Tri-State, which had a 5% cap on locally generated electricity, the contract with Guzman has no limit. Price increases for Guzman’s wholesale power are capped.
Chris Miller, chief operating office for Guzman, called it an “exciting time for Kit Carson, and for all local energy co-ops around the country that are setting ambitious goals and realizing the benefits of renewable energy capacity for the communities they serve.”
Guzman is also scheduled to begin delivering electricity to Colorado’s Delta-Montrose Electric Association beginning next Monday, and it has been courting other potential customers, including cooperatives and municipalities.
Beyond the solar capacity that will allow Kit Carson to hit 48% renewables, Kit Carson hopes to add wind generation from eastern New Mexico in coming years, putting it at 75% to 80% renewable.
Achieving the 100% renewables goal, however, will take something more. Reyes says Kit Carson hopes for further improvements in energy technology, possibly including hydrogen.
“In the next few years, some new technology will come into fruition that will provide energy for night and for cloudy days and will be a renewable product,” said Reyes in an interview with Mountain Town News.
Aurora Organic Dairy today published its 2019 Sustainability Report. The report provides a detailed and transparent update on the Company and its progress toward goals to improve its sustainability performance around three core pillars of Animals, People and Planet.
The Company announced updated goals that encompass three key areas:
Caring for the comfort and well-being of its cows and calves, always putting animal care at the forefront of farming practices.
Employee safety and wellness, and local community support.
Commitments to greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction, water efficiency and waste reduction, and one important new goal to commit to 100% carbon-neutral energy by the end of 2020.
“At Aurora Organic Dairy, we have a longstanding commitment to continuous improvement when it comes to our animals, people and planet,” said Scott McGinty, CEO of Aurora Organic Dairy. “While we are proud of our achievements, in today’s world, we cannot rest. We must continue to do more to support our animals and people, the environment and our local communities. Our updated sustainability goals strengthen this commitment.”
The Company’s sustainability goals – established against 2012 baseline data – include many initiatives that have bolstered Aurora Organic Dairy’s sustainability performance:
Aurora Organic Dairy farms improved the overall welfare of its animals through goals to reduce lameness, to perform fewer dehorning procedures, to used paired calf housing and to increase video monitoring.
Significant progress against People goals was made with increased training programs, communications around the value of benefits, bilingual communication and community centers in remote farm locations. Going forward, Aurora Organic Dairy will continue its focus on safety and on employee volunteerism.
For the Planet, Aurora Organic Dairy achieved significant reductions in water and energy. Its milk plant achieved a 71% solid waste landfill diversion rate, and normalized GHG emissions were down 11%. The Company is committed to reducing its GHG emissions by 30% by 2025. Given the urgent need to address climate change globally, Aurora Organic Dairy has made an important commitment to 100% carbon-neutral energy by the end of 2020.
“This last year was a milestone for Aurora Organic Dairy in terms of environmental stewardship,” said Craig Edwards, Director of Sustainability for Aurora Organic Dairy. “We installed solar arrays at our High Plains and High Ridge Dairies in Gill, Colo. and we committed to 100% carbon-neutral energy by the end of 2020. To get there, we will invest in renewable energy projects directly and will support additional projects by purchasing Renewable Energy Certificates and Verified Emission Reductions to address 100% of our electricity and fuels use across our Company farms, raw milk transport, milk plants and headquarters.”
Of all the states in the US, Colorado may be the best prepared for a genuine, large-scale energy transition.
For one thing, thanks to its bountiful sunlight and wind, Colorado has enormous potential for renewable energy, most of which is untapped. The state currently generates only 3 percent of its electricity from solar and just under 18 percent from wind.
The political climate is favorable as well. As of earlier this year, Democrats have a “trifecta” in the state, with control over the governorship and both houses of the legislature. Gov. Jared Polis campaigned on a promise to target 100 percent clean electricity by 2040. In their last session, he and the legislature passed a broad suite of bills meant to boost renewable energy, reform utilities, expand EV markets, and decarbonize the state economy.
Over the last year or so, energy systems modeler and analyst Christopher Clack, with his team at the energy research outfit Vibrant Clean Energy (VCE), has been taking a close look at what Colorado is capable of in terms of clean energy, and what it might cost. (The research was commissioned by renewable energy developer Community Energy.)
VCE has built a model called WIS:dom (ahem, “Weather-Informed energy Systems: for design, operations, and markets”). It can simulate the Colorado electricity system with incredibly granular accuracy, down to a 3-kilometer, 5-minute range, year-round. Using that tool, they have simulated various clean-energy initiatives the state might take, and their impact.
Huddled in a construction trailer last year, a team overseeing development of an affordable housing complex in the Colorado mountain town of Basalt agreed to make a bold statement about future energy use.
No natural gas lines were to be laid through the red soil to Basalt Vista, an affordable housing project. Electricity instead fuels kitchen stoves and delivers hot showers. Electricity, not gas, warms chilled autumn air. All units also have charging equipment for electric cars.
Beneficial electrification, the concept in play, has been defined as the application of electricity to end uses that would otherwise consume fossil fuels. That includes both transportation but also buildings. The U.S. Energy Information Administration says residential and commercial buildings sectors account for about 40% of total U.S. energy consumption.
Basalt Vista serves as a demonstration of building electrification but also as a living laboratory with national implications. New technology designed in a partnership with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory allows homeowners greater decision-making in energy allocations. Holy Cross Energy, the local electrical utility, also has been using the all-electric units to understand implications for its operation as it shifts toward increased renewables. The co-op expects to be at 70% renewable by 2021 and has ambitions to go higher.
While multiple California cities are considering bans on new natural gas connections, building electrification remains an infant concept. Natural gas remains the go-to fuel source for heating and other purposes in new construction in most places. In Colorado, legislators and other state officials have begun considering how to reduce use of natural gas as they plan how to achieve the goal adopted earlier this year of 90% reduction in economy-wide carbon emissions below 2005 levels by 2040.
Existing buildings pose a major challenge, as they often cannot be readily reconfigured. But even new construction in Colorado’s colder climate zones will test the application of existing technology. Basalt Vista, located 18 miles down-valley from Aspen, ranks at the edge.
Grading of the site had begun in June 2018 when Auden Schendler, a member of the Basalt Town Council and also vice president of sustainability for the Aspen Skiing Co., made his case for electrification of the units. The concept, a crucial strategy for solving the challenge of climate change, needed to be demonstrated, he told the development partners.
“We know how to decarbonize the utility grid, we know how to decarbonize transportation mostly, but the big challenge is how to heat buildings without combusting fossil fuels,” he says. “Electrification combined with an eventually renewable grid is one way to do that.”
A year after that construction trailer huddle, the first duplex had been completed. “This is my house!” 13-year-old Isabel “Izzy” Walker beamed at the grand opening as she led her grandfather by the hand.
Her mother teaches preschool in the local Roaring Fork School District, which provided the land adjacent to Basalt High School. Of the 27 units, 14 will be available for purchase by school district employees. Employees within Pitkin County will have dibs on the other 13 units based on a lottery and subject to income restrictions. Completion is expected by early 2021.
As for saving money, Schendler’s second motivation, the first electric bills for summer came in at $12.65 and then $12.61. Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork Valley, the developer, projects Basalt Vista homeowners can expect annual savings of $2,000 in utility costs.
Like much of the affordable housing in the Aspen area, Basalt Vista is heavily subsidized, most prominently $3.2 million in land donated by the school district and $3 million in infrastructure work by Pitkin County. Habitat for Humanity is also subsidizing each home by over $100,000, as home prices are based on what buyers can afford to pay: 28% of their gross monthly income for mortgage, insurance and taxes.
Energy improvements also are receiving more than $300,000 in help, including smart inverters and other assistance from electrical supplier Holy Cross Energy, discounted solar photovoltaic costs, and $107,500 from the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, a local nonprofit, for photovoltaic panels and heat pumps.
High-efficiency cold-climate air-source heat pumps provide the crucial technology at Basalt Vista. Heat in the outside air is absorbed and stored in a refrigerant as latent heat. Temperature of the refrigerant gas rises when compressed by an electric pump, providing the heat that can then be transferred to indoor water or air. Electricity facilitates the heat transfers.
Dramatic improvements in recent years have made air-source heat pumps useful in cold weather climates. Heat can be extracted from outdoor air as low as 22 degrees below Fahrenheit. Basalt normally can expect temperatures of 10 to 15 below zero in winter, a notch or two colder than Denver.
“A thousand feet higher and colder, I’m not sure we would have done it, to be honest with you,” said Scott Gilbert, president of the Habitat for Humanity chapter. Aspen is 18 miles away and 1,000 feet higher.
Megan Gilman, a zero-emissions building consultant from Edwards, says electric buildings in cold climates must be paired with on-site solar to produce the lowest long-term operating costs. Without that on-site production, electrification struggles to compete with natural gas, which has been cheap in Colorado for the last decade and is likely to remain so. Even more efficient equipment, including heat pumps, can help narrow this gap, she said.
An air-source heat pump can deliver 1.5 to 3 times more energy in the form of heat than the electrical energy it consumes. In the Basalt Vista homes, the heat is distributed from ceiling units, which do so more efficiently than the radiant base-board electric heaters installed in homes during the 1970s.
Basalt Vista constitutes a microgrid. A microgrid remains part of the broader electrical grid but has resources to remain functional at some reduced level if the grid connection is severed — particularly beneficial in a mountain area vulnerable to wildfires. Hospitals and military bases commonly have backup diesel generators or other resources to provide power in case grid electricity ceases.
All 27 units at Basalt Vista will have photovoltaic solar panels on the roofs and at least 7 units will have $15,000 lithium-ion battery packs, good for 10 years and 10,000 cycles. One battery can run the full load of two houses. With sparse use — refrigerator, microwave, and lighting — a battery can run a house for four days.
“If you have a certain amount of solar and storage in a microgrid area, you can separate from the bigger grid,” explained Steve Beuning, vice president for power and supplies at Holy Cross Energy. “You just have to rely upon those local resources. You might have some high priority loads you want to supply, but not other, non-essential demands.”
Greater flexibility while integrating higher levels of renewables in the electrical grid is another goal at Basalt Vista in a $1.65 million study sponsored by the Department of Energy and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
In the old utility model, centralized generation was designed to meet maximum demand. In most places, that demand occurs on hot summer afternoons and evenings. In the Basalt area, demand peaks during winter. The model being created at Basalt seeks to provide more interplay between generation and supply, modulating the demand to better correspond with local supply.
Chris Bilby, research and programs engineer for Holy Cross Energy, said the utility wants to avoid building excess generation, whether solar farms near Basalt or giant wind farms on the Great Plains.
“For most of the utility world, it’s all about managing the supply to meet the demand,” he said. That requires transmission and distribution, all of it costly. “What we’re trying to do is maybe ask, ‘Can we dim the lights’ — that’s an analogy — ‘to meet the supply, or shift use of members to times when there is surplus?’ That’s what we’re trying to get done.”
Router-sized devices in this experiment prioritize uses and also function as in-house — literally — moderators between supply and demand. This sorting of electrical uses will occur not just in time of crisis, but also in everyday life at Basalt Vista.
The control solution, designed to meet needs of Holy Cross, comes from a novel algorithm developed by researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The algorithm, called real-time optimal power, optimally schedules flexible uses, such as hot water heaters or charging and discharging of batteries, based on real-time voltage and power measurements. The first four duplex units at Basalt Vista have 20 such controllers to manage the photovoltaic panels, batteries, electric vehicle charging, heating and cooling.
For example, can the charging rate of an electric vehicle be slowed or deferred altogether until supplies have become more plentiful? Heating water might also be juggled. “So maybe you don’t get a 40-minute shower, but you get a 20-minute shower,” Bilby said. This increased flexibility of customer use may yield higher levels of lower-cost renewables.
The devices have been produced by Heila Technology, a company founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumni. Heila’s vision is to build a futuristic grid with bolstered resilience that that meets consumer energy needs while maximizing reliance on renewable energy. It has applied the electrical controls — the brains that prioritizes uses — used in large applications, such as factories, and crafted them for use in small settings, like a house. In effect, they can make a house in Basalt Vista a microgrid of its own. Not coincidentally, the company’s name of Heila is Swedish for brains.
Francisco Morocz, the chief executive of Heila, said Basalt Vista is a pilot project, trying to demonstrate how granular the control systems can be. The next step would be to optimize use of on-site battery storage and help make it a resource within the broader energy system.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory believes the results will have implications for utilities, particularly municipalities and cooperatives, around the world, delivering results that can be scaled to hundreds of homes while significantly improving grid operations.
Scaling building electrification
Can all-electric homes such as those being built in Basalt be scaled? Costs of the Basalt Vista duplex and triplex units have been coming in at 15% per unit, roughly $40,000 to $50,000, more than conventional units. Technology is part of the increment. A heat pump water heater costs $1,800, compared to $600 for a 96% efficiency gas water heater, which is more expensive than the 85% efficiency models commonly found at big-box hardware stores.
Too, the construction trades have not geared up for all-electric homes. “Contractors were very wary of this. Bids were coming in at $10,000 more per unit than gas,” said Marty Treadway, program director for the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, or CORE. The local nonprofit donated $107,500 for photovoltaic panels and heat pumps.
“A prototype for affordable housing and a net-zero energy neighborhood makes a ton of sense for CORE,” Treadyway said. CORE has awarded $8.2 million in rebates and grants since 2011 to reduce emissions caused by buildings. The group’s primary funding comes from the Renewable Energy Mitigation Program, which exacts fees on large homes with high energy use in Aspen and Pitkin County if the homeowner or builder opts not to mitigate with on-site renewable energy.
Transportation constitutes Colorado’s second-largest source of greenhouse emissions, but buildings follow. For Colorado to slash emissions, it must figure out buildings. As Holy Cross’s Bilby points out, “You can’t do zero emissions with natural gas.”
In the southwest corner of Colorado, the sun beats down on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation. High desert runs to the horizon in every direction, broken only by imposing mesas and Sleeping Ute Mountain. Just under 2,000 people live on the 580,000-acre-reservation, which sprawls across Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. But as temperatures rise with climate change, utility bills rise with them, and the Ute Mountain Ute tribe has begun transitioning to 100% renewable power — a movement towards energy sovereignty they have been forging for almost a decade.
Nations, states and communities around the world are establishing rapid decarbonization goals, including Colorado, which declared a target of 90% carbon-free energy by 2050. With increased pressure for immediate, large-scale changes to energy infrastructure, international policies for expanding renewables have played a critical role in increasing solar technology’s accessibility and efficiency. By combining this evolving technology with local knowledge, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe is generating energy solutions rooted in its community.
“Our tribe likes to think outside of the box and take risks, and we believe in renewable energy,” said Tribal Community Services Director Bernadette Cuthair. In its first major stride towards net carbon zero, the tribe is building a large-scale solar array through a partnership with GRID Alternatives Colorado, an organization that helps low-income and underserved communities access renewable energy technology and job training. The $2 million project includes 3,500 solar panels that will offset at least 10% of the reservation’s overall energy usage, eliminating about 1,515 tons of greenhouse gas emissions by year one.
The tribe is considering building a large-scale renewable energy business to serve national markets, increase tribal revenue, and provide more training and jobs. “The solar array we’re building now is a 1-megawatt project, but we’re looking into what we could do with 200 or 300 megawatts next,” said Cuthair. “This is just the beginning for us as far as renewables.”
It’s estimated that in just six hours, the world’s deserts receive more energy from the sun than the entire human race consumes in a year. That presents infinite possibilities for areas like the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation. “One thing the tribe has a lot of is land,” said Scott Clow, the tribe’s environmental programs director. “When you look across all of that acreage, there are many locations well suited for solar projects — mainly flat land, and land that doesn’t have a lot of limitations of conflicting use.”
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates tribal land in the Lower 48 states has the capacity to supply 17.6 terawatt-hours (TWh) of solar power, which is more than four times the total electric energy generated by the U.S in 2018. Through renewables, the Ute Mountain Ute and a growing number of tribes are empowering their communities and land — and helping the nation as a whole transition towards a more sustainable energy infrastructure.
“It’s a very exciting time for the tribe, because we’re headed in a different direction as far as sustainability and self-reliance,” said Cuthair. “This is a step towards energy independence for us, and it feels like we’re part of a movement. This is what we want our legacy to be.”
Avery White is a multimedia storyteller and journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers resistance movements around climate change, social justice and immigration. Follow her on Instagram at @averyleighwhite. Email High Country News at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Colorado legislature has had an extraordinarily productive year so far, passing a stunning array of climate and clean energy bills covering everything from clean electricity to utilities, energy efficiency, and a just transition. The list is really pretty amazing…
It got me thinking: Just how big a role are EVs going to play in decarbonization? How should policymakers be prioritizing them relative to, say, renewable energy? Obviously, every state and country is going to need to do both eventually — fully electrify transportation and fully decarbonize electricity — but it would still be helpful to better understand their relative impacts.
Nerds to the rescue!
A new bit of research commissioned by Community Energy (a renewable energy project developer) casts light on this question. It models the carbon and financial impacts of large-scale vehicle electrification in Colorado and comes to two main conclusions.
First, electrifying vehicles would reduce carbon more than completely decarbonizing the state electricity sector, pushing state emissions down 42 percent from 2018 levels by 2040 — not enough to hit the targets on its own, but a huge chunk. Second, electrifying vehicles saves consumers money by reducing the cost of transportation almost $600 a year on average.
Rapid electrification is a win-win for Colorado, a driver of decarbonization and a transfer of wealth from oil companies to consumers — but only if charging is managed intelligently.
EVs bring carbon and consumer benefits
First, the headline: Electrifying EVs…reduces emissions a lot.
In the EV-grid scenario, electricity sector emissions fall 46 percent — the number is lower because about a third of the additional electricity demand from EVs is satisfied by natural gas — but overall state emissions drop 42 percent, more than two and a half times as much, representing 37 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s thanks to an 80 percent drop in transportation emissions…
As I said, that in itself is not enough to meet the state’s emissions target. The state will have to force some additional cleaning of the electricity sector (and deal with other sectors) to do that, as this year’s package of legislation reflects. (I asked Clack if Vibrant ran a scenario without any new natural gas. Yes, he said. “It was $1 billion per year more expensive [around 1¢/kWh, or 15.9 percent more] and decreased emissions by an additional 14.8 metric tons per year.”)
But the drop in transportation emissions in the EV-grid scenario is sufficient to reduce more overall emissions than the entire Colorado electricity sector produces. EVs are a vital piece of the decarbonization puzzle.
The effect of all the new EVs on electricity generation is pretty simple: There will be more of it…
As you can see, in the cleaner-grid scenario, lost coal generation is replaced by a mix of natural gas, wind, and solar. In the EV-grid scenario, it’s roughly the same mix, just a little more of each — the addition of EVs raises total electricity demand by about 20 percent.
Bonus result: “The increase in generation capacity increases employment in Colorado’s electricity sector by approximately 68 percent by 2040.”
And now, here are the fun parts.
Shifting from internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEV) to EVs would save Colorado consumers a whole boatload of money, for the simple reason that electricity is a cheaper fuel than gasoline. Here are the average savings for a Coloradan that switches from ICEV to EV between 2018 and 2040…
So the average Coloradan will save between $590 and $645 a year — nothing to sneeze at. “The total savings between 2018 and 2040 are estimated to be $16 billion,” Vibrant says, “which equates to a savings of almost $700 million per year.”
You might think, with all the new EV demand added to the grid, electricity rates would go up. In fact, relative to the cleaner-grid scenario, the EV-grid scenario has an extremely small impact on rates (0.7 percent difference at the extreme)…
EVs are a climate triple threat
What this modeling makes clear is that when it comes to clean energy policy, EVs are a triple threat for Colorado (and, obviously, for other states, though the impacts will vary with weather and electricity mix).
For the electricity sector, as long as their charging is properly managed, EVs can provide much-needed new tools to help manage the influx of renewable energy…
For the transportation sector, EVs can radically reduce carbon emissions and local pollution. (Yes, EVs reduce carbon emissions even in areas with lots of coal on the grid.)
And for consumers, EVs save money, not only because the fuel is cheaper (and getting cheaper all the time) but because EVs are much simpler machines, with fewer moving parts and much lower maintenance costs.
Especially in states with electricity sector emissions that are already low or falling, transportation is the next big place to look for emission reductions, and EVs are one of the few options that can reduce emissions at the necessary scale and speed. Colorado is right to encourage them.
Deal sealed for electrical co-op’s exit from Tri-State but the fee unknown
Tri-State Generation and Transmission and one of its 43 member co-operatives, Delta-Montrose Electric Association, have come to terms. Delta-Montrose will be leaving the “family,” as Tri-State members are sometimes called, on about May 1, 2022.
What it cost Delta-Montrose to exit its all-requirements contract with Tri-State, however, will remain a secret until then. The figure was redacted in the settlement agreement filed with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission last Friday. The figure can become public after the split occurs next year, according to Virginia Harman, the chief operating officer for Delta-Montrose.
The split reflects a fundamental disagreement over the future of electrical generation and the pace of change that has festered for about 15 years. Those different visions became apparent in about 2005 as Tri-State managers sought to build a major new coal plant near Holcomb, Kan., in partnership with Sunflower Electric.
The utilities were shocked when Kansas denied a permit for the plant, based on the time at the still-novel grounds of its carbon dioxide pollution. When Tri-State finally got its permit for the coal plant in 2017, it had spent nearly $100 million with nothing to show.
Meanwhile, the electrical world had turned upside down. Wind had become the cheap energy, not coal, and it was being integrated into power supplies effectively. Even solar was in cost competitive in places.
Along among the then 44 member cooperatives, only Kit Carson and Delta-Montrose had refused the 10-year contact extensions to 2050 that Tri-State had wanted to satisfy money markets for long-term loans. Their contracts remained at 2040. The contracts of other member co-ops—including those serving Durango, Telluride, Crested Butte and Winter Park—go until 2050.
Kit Carson was the first to get out. In 2016, assisted by Guzman, it paid the $37 million exit fee required by Tri-State and set out, also with the assistance of Guzman, to develop solar farms in dispersed parts of its service territory in northern New Mexico. It aims to have 100% solar capability by the end of 2022.
In November 2016, Delta-Montrose informed Tri-State it wanted to buy out its contract, too. It asked for exit figure. The negotiations did not yield an acceptable number to both, and in December Delta-Montrose asked the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to arbitrate. The PUC agreed over protests by Tri-State that the PUC had no authority. A week was set aside in June, later delayed to begin Aug. 12, for the case.
No figures have ever been publicly revealed by either Tri-State or Delta-Montrose, although a court document filed early in July reported that Tri-State’s price had been reduced 40%.
Meanwhile, Tri-State got approval from its members to seek regulation for rate making by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. That could possibly have moved the jurisdiction over the Delta-Montrose exit to Washington. It would not affect review by Colorado, New Mexico or other states in which Tri-State operators of resource planning.
Delta-Montrose and Guzman have not completed plans for how the co-operative may develop its local energy resources. The co-op had reached Tri-State’s 5% allowance for local generation by harnessing of fast-moving water in an irrigation conveyance called the South Canal.
For Tri-State’s new chief executive, Duane Highley, the task at hand may be how to discourage more exits by other member co-op. Tri-State has argued that it moved slowly but has now is in a position to realize much lower prices for renewable energy generation. It is moving forward on both wind and solar projects in eastern Colorado.
Delta-Montrose, with 33,000 members, is among the larger co-ops in Tri-State. But even larger one, who together represent nearly half the electrical load supplied by Tri-STate have all dissatisfaction with Tri-State’s slow movement away from coal-fired generation.
In Southwestern Colorado, Durango-based La Plata Electric recently asked for an exit figure, too.
Along the Front Range of Colorado, United Power, by far the largest-coop, with 91,000 members and booming demand from oil and gas operators north of Denver, has wanted more renewable energy and greater ability to develop its own resources. Poudre Valley has adopted a 100% clean energy goal.
Delta-Montrose, with 33,000 members, is easily among the 10 largest co-ops.
The settlement agreement filed with the PUC says DMEA “shall not assist any other Tri-State member in pursuing withdrawal from Tri-State. The agreement also says that DMEA and Tri-State agree to not disparage each other.
More than 30% of Tri-State’s generation comes from renewables, mostly from hydropower. This total is little different from that of Xcel Energy. But Xcel in 2017 announced plans to close two of its aging coal plants, leaving it at 55 percent renewable generation in Colorado.
Tri-State, too, is closing coal plants. A coal plant at Nucla, in southwestern Colorado, west of Telluride, will close early next year, several years earlier than previously scheduled. However, it’s small by coal plant standards, with a nameplate capacity of 114 megawatts, and operates only part time.
A larger reduction is scheduled to occur by 2025 when one of three coal units at Craig, in northwestern Colorado, will be retired. But a Tri-State official, speaking at a beneficial electrification conference in Denver during June, suggested that a second coal plant could also be retired early. That second coal unit is co-owned with other utilities in Colorado and other states, all of whom have indicated plans to hasten their retreats from coal.
Tri-State last week also announced a partnership with former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter’s Center for the New Energy Economy to facilitate a stakeholder process intended to help define what Tri-State calls a Responsible Energy Plan. See: Tri-State Announces Responsible Energy Plan 20190717
A long-standing legal dispute in the Colorado energy industry came to an end Monday when Delta-Montrose Electric Association announced it would withdraw from its membership in Tri-State Generation & Transmission, effective May 1, 2020.
The early withdrawal is part of a definitive settlement agreement between the two energy companies.
Delta-Montrose Electric Association, a rural utility provider on the Western Slope, said it underwent the effort to secure cheaper rates for customers and purchase more renewable energy.
“If I had to sum it up in a word, I think I’d say ‘transformative.’ It’s a real shift in our policy, and I think it really shows the direction that Colorado is headed,” said Erin Overturf, chief energy counsel for the conservation group Western Resource Advocates. “I think it shows that we’re starting to take climate change seriously and recognize the task that’s truly ahead of us if we’re going to do our part to help solve this problem.”
The bills include efforts to make houses and appliances — from refrigerators, to light bulbs to air conditioners and furnaces — more energy-efficient…
Lawmakers extended state tax credits for buying electric vehicles and allowed regulated electric utilities to own and operate vehicle charging stations to try to encourage people to buy and drive zero-emission vehicles.
One of the things that sets Colorado apart from other states working to boost the use of renewable energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions is its efforts to look out for affected workers and communities, said Anna McDevitt, an organizer with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.
The bill reauthorizing the PUC has a provision requiring utilities to include a workforce transition plan when they propose shutting down a power plant. Another section on low-cost bonds to retire power plants for cleaner, cheaper alternatives also provides that a portion of the proceeds helps workers and communities affected by the closures…
Referring to the PUC bill and its carbon-reduction targets, Xcel Energy said in a statement Friday that the legislation was “heavily negotiated with a broad set of stakeholders” and protects safety reliability and customer costs…
One bill expands the size of community solar gardens, which are centralized arrays of solar panels that users “subscribe” to. They are intended for people who want to use solar power but whose roofs aren’t suitable, who live in an apartment or can’t afford to install a system.
Other legislation directs the PUC to study regional transmission organizations that would make it easier for utilities or municipalities to buy wholesale power. Another section requires regulators to take on planning to help facilitate rooftop solar and other distributed-energy installations.
The PUC also will have to look into so-called “performance-based ratemaking.” That would allow utilities to earn a certain rate of return on things such as increasing energy efficiency or installing a certain amount of rooftop solar rather than just on construction of plants or other infrastructure.
From the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies:
Nearly 75 percent of coal-fired power plants in the United States generate electricity that is more expensive than local wind and solar energy resources, according to a new report from Energy Innovation, a renewables analysis firm. Wind power, in particular, can at times provide electricity at half the cost of coal, the report found.
By 2025, enough wind and solar power will be generated at low enough prices in the U.S. that it could theoretically replace 86 percent of the U.S. coal fleet with lower-cost electricity, The Guardian reported.
“We’ve seen we are at the ‘coal crossover’ point in many parts of the country, but this is actually more widespread than previously thought,” Mike O’Boyle, the co-author of the report for Energy Innovation, told The Guardian. “There is a huge potential for wind and solar to replace coal, while saving people money.”
Using public financial filings and data from the U.S. Energy Information Agency, O’Boyle and his colleagues analyzed the cost of coal-fired power plants compared with wind and solar options within a 35-mile radius. The report found that North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, and Texas have the greatest amount of coal capacity currently at risk of being outcompeted by local wind and solar. By 2025, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin will be in a similar situation.
“Coal’s biggest threat is now economics, not regulations,” O’Boyle told CNN Business.
Coal currently makes up just 28 percent of total U.S. power generation, down from 48 percent in 2008. Renewables, meanwhile, now account for 17 percent of electricity generation, dominated by hydro and wind, with solar capacity quickly growing.
The Energy Transition Act could be a model for ambitious policies of the future.
On March 23, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law the Energy Transition Act, a complex bill that will move the state toward cleaner electricity generation, clear the way for the state’s biggest utility to shutter one of the West’s largest coal-fired power plants in 2022, and provide mechanisms for a just transition for economically affected communities.
The bill has the support of the state’s biggest utility — Public Service Company of New Mexico, or PNM — as well as environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, Western Resource Advocates and the San Juan Citizens Alliance. National media are hailing it as a mini-Green New Deal.
Here’s a breakdown of what the bill does — and doesn’t — do:
Perhaps most significantly, the bill mandates that New Mexico electricity providers get 80 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2040, and 100 percent from carbon-free sources by 2045. Those are ambitious goals that will result in huge cuts in greenhouse gas emissions in a state that currently gets half its electricity from coal and a third from natural gas.
That said, it’s important to remember that “carbon-free” and “renewable” are not synonyms. The 20 percent of carbon-free electricity can include nuclear, since no greenhouse gases are emitted during fission, as well as coal and natural gas equipped with carbon capture and sequestration technologies. Carbon capture is prohibitively expensive — and unproven — but nuclear power is readily available from Palo Verde Generating Station in Arizona, where PNM currently gets about 18 percent of its power.
Also, “electricity” and “energy” are two distinct concepts — a common source of confusion. This bill applies only to electricity consumed by New Mexicans and has no direct bearing on the state’s burgeoning oil or natural gas production. Meanwhile, the Four Corners Power Plant, located in New Mexico but owned by Arizona Public Service, can continue to burn coal under the renewable standards as long as the electricity is exported to other states. But PNM plans to divest its 13 percent ownership in Four Corners Power Plant in 2031, leaving the plant on shakier economic ground.
The bill helps pave the way for the planned closure of San Juan Generating Station, located just north of the Navajo Nation in northwestern New Mexico.
The station’s owner, PNM, announced two years ago that it would likely shut down the plant in 2022 because it was no longer economically viable. Many aspects of this bill are a direct reaction to the pending closure, particularly the sections that allow the utility to take out “energy transition bonds” to cover costs associated with abandonment. Those bonds will be paid off by ratepayers, but not taxpayers.
This has irked New Energy Economy, a Santa Fe-based group that has been pushing PNM to clean up its act for years. The group, a critic of the bill, would rather see PNM’s investors shoulder the cost of the bonds. After all, the investors are the ones who have profited handsomely off the power plant for nearly half a century, even as it pumped millions of tons of climate warming gases into the air, along with acid rain-forming sulfur dioxide, health-harming particulates, mercury, arsenic and other toxic materials.
While the bill does not specifically force the plant’s closure, it does mandate the creation of standards that limit carbon dioxide emissions from large coal-burning plants to about half of what coal emits per megawatt-hour — effectively killing any possibility of keeping the generating station operating.
The energy transition bonds will help fund a just transition away from coal. Some 450 jobs— about one-fourth of them held by Native Americans — will be lost when the San Juan Generating Station and the associated San Juan Mine close, together with an estimated $356 million in economic activity annually.
The bill allocates up to $30 million for reclamation costs, and up to $40 million to help displaced workers and affected communities, to be shared by the Energy Transition Indian Affairs Fund, Economic Development Assistance Fund and Displaced Worker Assistance Fund. The Indian Affairs Fund will be spent according to a plan developed by the state, in consultation with area tribal governments and with input from affected communities, and the economic development fund will help local officials diversify the local economy. The bill also requires PNM to replace a portion of the area’s lost generation capacity, in the process creating jobs and tax revenue.
The new bill has some missing elements. There’s no provision for making amends to the people who have lived near the plant for years and suffered ill health, such as high asthma rates, as a result. It won’t stop Four Corners Power Plant, located just 10 miles from San Juan Generating Station, from belching out pollution (though it does provide for a just transition away from that plant if it closes by 2031), and it doesn’t address the massive climate impact from oil and gas development or transportation. The act is merely an official acknowledgment that coal is dying, and that coal communities could die, too, without help.
Nevertheless, the Energy Transition Act is remarkable in that it promises to totally decarbonize electricity in a state that has leaned heavily on fossil fuel for decades, while also lending a hand to communities that would otherwise be left behind. It is a good template, or at least a decent sketch, for a national Green New Deal.
Extra: Listen to High Country News Contributing Editor Cally Carswell’s new Hot & Dry Podcast for even more context on New Mexico’s Energy Transition Act:
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.
The Ute Mountain Ute tribe broke ground [March 13, 2019] on a $2 million solar project that will be used to lower electricity bills for tribal residents in Towaoc.
An 8-acre hayfield west of the Ute Mountain Casino will be transformed into a 1 megawatt solar array with 3,500 panels facing skyward. Construction is expected to take six to eight weeks, and after testing, the switch will be flipped on in June or July…
“This as a step forward for the tribe to become energy independent and self-reliant,” said Bernadette Cuthair, tribal community services director. “We want our tribal members to sign up to learn the solar trade.”
The project was funded by a $973,000 grant from the Department of Energy and a $1 million match from the tribe. It will be the largest solar array in Montezuma County.
The tribe partnered with Grid Alternatives, an organization that works to provide renewable energy to low-income communities.
“We believe the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy should include everyone,” said Brittney Heller, workforce organizer for Grid Alternatives.
Tribal members must sign up to receive solar discounts on their electric bill by April 30. They will bring their Empire Electric Association account information to the tribe’s planning department or environmental office, and reduced bills will start to show up in July or August.
An opportunity to sign up for discounts will happen every year. Government offices will also see electric bill savings from the project.
The project will create 13 temporary jobs and offer free training in the solar industry. Volunteer days allow tribal members to help build the project and learn skills.
Four three-month paid internships are being offered for tribal members to work on the project and receive training. Applications are being accepted. Workers will also be recruited from the tribe’s job force division.
The Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA) and the Colorado Energy Office (CEO) are seeking applicants for agricultural energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.
The total amount available for assistance in fiscal year 2019 is $250,000. The funding is available to Colorado agricultural irrigators, dairies, greenhouses, nurseries and cold storage facilities.
The funding is part of the multiagency Colorado Agricultural Energy Efficiency Program, which provides technical and financial assistance to agricultural producers to install and maintain projects that address natural resource concerns in Colorado. The current funding amount includes $200,000 for energy efficiency projects and $50,000 for renewable energy projects. This funding is provided by CDA’s Advancing Colorado’s Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency grant program.
The Colorado Agricultural Energy Efficiency Program provides a turnkey approach that makes energy-efficiency improvements easy for producers. The program provides free energy audits, renewable energy site assessments and technical support services to about 60 Colorado producers annually.
CEO administers the program and funds the energy audits and technical support services, along with some project financing. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and CDA also provide funding for project implementation and additional services.
Applicants must be enrolled in the agricultural efficiency program and complete either an energy audit to receive funding for energy efficiency projects or complete a preliminary site assessment and technical report to receive funding for renewable energy projects.
Applicants may receive up to $50,000 per project. Additional federal funding may be available. Eligible energy-efficiency projects are limited to those recommended in the energy audit report. Eligible renewable energy technologies are limited to thermal systems for hot or chilled water, process heat, or space conditioning, and solar photovoltaic systems. Renewable energy technologies for thermal systems include geothermal and advanced heat-pump systems, and solar thermal technologies.
Energy analysts used power demand data from the Midwest’s January deep freeze and wind and solar conditions to find the gaps in an all-renewable power grid.
In the depths of the deep freeze late last month, nearly every power plant in the Eastern and Central U.S. that could run was running.
Energy analysts saw a useful experiment in that week of extreme cold: What would have happened, they asked, if the power grid had relied exclusively on renewable energy—just how much battery power would have been required to keep the lights on?
Using energy production and power demand data, they showed how a 100 percent renewable energy grid, powered half by wind and half by solar, would have had significant stretches without enough wind or sun to fully power the system, meaning a large volume of energy storage would have been necessary to meet the high demand.
“You would need a lot more batteries in a lot more places,” said Wade Schauer, a research director for Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables, who co-wrote the report.
How much is “a lot”?
Schauer’s analysis shows storage would need to go from about 11 gigawatts today to 277.9 gigawatts in the grid regions that include New England, New York, the Mid-Atlantic, the Midwest and parts of the South. That’s roughly double Wood Mackenzie’s current forecast for energy storage nationwide in 2040.
Energy storage is a key piece of the power puzzle as cities, states and supporters of the Green New Deal talk about a transition to 100 percent carbon-free energy sources within a few decades. The country would need to transform its grid in a way that could meet demand on the hottest and coldest days, a task that would involve a huge build-out of wind, solar and energy storage, plus interstate power lines.
The actual evolution of the electricity system is expected to happen in fits and starts, with fossil fuels gradually being retired and the pace of wind, solar and storage development tied to changing economic and technological factors. The Wood Mackenzie co-authors view their findings, part of a larger analysis of utility performance during the polar vortex event, as a way to show, in broad strokes, the ramifications of different options.
We’ll Need More Than Just Today’s Batteries
A grid that relies entirely on wind and solar needs to be ready for times when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining.
During the Jan. 27 – Feb. 2 polar vortex event, a 50 percent wind, 50 percent solar grid would have had gaps of up to 18 hours in which renewable sources were not producing enough electricity to meet the high demand, so storage systems would need to fill in.
The grid would have to be designed to best use wind and solar when they’re available, and to store the excess when those resources are providing more electricity than needed, a fundamental shift from the way most of the system is managed today.
“In a modern power grid, all these advanced technologies are driving the need for more flexibility at all levels,” said David Littell, principal at the Regulatory Assistance Project and a former staff member for Maine’s utility regulator. Grid operators have to meet constantly changing electricity demand with the matching amount of incoming power. While fossil fuel power plants can be ramped up or down as needed, solar and wind are less controllable sources, which is why energy storage is an essential part of planning for a grid that relies on solar and wind.
Much of the current growth in energy storage is in battery systems, helped by plunging battery prices. A large majority of the existing energy storage, however, is pumped hydroelectric, most of which was developed decades ago. Other types of systems include those that store compressed air, flywheels that store rotational energy and several varieties of thermal storage.
Schauer points out that advances in energy storage will need to be more than just batteries to meet demand and likely will include technologies that have not yet been developed.
And that won’t happen quickly. He views the transition to a mostly carbon-free grid as possible by 2040, with the right combination of policy changes and technological advances. He has a difficult time imagining how it could be done within the 2030 timeframe of the Green New Deal.
‘This Is a Solvable Problem’
The larger point is that such a transition can be done and is in line with what state and local governments and utilities are already moving toward.
Feasibility is a key focus of the research of Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University professor, who has looked at how renewable energy and storage can provide all of the energy the U.S. needs.
He says an aim of using all renewables by 2030 is “an admirable goal” but would be difficult to pull off politically. He thinks it’s more realistic to get to 80 percent renewables by 2030, and get to 100 percent soon after.
“This is a solvable problem,” Jacobson said, adding that it must be solved because of the urgent need to reduce emissions that cause climate change.
Local politics may be the most challenging part of quickly making an all-renewable electricity system, Schauer said. To handle a big increase in wind, solar and storage, communities would need to be willing to host those projects along with the transmission lines that would move the electricity.
Interstate power lines are essential for moving electricity from places with the best solar and wind resources to the population centers. As more solar and wind farms are built, more lines will be needed. Schauer’s analysis assumes that there would be enough transmission capacity.
“I’m not here to say any of this is impossible, but there are some basic challenges to pull this off in a short period of time, mainly NIMBYism,” he said, referring to the not-in-by-backyard sentiment that fuels opposition to transmission lines.
Another important element is managing electricity demand, which is not discussed in the Wood Mackenzie report. Littell says some of the most promising ways to operate a cleaner grid involve using technology to reduce demand during peak periods and getting businesses to power down during times when the electricity supply is tight. Energy efficiency improvements have a role, as well.
Nuclear Power Would Lower Storage Needs
In addition to the 50-50 wind-solar projection, Schauer and co-author Brett Blankenship considered what would happen with other mixes of wind and solar power, and if existing nuclear power plants were considered as part of the mix.
By considering the role of nuclear plants, the report touches on a contentious debate among environmental advocates, some of whom want to see all nuclear plants closed because of concerns about safety and waste, and some who say nuclear power is an essential part of moving toward a carbon-free grid.
The Wood Mackenzie analysis shows that continuing to use nuclear power plants would dramatically decrease the amount of wind, solar and storage needed to get to a grid that no longer burns fossil fuels. For example, 228.9 gigawatts of storage would be needed, compared to 277.9 without the nuclear plants.
“If your goal is decarbonization, then nuclear gets you a lot farther than if you retire the nuclear,” Schauer said.
While the report focuses on a few cold days this year, Schauer has also done this type of analysis based on data for all of 2018, including summer heat waves. The lessons are similar, underscoring the scope of the work ahead for the people working for a cleaner grid.
“It gets even more challenging when you extrapolate to the entire year,” he said.
Public Utilities Commission says it has authority to hear dispute
La Plata Electric Association and other electrical co-ops may gain insight about buying out of a contract with their wholesale electrical supplier after the Colorado Public Utilities Commission ruled this week it can oversee a dispute about the buyout fee.
LPEA is exploring a buyout from its contract with Tri-State Generation and Transmission, in part, because the wholesaler caps how much renewable power LPEA can purchase from outside sources at 5 percent as part of a contract that does not expire until 2050. Tri-State is a nonprofit of 43 member electric cooperatives, including LPEA and Delta-Montrose Electric Association.
DMEA is interested in buying out of its contract because Tri-State’s prices have been rising since 2005, and, at the same time, electricity costs in general have fallen, said Virginia Harman, DMEA’s chief operating officer.
DMEA is also interested in developing more local renewable energy than allowed under its contract with Tri-State, she said.
“We are not looking for a free exit; we are looking for fair exit,” she said.
DMEA brought a case to the Public Utilities Commission last year because it felt the fee Tri-State demanded to buy out of its contract is unreasonable.
DMEA is formally asking the PUC to establish an exit fee that is “just, reasonable and nondiscriminatory,” according to a news release.
Becky Mashburn, spokeswoman for DMEA, declined to name the amount Tri-State is asking for the co-op to leave its contract.
Colorado’s PUC ruled Thursday it has the authority to determine whether Tri-State is charging DMEA a just and reasonable price to buy out of its contract, said Terry Bote, spokesman for the Department of Regulatory Agencies. A hearing about the buyout charge will be held in June, he said.
Tri-State had filed a motion to dismiss the case brought by DMEA, arguing the dispute about the exit fee is a contractual dispute.
The PUC rejected Tri-State’s argument, ruling the commission has jurisdiction over the buyout charge dispute because it is a statutory issue, he said.
“The world will be moving away from fossil fuel production,” David Gutzler, a professor at the University of New Mexico and member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told members of the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee.
Gutzler went on to paint a stark picture of New Mexico in a changing climate.
The mountains outside Albuquerque will look like the mountains outside El Paso by the end of the century if current trends continue, he said.
There will not be any snowpack in the mountains above Santa Fe by the end of the century, Gutzler added.
We have already seen more land burned by wildfires, partly because of changes in forest management and partly because of climate change, Gutzler said.
Water supply will be negatively affected in what is already an arid state, he said.
“It’s real. It’s happening. We see it in the data. … This is not hypothetical in any way. This is real and we would be foolish to ignore it,” Gutzler said.
The professor warned lawmakers that the state must get serious about greenhouse gas emissions now by expanding clean energy sources and mitigating the societal costs of moving away from fossil fuels.
That cost, though, will be a sticking point for Republicans. Many of them represent southeastern New Mexico and the Four Corners, where oil and mining are big industries.
Solar panels could increase productivity on pastures that are not irrigated and even water-stressed, a new study finds. The new study published in PLOS One by researchers at Oregon State College finds that grasses and plants flourish in the shade underneath solar panels because of a significant change in moisture. The results bolster the argument for agrovoltaics, the concept of using the same area of land for solar arrays and farming. The idea is to grow food and produce clean energy at the same time.
Tests of the agrovoltaics concept are now underway at several spots around the world. Researchers behind these large-scale experiments are testing whether crops can grow just as prolifically in the shade of solar panels as they would under full sun, and are figuring out the best solar panel tilt and arrangements.
The OSU team happened upon their findings by accident. Walking past one of the solar arrays on campus one day, biological and ecological engineering professor Chad Higgins saw that green grass was growing in the array’s shade. So they installed instruments to measure air temperature, relative humidity, wind speeds, and soil moisture in the areas under panels and under direct sunlight. They conducted these measurements between May and August of 2015. At the end of that period, they also weighed the above-ground biomass in the different areas.
They found that areas under the solar panels had a different microclimate than exposed areas. Shaded areas were 328 percent more water efficient, and maintained higher soil moisture throughout the heat of summer. That led to twice as much grass under the arrays as in the unshaded areas. The plants also had more nutritional value. And the researchers also found a 90 percent increase in late-season plant mass in areas under PV panels.
Higgins explains that plants in full sun use their water as quickly as possible and then die, while those in shade are less stressed and use their water slowly. “Not all crops will be amenable to solar management, and the economics of active solar management with PV panels needs further study,” the researchers write. “But, semi-arid pastures with wet winters may be ideal candidates for agrivoltaic systems as supported by the dramatic gains in productivity.”
Power demands are set to increase by two-fold within the current century and a high fraction of that demand should be met by carbon free sources. Among the renewable energies, solar energy is among the fastest growing; therefore, a comprehensive and accurate design methodology for solar systems and how they interact with the local environment is vital. This paper addresses the environmental effects of solar panels on an unirrigated pasture that often experiences water stress. Changes to the microclimatology, soil moisture, water usage, and biomass productivity due to the presence of solar panels were quantified. The goal of this study was to show that the impacts of these factors should be considered in designing the solar farms to take advantage of potential net gains in agricultural and power production. Microclimatological stations were placed in the Rabbit Hills agrivoltaic solar arrays, located in Oregon State campus, two years after the solar array was installed. Soil moisture was quantified using neutron probe readings. Significant differences in mean air temperature, relative humidity, wind speed, wind direction, and soil moisture were observed. Areas under PV solar panels maintained higher soil moisture throughout the period of observation. A significant increase in late season biomass was also observed for areas under the PV panels (90% more biomass), and areas under PV panels were significantly more water efficient (328% more efficient).
The initiative, led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is ambitious, but some in the outdoor industry argue it’s the only hope for saving wild places from climate change
When 27-year-old climate activist Evan Weber thinks about climate change, he thinks about his childhood in Hawaii. He spent those years in the mountains, on beaches, and in the ocean. “Now the beaches that I grew up on don’t exist anymore,” he says. “Sea-level rise has swallowed them into the ocean. The mountains are green for much less of the year. The coral reefs are dying from ocean acidification killing both marine life and surf breaks.”
That’s what brought him, on November 13, to march on soon-to-be House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s Capitol Hill office with around 150 other activists from a progressive group he cofounded called Sunrise Movement. They were demonstrating for a sweeping policy plan championed by congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called the Green New Deal. It is pitched as an economy-wide climate mobilization to connect environmental, social, and economic policies through legislation and would create everything from investment in federal green jobs for all who want them to a massive green-infrastructure program. The end result would be an overhauled national economy run on 100 percent renewable energy.
While these are lofty goals, and many are skeptical of the plan’s feasibility, advocates see it as setting the bar for a sufficient response to climate change that politicians can be held to. And the proposal is already gaining steam in Washington, D.C., as a platform to rally around heading into 2020: more than 40 lawmakers have endorsed Ocasio-Cortez’s call for a congressional select committee to map out the Green New Deal. Many in the outdoor industry are also paying attention to what could be the best hope to save our ski seasons and protect our public lands.
“It’s an approach that’s so comprehensive that it could be a way for the United States to lead in the direction of stabilizing the climate at two degrees Celsius,” says Mario Molina, executive director of the advocacy group Protect Our Winters. According to a climate assessment put out by the federal government last month, warming above that threshold (35.6 degrees Fahrenheit) could shorten ski seasons by half in some parts of the U.S. before 2050.
Climate change is already impacting snowpack, and ski resorts across America are scrambling to adapt. This past year, Aspen Snowmass launched a political campaign called Give a Flake to get its customers engaged in climate action, Squaw Valley spent $10 million on snowmaking equipment in 2017, and Vail is pursuing a sweeping program to weatherproof its operations. But, Molina explains, there’s a long way to go to address the ski industry’s fossil-fuel-intensive operations. He believes that something like the economy-wide transition to renewable energy proposed in the Green New Deal is the best way ski resorts will be able to significantly lower their carbon footprints. It would allow them, for example, to hook their resorts up to a central power grid that would spin their lifts with renewable energy and create more sustainable transit options to and from the slopes.
Amy Roberts, executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), also sees the opportunity to link this kind of large-scale climate action with the outdoor economy, especially when it comes to public lands. An economy powered on 100 percent renewables would obviously erase any incentive for fossil-fuel companies to drill in places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Bears Ears National Monument. But the OIA is still watching to see how the politics around the Green New Deal shape up. The early support from lawmakers is encouraging, but they’re mostly Democrats. Roberts insists that policies to protect the climate and public lands need bipartisan support, but she thinks that the outdoor industry can help make that happen. “When you look at who takes part in our activities, whether it’s hiking, camping, hunting, or fishing, there are both Republicans and Democrats,” she says. “That’s an opportunity to unite and bring a compelling message that’s separate and apart from what the environmental community is doing.”
As proof, she points to the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act. In November, Peach State voters passed the measure, in which sales tax from sporting goods and outdoor equipment is used to fund parks and trails, with 83 percent support. In the same election, the governor’s race was so divided that it went to a recount.
Even with glimpses of bipartisan support for the environment, Molina worries that the main hurdle Green New Deal legislation will face is influence from the fossil-fuel industry. Its lobbyists donated more than $100 million to campaigns in the 2016 election, and in 2018 raised $30 million to defeat a Washington State ballot measure that would have added a modest carbon tax on emissions and used the revenue to fund environmental and social programs. Additionally, former oil lobbyist David Bernhardt was tapped to replace Ryan Zinke as interior secretary in December.
But activists like Weber are not giving up. As part of their push for a Green New Deal, they have called for members of the Democratic leadership to reject campaign contributions from fossil-fuel interests. And a few weeks after Weber was in Nancy Pelosi’s office, he and more than 1,000 young people were back in Washington, D.C., this time storming Capitol Hill in a daylong push to get lawmakers to endorse the Green New Deal, an effort that resulted in nearly 150 arrests. They remain unfazed by claims that the plan’s goals are too large. “A Green New Deal is the only proposal put forth by an American politician that’s in line with what the latest science says is necessary to prevent irreversible climate change,” Weber says. “It could mean the difference between whether future generations around the world get to have the same formative experiences in nature that I did—or not.”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Elizabeth Warren. Beto O’Rourke. Those are just a few of the high-profile names either leading the development of or jumping to endorse today’s environmental cause célèbre, the Green New Deal. Inside congressional halls, at street protests, and, of course, on climate Twitter — it’s hard to avoid the idea, which aims to re-package ambitious climate actions into a single, wide-ranging stimulus program.
The Green New Deal is being promoted as a kind of progressive beacon of a greener America, promising jobs and social justice for all on top of a shift away from fossil fuels. It’s a proposal largely driven by newcomers to politics and environmental activism (and supported, however tentatively, by several potential presidential candidates and members of the Democratic political establishment). The plan aspires to bring together the needs of people and the environment, outlining “a historic opportunity to virtually eliminate poverty.”
But within the broader environmental movement, not everyone was initially gung-ho on the Green New Deal — at least not without some stipulations.
To understand the debate surrounding the Green New Deal, you need to look beyond its recent prominence in Beltway political circles to the on-the-ground organizations that make up the environmental justice movement. Newcomers like Ocasio-Cortez may be leading the charge, but grassroots leaders who have spent years advocating for low-income families and neighborhoods of color most impacted by fossil fuels say their communities weren’t consulted when the idea first took shape.
For all the fanfare, there isn’t a package of policies that make up a Green New Deal just yet. And that’s why community-level activists are clamoring to get involved, help shape the effort, and ensure the deal leaves no one behind.
Something Old, Something New
Although the term “Green New Deal” has evolved over time, its current embodiment as a complete overhaul of U.S. energy infrastructure was spearheaded by two high profile entities: progressive darling and first-term Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the Sunrise Movement, an organization formed in 2017 by young people hellbent on making climate change the “it” issue.
In November 2018, Ocasio-Cortez, with support from Sunrise, called for a House select committee to formulate the package of policies. More than 40 lawmakers signed on to support the draft text. Then shortly before the end of the year, Nancy Pelosi, now the speaker of the House, announced the formation instead of a “Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.”
It wasn’t exactly a win for the leaders of the new environmental vanguard. Sunrise tweeted its displeasure at the committee’s pared-down ambition, taking umbrage with its lack of power to subpoena (a condition for which Ocasio-Cortez had advocated) and the fact that politicians who take money from fossil fuel interests would not be excluded from sitting on it.
The fuss over who gets a say in the formation of the Green New Deal goes back further than Ocasio-Cortez’s or Sunrise’s friendly-ish feud with establishment Democrats. The Climate Justice Alliance, a network of groups representing indigenous peoples, workers, and frontline communities, says its gut reaction to the Green New Deal was that it had been crafted at the “grasstops” (as opposed to the grassroots).
Shortly after Ocasio-Cortez put out her proposal for a select committee, the alliance released a statement largely in support of the concept, but with a “word of caution”: “When we consulted with many of our own communities, they were neither aware of, nor had they been consulted about, the launch of the GND.”
Leaders at the alliance surveyed its member organizations — there are more than 60 across the U.S. — and put together a list of their concerns. Unless the Green New Deal addresses those key points, the alliance says, the plan won’t meet its proponents’ lofty goal of tackling poverty and injustice. Nor will the deal gain the grassroots support it will likely need to become a reality.
“What we want to do is strengthen and center the Green New Deal in environmental justice communities that have both experience and lived history of confronting the struggle against fossil fuel industries,” Angela Adrar, executive director of the alliance, told Grist.
Grist asked several indigenous and environmental justice leaders: If the Green New Deal is going to make good on its promises, what will it take? Here’s what they said.
A more inclusive and democratic process that respects tribal sovereignty
As details get hashed out on what a Green New Deal would actually include, longtime environmental justice organizers say their communities need to be the ones guiding the way forward. “The way that the plan was developed and shared is one of its greatest weaknesses,” Adrar says. “We want to be able to act quickly, but we also want to act democratically.”
She adds that involving the grassroots is especially important in the wake of the 2018 midterm elections, which ushered in many new congressional members pledging to focus on the underrepresented communities they come from. The Climate Justice Alliance is calling for town halls (with interpreters for several languages) to allow communities to help flesh out policies to include in the Green New Deal.
Some of the disconnect could be generational, says Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network. Many of the leaders espousing the Green New Deal are young people. He says that he and his colleagues were caught off-guard when they saw the plan on social media and that when his network reached out to its members, there was little familiarity or understanding of the Green New Deal.
“Maybe the way of communication of youth is different than what we’ve found in the environmental justice movement and our native movement around the value of human contact — face-to-face human contact,” he says. “We’re asking that leadership of the Green New Deal meet with us and have a discussion how we can strengthen this campaign with the participation of the communities most impacted.”
Any retooling of America’s energy infrastructure will undoubtedly venture into Native American tribes’ lands, where there are already long-standing battles over existing and proposed pipeline expansions, as well as fossil fuel facilities. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples calls for “free, prior, and informed consent” from tribes before developers begin any project on their land. So indigenous environmental groups say there needs to be respect for tribal sovereignty and buy-in from tribes for a Green New Deal to fulfill its promise of being just and equitable.
Green jobs should be great jobs
There has been a lot of talk in Green New Deal circles about uplifting poor and working-class communities. Advocates have floated ideas ranging from a job-guarantee program offering a living wage to anyone who wants one to explicitly ensuring the rights of workers to form a union.
But as workers’ rights organizations point out, energy and extractive industries have provided unionized, high-paying jobs for a long time — and they want to make sure workers can have the same or a better quality of life within green industries.
“There’s been a long history of workers that have been left hanging in transition in the past,” says Michael Leon Guerrero, executive director of the Labor Network for Sustainability, which has been working to bridge divides between labor and environmental issues. “For that reason, there’s quite a bit of skepticism in the labor sector.”
Joseph Uehlein, who founded the Labor Network for Sustainability, adds that there needs to be more than just the promise of jobs to entice labor to support a Green New Deal. “Every presidential candidate in my lifetime talks about job creation as their top priority,” he says. “Over the last 40 years, those jobs have gotten worse and worse. A lot of jobs are not so good, requiring two or three breadwinners to do what one used to be able to do.”
Uehlein hopes an eventual Green New Deal will ensure not just jobs that guarantee a living wage, but will go one step further. “We always talk about family-supporting jobs,” he says. “It’s not just about living, it’s about supporting families.”
Do No Harm
Any version of a Green New Deal would likely ensure that the U.S. transitions away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources of energy — with Ocasio-Cortez setting the bold target of the nation getting 100 percent of its energy from renewables within 10 years.
But defining what exactly counts as “renewable energy” has been tricky. There are plenty of sources of energy that aren’t in danger of running out and don’t put out as many greenhouse gases as coal or oil, but are still disruptive to frontline communities. Garbage incineration is considered a renewable energy in some states, but it still emits harmful pollutants. And when it comes to nuclear energy or large-scale hydropower, the associated uranium extraction and dam construction have destroyed indigenous peoples’ homes and flooded their lands.
The Climate Justice Alliance is also pushing to exclude global warming interventions like geoengineering and carbon capture and sequestration, which they believe don’t do enough to address the root causes of global warming. Both technologies have to do with re-trapping or curbing the effects of greenhouse gases after they’ve been produced. “Carbon capture and sequestration, it’s a false solution from our analysis,” Goldtooth says. The focus needs to be on stopping greenhouse gases from getting into the atmosphere in the first place, he and other critics argue.
As the alliance sees it, a future in which the planet survives requires a complete transition away from fossil fuels and an extractive economy, and toward a regenerative economy with less consumption and more ecological resilience.
Goldtooth and his colleagues are calling for solutions that rein in damaging co-pollutants on top of greenhouse gases. And they support scalable solutions — like community solar projects — that are are popping up in some of the neighborhoods that are most affected by climate change.
A good start
Even though the Green New Deal faces many political obstacles, its proponents are still pushing forward at full speed. “We are calling for a wartime-level, just economic mobilization plan to get to 100% renewable energy ASAP,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted on New Year’s Day.
Scientists recently estimated that the world has only 12 years to keep average global temperatures from increasing beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) — the upper limit which many agree we can’t surpass if we want to avoid a climate crisis. The urgency around the latest climate change timeline has brought a lot of new advocates to the table.
According to John Harrity, chair of the Connecticut Roundtable on Climate and Jobs and a board member at the Labor Network for Sustainability, the labor movement is becoming more willing to engage on ways to address climate change. “I think the Green New Deal becomes a really good way to put all of that together in a package,” he says. “That evokes for a lot of people the image of a time when people did all pull together for the common good.”
Elizabeth Yeampierre, steering committee co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance and executive director of the Brooklyn-based grassroots organization, UPROSE, which works on issues cutting across climate change and racial justice, calls the Green New Deal “a good beginning for developing something that could really have lasting impacts and transformation in local communities and nationwide.”
Since the alliance put out its recommendations, Yeampierre says she’s been in regular contact with both the Sunrise Movement and Ocasio-Cortez’s office. “To their credit they were responsive and have made themselves available to figure out how we move forward in a way that doesn’t really step over the people,” she explains.
The language in Ocasio-Cortez’ draft proposal has already changed — it now includes clauses to “protect and enforce sovereign rights and land rights of tribal nations” and “recognize the rights of workers to organize and unionize.” The document has doubled in length since it was put out in November (at time of publication, it is 11 pages long) and will likely include new edits in the coming days.
Varshini Prakash, a founding member of the Sunrise Movement (and a 2018 Grist 50 Fixer), says she agrees with the Climate Justice Alliance’s recommendation that a Green New Deal prioritize the needs of workers, frontline communities, communities of color, and low-income communities. “Their critiques,” Prakash tells Grist, “are fully valid, and I appreciate what they’re bringing.”
The broad overview of a Green New Deal in Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal for a select committee, Prakash says, was hashed out quickly after the representative’s team approached Sunrise late last year. (Ocasio-Cortez did not immediately respond to Grist’s inquiry). “This was very rapid fire, it happened on an extremely tight timescale,” she says. “We didn’t have a lot of time to do the broad consultation we wanted.”
But Prakash, Yeampierre, and other leaders in the movements for environmental and climate justice are working to make sure there are more folks on board moving forward.
“Climate change isn’t just going to threaten our communities — it’s also going to test our solidarity, it’s going to test how we build relationships with each other,” Yeampierre says. “So I think the Green New Deal can be used as an opportunity to show that we can pass that test.”
Floating solar panels on 24,000 man-made reservoirs in the U.S. could generate 10 percent of the nation’s electricity and avoid gobbling up 8,100 square miles of land with ground installations.
One of the challenges with large-scale deployment of wind and solar generation is the land requirements but shifting to floating photovoltaics (PV) could offer one solution, according to researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).
“In the United States, it’s been a niche application, where in other places, it’s really been a necessity,” said Jordan Macknick, the lead energy-water-land analyst for NREL and principal investigator on the project. “We’re expecting it to take off in the United States, especially in areas that are land-constrained and where there’s a major conflict between solar encroaching on farmland.”
The findings of the researchers appeared in the journal, Environmental Science & Technology.
The 24,000 reservoirs identified as suitable for floating solar represent 27 percent of the reservoirs and 12 percent of the area of all man-made bodies of water in the contiguous U.S., the study said.
Floating PV systems covering just 27 percent of the bodies of water identified as suitable could produce 10 percent of the country’s current electric generation…
While the idea has not been widely adopted here, as of December 2017, there were seven floating PV sites in the U.S.—Japan has 56 of the 70 largest floating installations in the world. There are more than 100 worldwide.
The floating PV comes with added benefits, including reduced water evaporation and algae growth in the reservoirs, the researchers said.
The NREL team also found that operating floating PV alongside hydroelectric facilities yields increased energy output and cost savings because of existing transmission infrastructure.
“Floating solar is a new industry enabled by the rapid drop in the price of solar PV modules,” Adam Warren, director of NREL’s Integrated Applications Center, said in a statement. “The cost of acquiring and developing land is becoming a larger part of the cost of a solar project. In some places, like islands, the price of land is quite high, and we are seeing a rapid adoption of floating solar.”
In early December, Xcel Energy, a sprawling utility that provides electricity to customers in eight states, including Colorado and New Mexico, announced that it planned to go carbon-free by 2050. In what has been a rough year for climate hawks, this was welcome news. After all, here was a large corporation pledging to go where no utility of its scale has gone before, regardless of the technical hurdles in its path, and under an administration that is doing all it can to encourage continuing use of fossil fuels.
At the Dec. 4 announcement in Denver, Xcel CEO Bob Fowkes said that he and his team were motivated in part by the dire projections in recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. government’s Fourth National Climate Assessment. “When I looked at that and my team looked at that, we thought to ourselves, ‘What else can we do?’ ” Fowkes said. “And the reality is, we knew we could step up and do more at little or no extra cost.”
It was a big step, and apparently inspiring. A couple of days later, the Platte River Power Authority, which powers four municipalities on Colorado’s Front Range, pledged to go carbon-free by 2030. Here are seven things to keep in mind about Xcel’s pledge:
Xcel is going 100-percent carbon-free, not 100 percent renewable. There’s a big difference between the two, with the former being far easier to accomplish, because it allows the utility to use not only wind and solar power, but also nuclear and large hydropower. It can also burn some fossil fuels if plants are equipped with carbon capture and sequestration technology.
No current power source is truly clean. Solar, wind, nuclear and hydropower plants have zero emissions from the electricity generation stage. However, other phases of their life cycles do result in greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants — think uranium mining, solar panel manufacturing and wind turbine transportation. Even the decay of organic material in reservoirs emits methane. But even when their full life cycles are considered, nuclear, wind, solar and hydropower all still emit at least 100 times less carbon than coal.
Carbon capture and sequestration techniques don’t do a lot for the big picture. Even if all of the carbon emitted from a natural gas- or coal-fired power plant is captured and successfully sequestered without any leakage — and that remains a big “if” — huge amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, are released during the coal mining and natural gas extraction, processing and transportation phases.
Even though carbon sequestration qualifies as “clean energy,” Xcel is unlikely to utilize the technology on any large scale with coal because of the cost. Even without carbon capture, coal is more expensive than other power sources, so why spend all that money just to keep burning expensive fuel? On the other hand, natural gas is relatively cheap, so it makes more sense for Xcel to continue burning the fossil fuel with carbon capture.
Economics play as much a role in this decision as environmentalism. Even as Xcel was making its announcement, executives from PacifiCorp, one of the West’s largest utilities, were telling stakeholders that more than half of its coal fleet was uneconomical, and that cleaner power options were cheaper. So even without the zero carbon pledge, Xcel likely would have abandoned coal in the next couple of decades, regardless of how many regulations the Trump administration rolls back. Meanwhile, renewable power continues to get cheaper, making it competitive with natural gas. And without some kind of big gesture, Xcel risked losing major customers. (The city of Boulder, Colorado, defected from Xcel, a process that has been going on for the last several years, because the utility wasn’t decarbonizing quickly enough.)
Xcel’s move, and others like it, will pressure grid operators to work toward a more integrated Western electrical grid. A better-designed grid would allow a utility like Xcel to purchase surplus power from California solar installations, for example, or the Palo Verde nuclear plant in Arizona, and to sell its wind power back in that direction when it’s needed.
Xcel needs better technology to meet its goal. Xcel admits that “achieving the long-term vision of zero-carbon electricity requires technologies that are not cost-effective or commercially available today.” It is banking on the development of commercially viable utility-scale batteries and other storage technologies to smooth out the ups and downs of renewable energy sources. If Xcel is serious about its goal, though, it will need to embrace approaches that don’t necessarily boost the bottom line. That could mean incentivizing efficient energy use, promoting rooftop solar, and implementing rate schedules that discourage electricity use during times of peak demand. It will also need to get comfortable with paying big customers not to use electricity during certain times.
Xcel’s pledge is a big step in the right direction, and it has the potential of becoming a giant leap if other major utilities follow suit. But it also underscores a sad fact: While our elected officials twiddle their thumbs and play golf with oil and gas oligarchs, the very corporations that helped get us into this mess are the ones who are left to take the lead on getting us out.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or submit a letter to the editor.
…the state is using money from a national settlement with Volkswagen to build fast-charging stations at 33 sites across Colorado to give electric-vehicle drivers the confidence they can travel anywhere in the state.
Colorado received $68.7 million from the deal between Volkswagen and the federal government over allegations that the auto company modified computer software to cheat on federal emissions tests. In addition to adding charging stations, the state proposes using the money to convert medium- and heavy-duty trucks, school, shuttle and transit buses, railroad freight switchers and airport ground support equipment to alternative fuels or replace them with electric vehicles.
Along with a spending plan, the state has a road map for electrification of its transportation sector. The state electric vehicle plan looks at “electrifying” key travel corridors and touts the ensuing economic, health and environmental benefits.
In 2017, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed an executive order on promoting clean energy that directed the air quality council, state energy office, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Colorado Department of Transportation to work together on developing the statewide electric vehicle plan and taking feedback from the public. The health department is the lead agency on overseeing how the Volkswagen funds are distributed.
How near is the future?
Is the dream of 1 million electric vehicle replacing gas-burners too big? State Sen. Kevin Priola doesn’t think so. The Adams County Republican sees the transition to electric vehicles as the next chapter in the history of monumental, and inevitable, societal changes.
“Once wood and coal were used for heating houses and transportation. Then people realized natural gas and petroleum were cleaner and more efficient,” Priola said. “Once people realize that electricity produced and stored from solar panels and wind farms is much more efficient, cleaner and better for transportation, it will be adopted.”
For Priola, the future is now. He owns a Tesla sedan and has solar panels on his house. His electric utility, United Power, gives customers a break for using electricity during slow times so he charges the car overnight. He figures he ends up paying 2 cents a mile to run his car.
Climate change will hammer the U.S. economy unless there’s swift action to rein in greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, according to the latest National Climate Assessment report.
But [the] President…has dismissed this forecast, even though his own administration released a comprehensive synthesis of the best available science, written by hundreds of climate scientists and other experts from academia, government, the private sector and nonprofits. Like most opponents of policies aimed at slowing the pace of climate change, he has long wanted actions to reduce these emissions off the table because, in his opinion, they are “job-killing.”
As an environmental economist who is studying the relationship between regulations and employment, I find this question vitally important both economically and politically. What does the research on this question say?
Opponents of climate regulations embrace a straightforward and long-standing argument. In their view, anything the government forces businesses to do will negatively affect their ability to employ workers. To them, everything from safety regulations to raising taxes makes it costlier and harder for businesses to operate.
[The President] has taken this philosophy to heart by pledging to eliminate what he calls “job-killing regulations” across the board.
Some supporters of strong climate policies counter that the costs of climate change are high enough to justify climate policies even though they might negatively affect workers.
The evidence on how environmental policies affect unemployment is generally mixed. The book “Does Regulation Kill Jobs?,” edited by University of Pennsylvania professor Cary Coglianese, covers regulations generally. It concludes that “regulation overall is neither a prime job killer nor a key job creator.”
Michael Greenstone, a University of Chicago economist, found that 1970s-era environmental regulations, which in some ways resemble the climate-related rules debated today, led to the loss of more than half-a-million manufacturing jobs over 15 years.
Another team of researchers, which reviewed the impact of environmental policies on four heavily polluting industries, found that environmental regulations have no significant effect on employment.
But this mainly has to do with two other factors. Due to increasing automation, it now takes far fewer workers to mine coal than it used to.
And a drilling boom has increased not just oil output but natural gas production. The increased natural gas supply cut prices for that fuel, prompting a raft of coal-fired power plant closures. It also eroded coal’s market share for electricity generation while creating new jobs in other energy industries.
GREENER JOB GROWTH
A weakness I often see in the standard regulations-kill-jobs argument is a focus on the regulated industries that ignores the fact that those same regulations tend to spur growth in other industries.
In this case, climate policies are proving to be a boon for jobs in renewable energy industries like wind and solar, as well as in efficiency efforts like weatherization.
For example, the stimulus bill enacted during the Great Recession included provisions designed to bolster renewable energy.
That spending helped spur the creation of millions of new jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, a federal agency, predicts that the number of solar panel installers will increase by 105 percent and the number of wind turbine technician jobs will rise by 96 percent between 2016 and 2026, making those the nation’s two fastest-growing professions.
So what is the net effect on jobs when some energy industries shrink and others grow?
Resources for the Future, a think tank that researches economic, environmental, energy and natural resource issues, has developed complex computational models of the economy that clarify the whole picture on the connection between regulations and jobs.
The nonprofit, nonpartisan group assessed the impact on unemployment, something that – believe it or not – these large-scale economic simulations usually don’t do.
The think tank predicts that a hypothetical $40 per ton carbon tax, which would translate into an increase of about 36 cents per gallon of gasoline, would increase the overall unemployment rate by just 0.3 percentage points. The effect is even smaller, at just 0.05 percentage points, if the government were to uses the carbon tax’s revenue to cut other tax rates.
Some studies have even detected a net gain in jobs from climate policies.
For example, University of California, Berkeley researchers found that California’s efforts to cut emissions have bolstered the state’s economy and created more than 37,000 jobs. And the University of Massachusetts, Amherst Political Economy Research Institute has determined that every $1 million shifted from fossil fuel-generated power to “green energy” creates a net increase of 5 jobs.
Based on my review of the research, I see little evidence that policies to reduce pollution from fossil fuels have or will likely result in widespread job losses.
Different types of policies can have different effects – and some can minimize labor market disruption more than others.
A carbon tax, like other revenue-raising policies such as cap-and-trade systems with auctioned permits, has the advantage of generating revenue that can be used to offset any economic harm from job losses. Policies that do not generate revenue, such as renewable portfolio standards, which require utilities to get a set proportion of their electricity from renewable energy, lack this advantage.
The evidence suggests that climate policies will cause some industries to lose workers, while others will employ more people and that the overall employment effects are modest. But what is going on with displaced workers? Are solar and wind companies hiring all the jobless coal miners?
My current research is examining how easy – or hard – it is for workers to move between industries due to changes brought on by these regulations. So far, my colleagues and I are finding that when we account for the costs of workers switching jobs, unemployment rates rise slightly more than predicted when ignoring those costs, but the overall effect on unemployment is still just 0.5 percent.
The month of December 2018 is probably going to go down in history as the month when all things climate and energy truly and irreversibly changed for the better in the American West.
From bold carbon reduction commitments by big utilities to the fact that the economics of renewables are unbelievably great (and seem to be getting better by the day), this month has been a watershed moment.
Given this, we thought it’d be useful to dive in more deeply and really explore what all these announcements mean. Below, our top ten takeaways from these latest developments:
10. Xcel Energy Will be Shutting Down all its Remaining Coal-fired Power Plants in Colorado
The big news in early December was Xcel Energy’s announcement of its goals to reduce carbon emissions 80% by 2030 and to become completely carbon-free in its generation of electricity by 2050.
Bold. There’s no other way to put it. Xcel Energy is not only the first utility in the nation to commit to becoming carbon-free, but did so even as the company currently generates power from many coal-fired power plants.
This was not an announcement from some flaming progressive utility. This was an announcement from a utility that still generates huge amounts of power from carbon-intensive fossil fuels. In fact, Xcel still generates more than 50% of its power from coal in Colorado.
And in the wake of this bold commitment, there’s really no escaping the real implications. If Xcel has any chance of reducing carbon emissions 80% by 2030 and going carbon-free by 2050, the company is going to have to shutter all of its remaining coal-fired power plants in Colorado.
That includes the Hayden power plant outside of Steamboat Springs, the Pawnee power plant northeast of Denver, and the entirety of the Comanche 3 plant in Pueblo.
And in all likelihood, to meet their 2030 goal of reducing carbon emissions 80%, it means these plants are going away by 2030.
It may seem drastic, but there’s really no other viable option. As Xcel’s CEO commented, this is about doing something for the climate. And as the economics of coal worsen, Xcel will surely soon be followed by other utilities looking to shed the mounting liabilities of fossil fuels.
9. Platte River Power Authority Will be Shutting Down its Coal-fired Power Plant north of Fort Collins, as well as Divesting its Share of Craig
Xcel’s announcement was big, but Platte River Power Authority’s was bigger.
The Colorado power agency, which serves Fort Collins, Loveland, Longmont and Estes Park, announced its goal of eliminating 100% of its carbon emissions by 2030.
While that’s an astounding goal that almost puts Xcel’s commitments to shame, what’s more significant about Platte River Power Authority’s announcement is that will mean a wholesale transformation in the utility’s generating portfolio.
Currently, nearly 90% of Platte River Power Authority’s electricity is generated by coal or natural gas. And of its fossil fuel-generating portfolio, more than half is provided by the Rawhide power plant north of Fort Collins and a portion of the Craig power plant in northwest Colorado.
The utility’s announcement all but guarantees the Rawhide plant will be shut down and that it will divest of its ownership in the Craig plant, all by 2030.
Coupled with Xcel’s plans, it means that Colorado will be virtually coal-free by 2030.
8. Pacificorp Has no Economic Choice but to Retire a lot of Coal
Pacificorp, a Portland, Oregon-based utility, owns all or portions of 10 coal-fired power plants in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming (they used to own 11, but shut down an aging plant in Utah in 2015).
To boot, they own coal mines in both Utah and Wyoming.
Yet even this captain of coal in the American West is coming to terms with the reality that its massive fossil fuel enterprise makes no economic sense.
Earlier in the month, the company released a report showing that 60% of its coal-fired generating units are more expensive to operate than developing new alternative sources of power, namely renewable energy.
However, that was just the headline. A closer look at Pacificorp’s report actually reveals that, taken together, all of the company’s coal-fired units are not remotely cost-effective.
Under a base scenario, while some of the company’s coal-fired units are cheaper to operate than alternatives, the savings from retiring uneconomic units would actually offset the costs of retiring the utility’s entire fleet of coal.
Pacificorp has made no decisions or announcements yet. However, in the wake of Xcel Energy’s carbon-free commitment, it seems inevitable the utility will make a similarly bold proclamation in 2019.
Ultimately, we’re likely to see Pacificorp make a big move away from coal in the very near future. Because of the company’s massive coal footprint in the American West, this move promises a massive move to renewable energy in the western U.S.
7. People Served by Colorado Springs Utilities Should be Worried
Colorado Springs Utilities serves the City of Colorado Springs, Colorado and surrounding communities. And while the municipal utility seems innocuous, they generate more than 40% of their power from coal from two coal-fired power plants, including one—Martin Drake power—right in the middle of the City’s downtown.
For years now, residents and ratepayers have sounded the alarm over the Martin Drake power plant, which sours the skies with toxic emissions.
Equally alarming is the fact that Martin Drake is one of the least efficient and most expensive municipally owned power plants to operate in the United States.
In spite of this, the utility seems to have no plans for addressing the rising costs of power except a vague and unenforceable commitment to retire Martin Drake by 2035. What’s more, the utility seems to have no plans to retire its other coal-fired power plant, the Ray Nixon plant located south of Colorado Springs.
So, while other utilities in Colorado are making big moves away from coal, Colorado Springs Utilities is staying firmly committed, at least for the time being, to costly coal.
It’s no wonder why people in Colorado Springs are increasingly incensed over their utility’s inaction.
The unrest will only grow as Colorado Springs Utilities delays providing its customers with cleaner and more affordable power.
6. This is the Beginning of the End for Tri-State Generation and Transmission
Tri-State Generation and Transmission is a utility company that provides wholesale power to 43 member rural electric cooperatives in Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Wyoming.
And while Tri-State has a noble goal of energizing rural communities within its service area, the company is facing growing resistance over rising costs.
The reason for rising costs: the company’s heavy reliance on coal-fired power, as well as Tri-State’s investments in coal mines.
Because of this, the utility is facing the prospect of a mass exodus of its customer base.
In 2016, one of its former members, the Kit Carson Electric Cooperative in northern New Mexico, bought out its contract with Tri-State. This month, another member, the Delta Montrose Electric Association in western Colorado, filed a complaint with state utility regulators to do the same.
Not only that, but other members, including the United Power Cooperative, La Plata Electric Cooperative, and the Poudre Valley Electric Cooperative, all of which are major revenue generators for Tri-State, are also exploring alternatives to the utility company.
Coupled with the fact that Tri-State’s utility partners, including co-owners of the Craig coal-fired power plant in northwestern Colorado, are moving away from coal, the company is facing a bleak future.
As its members and partners bail, Tri-State’s business model seems doomed to collapse.
That’s not all bad news. As Tri-State declines, its members stand to enjoy more energy freedom and to reap the economic rewards of local renewable energy development.
5. Salt River Project and Arizona Public Service Likely to be Next to Announce Big Moves from Coal
Salt River Project and Arizona Public Service are both large utilities primarily serving Arizona. And both utilities know that the economics of coal simply aren’t worth it.
As the primary owner of the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona, the largest coal-fired power plant in the American West, Salt River Project decided to shutter the facility by the end of 2019.
Arizona Public Service, is also getting out of the Navajo Generating Station after retiring portions of the nearby Four Corners power plant in northwest New Mexico.
So far, neither Salt River Project nor Arizona Public Service has made any further announcements to move away from coal. However, given that both of the utilities are clearly seeing the reality of coal costs, we should see some additional major shifts away from coal in the west.
Arizona Public Service also owns a portion of the Cholla coal-fired power plant in Arizona. The other owner of Cholla is Pacificorp. And with Pacificorp already seemingly making a move away from coal, it’s hard to believe Arizona Public Service won’t follow.
Salt River Project owns portions of the Hayden and Craig power plants in western Colorado, as well as portions of the Four Corners power plant in New Mexico and Springerville power plant in Arizona. They also fully own the Coronado power plant in Arizona.
Every one of these power plants has been identified as economically costly and risky by financial analysts.
Given all this, it’s hard to believe that Arizona Public Service and Salt River Project will continue to maintain their investments in coal.
4. New Utilities Emerging, Giving Old a Run For Their Money
This is beyond huge.
With the decline in renewable prices, new utilities are actually emerging in the American West.
At the forefront is Guzman Energy, whose stated goal is to “transition an outdated energy economy into the renewable age.”
And just last week, Guzman released a request for proposals to build 250 megawatts of renewable energy in the American West, including 200 megawatts of wind and 50 megawatts of solar.
3. This isn’t Just a Climate Opportunity, it’s a Huge Economic Development Opportunity
More renewable energy means more economic development, particularly in rural communities.
Already in Colorado, the state’s move away from coal to more renewable energy promises more jobs, more local revenue, and overall a huge net economic benefit.
It’s really a no-brainer when you think about it.
For one, developing renewable energy means developing more distributed generating sources, including rooftop solar, wind, and batteries, which are ideally situated in the communities they serve.
For another, as more renewable energy takes hold, energy prices stand to stabilize, if not decline, saving communities in the long run.
Colorado rural electric cooperative Delta Montrose Electric Association’s effort to break free from Tri-State is in fact being driven by the prospect of greater economic prosperity. As the co-op’s CEO stated:
“The decision to separate from Tri-State allows for significant economic benefit for our members – including stabilized rates, development of diverse and low-cost local energy, and the creation of new local jobs.” – Jasen Bronec, chief executive officer, Delta Montrose Electric Association
As utilities throughout the American West make the transition to clean energy, it will inevitably open the door for more economic opportunity.
Rural communities in particular stand to reap big rewards as more generation is built locally, sustaining affordable energy, creating jobs, and creating new revenue.
2. No New Gas is on the Horizon
Don’t think natural gas is getting a pass in all this.
The reality is, in the face of utilities’ carbon-free announcements and acknowledgment of economic truths, there does not seem to be a future for this fossil fuel.
It’s telling that although Xcel Energy announced in 2017 plans to construct new natural gas-fired generating facilities in Colorado, the company ultimately abandoned that plan and instead forecasts a decline in natural gas burning.
It’s no wonder. While the economic of coal are the worst, the economics of natural gas aren’t far behind. Xcel’s own data showed that gas simply couldn’t compete with renewables.
Although natural gas is often thought of as a “bridge” from coal to renewables, it seems the whole notion of a bridge is absurd at this point.
And with the economics being what they are, it seems that utilities are going to start shutting down existing gas plants, effectively demolishing the bridge.
That’s great news for the climate. Despite the assertion that natural gas is cleaner than coal, it actually has an outsized carbon footprint largely because of methane releases associated with fracking.
Methane has 86 times more heat-trapping capacity than carbon dioxide, making it a potent climate pollutant.
1. There’s a Good Chance the American West Will be Coal-free by 2030
Given that all the American West’s most significant coal burning utilities are making or will very likely make big near-term moves away from coal, there’s no doubt that we are likely to see a coal-free American West within a decade.
Sure, not every utility has stepped up to announce bold climate action or a move toward more renewable energy. However, the writing on the wall seems very clear that if utilities don’t go down this path, it could mean their demise.
Tri-State Generation and Transmission is already staring at a bleak future due to its unwillingness to move beyond coal.
Other coal burning utilities in the western U.S., including Deseret Power Electric Cooperative, Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, Basin Electric, Idaho Power, Black Hills Corporation, and others are undoubtedly be staring at the same future. Their failure to move beyond coal could very well be their undoing.
That means whether they like it or not, utilities face the prospect of their coal going away and soon.
And that’s why the American West is very likely to be 100% coal-free as early as 2030.
Epilogue: What About Natural Gas Systems?
Amidst the big energy announcements, there’s a conspicuous lack of focus on utilities’ natural gas services. Xcel, Pacificorp, and others aren’t just electricity providers, they also provide gas to homes, businesses, and industry for heating, cooking, and other uses.
While natural gas systems are more distributed and less high profile than huge, filthy coal-fired smokestacks, they’re equally destructive and disconcerting from a climate standpoint.
In fact, from the point of fracking to the point at which natural gas is consumed, massive amounts of carbon emissions are released from our natural gas systems.
While nationwide, methane leaks and combustion at natural gas well and processing plants release more than 200 million metric tons of carbon annually in the U.S., the consumption of natural gas at homes, businesses, and factories releases nearly 800 million metric tons.
In total, carbon pollution associated with natural gas production and consumption in non-power plant sources accounts for more than 15% of all U.S. climate emissions.
Cleaner electricity generation is critical to saving our climate. However, utilities can’t ignore their overall carbon footprints. That means Xcel, Pacificorp, and others need to start paying attention to natural gas.
And who better than to take action to help our nation move away from natural gas than our electric utilities?
They, more than anyone else, have the means to develop the renewable energy to generate the power needed to run electric furnaces, stoves, ovens, hot water heaters, and other appliances.
Truly, utilities like Xcel and others can transition their customers from gas to electricity and ultimately, be as lucrative as ever.
What a month it’s been. Here’s hoping for more progress for the climate, for 100% fossil fuel-free, and for real economic prosperity in the American West. Stay tuned for more!
From wind power maintenance to energy efficiency upgrades, clean energy job opportunities outnumber fossil fuel work in much of the rural Midwest.
A new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council shows the extent to which clean energy is contributing jobs to the rural economies of 12 Midwestern states. It also reflects what the rural Midwest stands to lose from Trump administration actions that harm clean energy, such as its recent call to eliminate subsidies for renewable energy, its tariffs on solar energy equipment, and its plan to weaken the Obama-era Clean Power Plan.
The authors say the numbers underscore the need in the Midwest for government policies that are supportive of clean energy instead.
In 2017, the latest data in the report, clean energy employed about 158,000 people in the rural Midwest, according to NRDC. While a larger number of clean energy jobs overall were in urban areas, the rural clean energy jobs stand out for making up a bigger percentage of the overall rural economy…
Fossil fuel industries have faded as major employers in most of the rural Midwest, despite a history in some states closely tied to coal, oil and natural gas production, the report shows. Ten of the 12 states have more rural clean energy jobs than rural fossil fuel jobs. The exceptions are North Dakota, which has the Bakken oil field, and Kansas, where the numbers are close…
In 2017, the Midwest added 31 gigawatts of wind and solar power plants, 24 gigawatts of which are located in rural areas, according to government data cited by NRDC. For some perspective, the country’s largest coal-fired power plants are 2 or 3 gigawatts each. A growing number of cities, including Cleveland and Cincinnati, have committed to transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy, and much of that power will likely be produced in rural areas.
The Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently highlighted a little-discussed benefit of using renewables like wind and solar to produce electricity: Unlike most power sources, they require “almost no water.”
According to the latest U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) data from 2015, 41 percent of the water used in America is for power generation. The next highest use is irrigation for agriculture, accounting for 37 percent of U.S. water use (and close to two-thirds of that is consumptive).
Holy Cross Energy, which supplies seven ski areas including Vail and Aspen, recently announced the goal of achieving 70 percent clean energy by 2030, compared to 39 percent now.
That goal articulates unusual ambition even in a time of rapidly plunging prices of renewables. Unlike the spurt of 100 percent goals adopted by towns and cities, Holy Cross has the responsibility for actually delivering. This 2030 goal also pushes beyond those adopted by New York and New Jersey of 50 percent renewables for the same year and California’s 60 percent. Hawaii, which is heavily dependent upon burning expensive oil to produce electricity, has a higher but longer term goal: 100 percent by 2045.
Bryan Hannagen, the chief executive, says Holy Cross has a more ambitious goal in that it thinks it can achieve 70 percent clean energy without raising prices.
“What makes this more ambitious is that we said that we will do it without any increases in power costs. Nobody else has committed to doing that,” says Hannagen, who joined Holy Cross in late 2016 after a stint at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
To achieve the goal, Hannagen will also have to figure out how to shed the Holy Cross ownership in a coal-fired power plant. It has an 8 percent stake in Comanche 3, which is located in Pueblo, Colo., and is among the newest coal plants in the country. The plant, which opened in 2010, delivers 60 megawatts to Holy Cross and its 52,000 metered customers. The eastern end of Eagle County, including Vail, has a peak winter load of 10 to 15 megawatts.
Xcel’s big step
Holy Cross can make a big step toward its goal without lifting a finger. The electrical co-operative—all of the customers of Holy Cross are also members and hence owners—gets a fifth of its power from Xcel Energy.
Xcel, in turn, gets much of its energy from two older coal plants, Comanche 1 and 2, also in Pueblo. They began operations in 1973 and 1975. In early September, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission authorized Xcel Energy to close them about a decade early. Xcel plans to replace the lost generation with mostly renewables: wind and solar, backed by batteries but also additional natural gas generation, all of this by the end of 2026. That alone pushes Holy Cross’s current 39 percent clean energy portfolio to 51 percent.
But the Glenwood Springs-based utility wants to dive deeper into decarbonization. The plan, called Seventy70thirty, identifies two tracks.
One component calls for adding renewables from elsewhere, both wind and solar, using Xcel’s transmission capacity. Xcel will be adding wind and solar from the Pueblo area, and Holy Cross might well, too. As with Xcel, Holy Cross has cause to act quickly. The federal production tax credit for wind energy expires in 2019 and the investment tax credit for solar energy expires in 2023.
“We see an opportunity to move right now and lock in some prices of renewables that are at historical low prices,” says Hannegan. He expects prices will continue to decline but more slowly as technology advances and the scale of renewable projects expands.
In this strategy, Holy Cross benefits from a contract negotiated in 1992 with Xcel that gives it more flexibility than other co-operatives in Colorado. Steamboat Springs-based Yampa Valley Electric Association and Grand Valley Electric Association also get electricity from Xcel, but their contracts are all inclusive, unlike that of Holy Cross.
Local renewable generation
The second broad component of Holy Cross’s strategy calls for substantial local renewable generation. The goal calls for 2 megawatts annually of new rooftop solar systems on homes and businesses. But solar farms, such as are now being considered in Pitkin County, are another component. The 5-megawatt solar farm proposed for 34 acres next to a sewage treatment plant several miles down-valley from Aspen is an example of what Holy Cross hopes to see happen every three years beginning in 2020.
Where will the other solar farms go in the mountain valleys that prize open space and where land itself tends to be extremely expensive? There’s no clear answer.
Hannegan says communities served by Holy Cross must ask themselves whether they want a portion of their electricity from local sources or whether they will be content to draw power from outside the region.
Although these projects are more expensive than imported power, “we believe the local economic and resilience benefits they can provide will justify the added costs,” says Holy Cross.
“That is part of a much larger and detailed conversation that we’d like to have over the next few months,” says Hannegan.
The Lake Lake Christine fire that burned 12,588 acres last summer in the Basalt area will certainly be part of the conversation. Electrical lines to Aspen were imperiled. Local renewable generation can make communities, and not just Aspen, more resilient, says Hannegan. Battery storage—if still more pricey—could be part of this conversation of local renewables and resiliency.
The impacts of transmission are already being debated in eastern Eagle County. There, Holy Cross wants to add transmission through Minturn. It has committed to a mile and a half of underground, which is far more expensive than overhead transmission. Conversations are continuing: the argument for the transmission fundamentally comes down to improved resiliency.
About Comanche 3
But about that 750-megawatt coal plant in Pueblo that Holy Cross co-owns? Comanche 3 is the largest in Colorado, the newest, but also likely to be the last to close down. It ranks among the top 10 percent of coal plants with respect to low emissions of its nitrous oxide and sulfur oxide. In carbon dioxide pollution, however, it ranks only middling among coal plants.
To attain its goals, Holy Cross hopes to sell the generation from the coal plant. Better would be to sell the 8 percent share if it’s to attain another goal, reducing greenhouse gas emissions of its power supply by 70 percent as compared to 2014 level.
According to the WRI Greenhouse Gas Protocol Corporate Accounting and Reporting Standards, the utility will still be on the hook for greenhouse gas emissions for its share of Comanche 3 as long as it continues to have that 8 percent ownership. Unlike large utilities, the Environmental Protection Agency does not require utilities the size of Holy Cross to track their greenhouse gas emissions. Holy Cross has chosen to do so anyway.
In charting this strategy of deep decarbonization, says Hannegan, Holy Cross believes it is executing the dominant wish of members, as reflected in a poll of 500 members.
“It’s important to them that we conduct our business in the most environmentally sustainable way possible while maintaining reliability, affordability and safety,” says Hannegan. “Our members are our owners, and when the owners tell the company that this what we want to do, we would be foolish not to give them what they want before somebody else does.”
Big hydro delivers big portion of renewables
Holy Cross Energy currently gets 39 percent of its electricity from what it calls clean sources.
The largest chunk 26 percent, comes from Glen Canyon and other giant dams of the West operated by the federal government and distributed by the Western Area Power Administration. Aspen Electric and other municipal and co-operative suppliers also benefit from the WAPA power.
Another 13 percent of Holy Cross power comes from local renewable generation: dabbles of solar here and there, but also the generation from a 10.2-megawatt biomass plant at Gypsum that burns dead beetle-killed wood.
The most unusual project, pushed hard by the late Randy Udall, was capturing methane from a coal mine near Somerset. The methane has far more powerful heat-trapping properties than simple carbon emissions. The Aspen Skiing Co. agreed to provide a price support needed to subsidize the methane-capture project. This is not a renewable resource, but accomplishes the same thing, hence falls under the head of what Holy Cross calls clean energy.
In an upstairs ballroom of downtown Seattle’s Arctic Club, where polar bears and maps of the Arctic decorate the walls, volunteers and activists who campaigned for Washington’s first carbon fee waited cheerfully for election results on Tuesday night. Just after 8 p.m., a first wash of returns that had the initiative on track to pass sent ripples through the room. But as more counties reported in, the likelihood dropped. By 9 p.m., the mood turned, and clusters of supporters retreated to bars across downtown to mourn. On Wednesday morning, 56 percent of Washington voters had rejected the state’s second attempt to tax carbon emissions.
Tuesday night’s returns offered a mixed message on whether states have the momentum to regulate fossil fuels without federal backing. Candidates who support action on climate change won gubernatorial races in Colorado and Oregon, while in Washington, Democratic incumbent Sen. Maria Cantwell, who has backed climate initiatives in the Senate, held her seat by a comfortable margin. But ballot initiatives intended to regulate fossil fuel emissions and boost renewable energy sources fell flat.
Colorado won’t tighten fracking restrictions
A pair of dueling initiatives, Proposition 112 and Amendment 74, dealt with regulating the state’s fracking boom, which has butted up against sprawling suburbs. Proposition 112 would have required new oil and gas wells and production facilities to be built at least 2,500 feet away from schools, drinking water sources and homes, a significant increase from current set-back requirements. Amendment 74 would have required payments for any lost property values due to government action, including regulations that affect mineral rights – like Proposition 112.
The result: Both initiatives failed, leaving the state where it started on oil and gas regulations.