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.