In the West, #climate action falters on the ballot — @HighCountryNews

Directional drilling from one well site via the National Science Foundation

From The High Country News (Kate Schimel):

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.

As the U.S. has stepped back from federal commitments to limit carbon pollution, activists have called on states and local governments to fill the void. It’s an approach that could prove effective, according to a report released in September by Data-Driven Yale: Existing state, local and corporate commitments could take the U.S. halfway to meeting its Paris Agreement goals, designed to limit global warming to 2 degrees and avoid the most catastrophic effects.

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.

The nation’s first carbon fee fails
Initiative 1631, which was crafted by a coalition of labor, social justice and environmental groups and tribal nations, would have taxed every metric ton of carbon produced by most of the state’s largest polluters at a rate of $15; some sectors were exempted, including fuel used in agricultural production and coal plants slated for closure. A prior initiative to tax carbon emissions while lowering other taxes and boosting low-income tax credits failed in 2016. The 2018 initiative, which would have used the funds raised by the tax to pay for climate mitigation and response, drew well-funded opposition from oil and gas interests.

The result: Projected to fail. Only three counties, Seattle’s King County, Port Townsend’s Jefferson County and the San Juan Islands, voted for passage.

Arizona’s push for renewables stalls
Proposition 127 would have required electric utilities to purchase 50 percent of their power from renewable sources, such as wind and solar. It excluded nuclear power as a renewable source, which stoked fears that its passage would lead to the closure of the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station. A lawsuit from the state’s largest utility muddied Proposition 127’s progress to the ballot, while out-of-state money helped make it the most expensive proposition in state history. A group backed by California-based billionaire Tom Steyer’s political action committee, NextGen Climate Action, poured $23.2 million into efforts to pass the initiative; Arizona utilities, as well as the Navajo Nation, spent nearly $30 million to oppose it.

The result: Failed. As of Wednesday morning, 70 percent of voters had rejected the measure.

Background reading: Dark money is re-shaping Arizona’s energy fights, Elizabeth Shogren

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.

Background reading: The rising risks of the West’s latest gas boom, Daniel Glick and Jason Plautz

Gov. Hickenlooper joins western governors in continued commitment to uphold standards of the Clean Air and Water Acts

Mount Rainier and Seattle Skyline July 22 2017.

Here’s the release from Governor Hickenlooper’s office:

Gov. John Hickenlooper today joined governors from California, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington in signing a letter committing to upholding the standards set forth in the Clean Air and Water Acts, despite changes to federal standards in Washington D.C.

“We will not run from our responsibility to protect and improve clean air and water for future generations,” said Governor John Hickenlooper. “We know it will take collaboration just like this to make it happen. Changes at the federal level will not distract from our goals.”

Colorado continues efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as outlined by the state’s Colorado Climate Plan. Last week Colorado submitted comments pushing back on the Trump administration’s proposal to weaken federal auto standards. State agencies continue work on finalizing a low emissions vehicle plan by the end of the year.

In their letter, the governors wrote “Each of our states has a unique administrative and regulatory structure established to protect clean air and clean water, but we share a commitment to science-based standards that protect human health and the environment. As governors, we pledge to be diligent environmental stewards of our natural resources to ensure that current and future generations can enjoy the bounty of clean air, clean water and the highest quality of life.”

View the full letter here.

How air pollution is destroying our health — the World Health Organization @WHO

Click here to go to the website. Here’s an excerpt:

As the world gets hotter and more crowded, our engines continue to pump out dirty emissions, and half the world has no access to clean fuels or technologies (e.g. stoves, lamps), the very air we breathe is growing dangerously polluted: nine out of ten people now breathe polluted air, which kills 7 million people every year. The health effects of air pollution are serious – one third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease are due to air pollution. This is an equivalent effect to that of smoking tobacco, and much higher than, say, the effects of eating too much salt.

Air pollution is hard to escape, no matter how rich an area you live in. It is all around us. Microscopic pollutants in the air can slip past our body’s defences, penetrating deep into our respiratory and circulatory system, damaging our lungs, heart and brain.

From The Guardian (Damian Carrington and Matthew Taylor):

Simple act of breathing is killing 7 million people a year and harming billions more, but ‘a smog of complacency pervades the planet’, says Dr Tedros Adhanom

Air pollution is the “new tobacco”, the head of the World Health Organization has warned, saying the simple act of breathing is killing 7 million people a year and harming billions more.

Over 90% of the world’s population suffers toxic air and research is increasingly revealing the profound impacts on the health of people, especially children.

“The world has turned the corner on tobacco. Now it must do the same for the ‘new tobacco’ – the toxic air that billions breathe every day,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director general. “No one, rich or poor, can escape air pollution. It is a silent public health emergency.”

Citizens put #renewable energy on this year’s ballots — @HighCountryNews #ActOnClimate

From The High Country News (Jessica Kutz):

The fossil fuel-friendly Trump administration has been busy rolling back environmental regulations and opening millions of acres of public land to oil and gas drilling. Just last week, the Interior Department announced plans to gut an Obama-era methane pollution rule, giving natural gas producers more leeway to emit the powerful greenhouse gas.

With the GOP controlling the executive branch and Congress, that means state-level ballot initiatives are one of the few tools progressives have left to advance their own energy agendas. Twenty-four states, including most Western ones, permit this type of “direct democracy,” which allows citizens who gather enough petition signatures to put new laws and regulations to a vote in general elections.

“In general, the process is used — and advocated for — by those not in power,” explains Josh Altic, the ballot measure project director for the website Ballotpedia. Nationwide, 64 citizen-driven initiatives will appear on state ballots this November, and in the West, many aim to encourage renewable energy development — and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

Proposition 127 would require utility companies to get half their energy from renewable energy sources like the Sandstone Solar project in Florence, AZ, by 2030. Photo credit: Stephen Mellentine/Flickr CC

Arizona

Proposition 127, known as the Renewable Energy Standards Initiative, would require electric utilities to get half of their power from renewable sources like wind and solar — though not nuclear — by 2030. California billionaire Tom Steyer has contributed over $8 million to the campaign through his political action organization, NextGen Climate Action, which is funding a similar initiative in Nevada.

The parent company of Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest utility, tried to sabotage the initiative with a lawsuit arguing that over 300,000 petition signatures were invalid and that the petition language may have confused signers into thinking the mandate includes nuclear energy. APS gets most of its energy from the Palo Verde nuclear plant, and the initiative could hurt its revenue.

Colorado

The progressive group Colorado Rising gathered enough signatures to put Proposition 112 — the Safer Setbacks for Fracking Initiative — to a vote this year. It would prohibit new oil and gas wells and production facilities within 2,500 feet of schools, houses, playgrounds, parks, drinking water sources and more. State law currently requires setbacks of at least 500 feet from homes and 1,000 feet from schools. It’s opposed by the industry-backed group Protect Colorado, whose largest funder, Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, attracted scrutiny last year after two people died in a home explosion linked to a leaking gas flow line from a nearby Anadarko well.

Amendment 74, sponsored by the Colorado Farm Bureau, would allow citizens to file claims for lost property value due to government action. It is largely seen as a response to Proposition 112, which the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission says would block development on 85 percent of state and private lands. The Farm Bureau’s Chad Vorthmann says Amendment 74 would amend the state Constitution to protect farmers and ranchers who wish to lease their land for oil and gas from “random” setbacks.

Critics argue that the amendment could lead to unintended consequences. In Oregon, for example, a similar amendment passed in 2004, resulting in over 7,000 claims — totaling billions of dollars — filed against local governments, according to the Colorado Independent. Voters then amended the constitution in 2007 to overturn most aspects of the amendment and invalidate many of these claims.

Nevada

Two energy-related questions will appear on Nevada’s ballot: Question 6, known as the Renewable Energy Promotion Initiative, and Question 3, the Energy Choice Initiative. Funded by Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action, Question 6, which would require utilities to get 50 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030, faces little formal opposition.

Question 3, however, has attracted more attention — and controversy. The initiative was approved in 2016, but because it would amend the state constitution, voters must approve it a second time. It would allow consumers to choose who they buy power from. It’s spearheaded by big energy consumers, including Switch, a large data company, and luxury resort developer Las Vegas Sands Corporation, which want the freedom to buy cheaper power on the open market without penalty. But environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club and Western Resource Advocates, say the initiative threatens clean energy development. NV Energy, the regulated monopoly that provides 90 percent of Nevada’s electricity, has several solar projects planned but has said it would abandon some of these projects if the initiative passes due to costs.

Washington

Washington could become the first state to pass a so-called “carbon fee.” Initiative 1631 would create funding for investments in clean energy and pollution programs through a fee paid for by high carbon emitters like utilities and oil companies. In 2016, a similar initiative lost by almost 10 points. However, many former opponents are now supporters.

What changed? The 2016 initiative would have imposed a revenue-neutral tax instead of a fee, meaning the money generated by the tax would have been offset by a sales tax cut. Environmental groups felt that the initiative didn’t do enough to promote clean energy or to address the impacts of climate change on vulnerable communities. But the new fee would bankroll clean energy projects, as well as help polluted communities. The oil and gas industry is funding the opposition campaign, with Phillips 66 contributing $7.2 million so far.

Jessica Kutz is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Email her at jessicak@hcn.org

Excitement builds about changes accelerating in energy systems — The Mountain Town News #ActOnClimate

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

In an old school gymnasium in Paonia that one speaker commented looked like it had been constructed during the Great Depression, 120 people gathered last week to sort out the future of energy in the 21st century.

The town in west-central Colorado is surrounded by peach and apple orchards, peaks of the West Elk Mountains looming in the background. It’s not really a tourist town, as witnessed by the fact that there’s just one motel.

Paonia. Photo credit: Allen Best

Paonia used to be a coal town. The West Elk Mine still operates just a few miles away, but the miners have been laid off in droves as giant central-station coal-fired coal plants get shut down in favor of cheaper natural gas but also renewables in more dispersed locations. In 2012, nearly 1,000 people had been employed in the local mines. By 2017, the employment had fallen to just 220.

Many key figures in Paonia and other local communities want to be at the front of that shift, not at the dirty backend. Among them is John Gavan, who semi-retired to the Paonia area after a career in technology. A member of the board of directors for the local electrical provider, Delta-Montrose Electric Association, Gavan organized the conference, which is called Engage.

“We have an energy legacy, because of coal. But we now we are transitioning to a new distributed and renewable model,” he said in an interview afterwards. “We want to be sure we are economically engaged.”

Gavan believes that Delta-Montrose is one of the most aggressive electrical co-operatives in the country. A decade ago it began developing electricity using the fast-flowing waters of an agricultural canal.

Elsewhere in Colorado, a utility drew national attention last year when it announced it was planning to close two coal plants and replace the lost generation with primarily wind and solar with some battery storage. Xcel Energy said it could do this and save money for ratepayers and investors. The proposal was approved earlier this month by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission.

One coal mine remains open in the North Fork Valley. Photo/Allen Best

Colorado is particularly blessed with a diversity of renewable resources, but the same declining prices have roiled the electrical sector across North America.

Tom Plant, the keynote speaker at Engage, painted a picture of changes being driven from the grassroots. “Congress last year introduced how many energy bills?” he asked rhetorically. None, he answered. But legislators around the country introduced 3,433 bills.

Plant, who is with former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter’s Center for the New Energy Economy, described the “mainstreaming of renewables.” Wind prices have declined by 67 percent in the last eight years and solar 86 percent. “This changes the economics of the entire marketplace.”

As a state legislator in 2000, Plant introduced a bill proposing a renewable portfolio standard. It got little support. So he did it again. Again, other legislators batted the idea down.

Then, in 2004 voters, bypassed the legislator, requiring Xcel to achieve 10 percent renewable generation. Xcel, which had opposed the mandate, then got to work, meeting its goals years ahead of its deadline. It then met the next, steeper renewables portfolio. It’s now at 30 percent renewables and, with the changes recently approved, by late 2025 expects to hit 55 percent renewables.

“That’s an incredible shift in such a short amount of time,” said Plant of this and other changes. Electricity, he said, has decreased 17 percent in price during the 21st century even as there has been a shift to natural gas and now to renewables.

Tom Plant via the Center for the New Energy Economy.

Plant also took a few shots at Tri-State, the wholesale supplier for several of the mountain towns, including Durango, Crested Butte, and Paonia, too. “They have the highest carbon intensity of any power provider in the country,” Plant said.

A recent report conducted by the Rocky Mountain Institute found that Tri-State could close its coal mines and still save money for members in the long run. See story.

Tri-State, for its part, points out that 30 percent of its portfolio is renewables, same as Xcel Energy now. In addition, Xcel is at 44 percent coal powered in Colorado. However, Tri-State benefits from hydroelectricity from federal dams, something not available to the investor-owned Xcel. In addition to that difference, there’s also the difference in the pace of the shift. Tri-State has added renewables, but at a far slower pace than Xcel.

Another way that utilities will add more renewables is if the power can be moved around the country better to match supplies with demands. Hence the wind of the Great Plains could be paired with the sunshine of California and the desert Southwest in places like Park City and Sun Valley. But there are roughly eight markets in the Western states currently, too small to effectively integrate renewables to maximum efficient. Ultimately, said Plant, it will happen.

Plant said that the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan—which President Donald Trump has set out to dismantle—was intended to bring everybody altogether to talk about stuff like energy markets.

“But without that federal push, the question is where will the push come from?” he said. The utilities haven’t really stepped up, at least to the level that Plant and others would like, “so the question is what will cause the utilities to step up?”

Gavan, the conference organizer, compares what is happening now in energy to the giant changes in telecommunications that began in the 1980s.

At the time, AT&T had a monopoly and, with its “baby bells” such as Mountain Bell in Colorado, resisted innovation. Phone calls were also extremely expensive. In the late 1970s, it costs 30 cents a minute to talk to somebody just 5 or 10 miles away.

For example, Colorado’s Grand County had six different prefixes, each one a long-distance call from the next. Winter Park was a long distance call from Granby, and Granby a long distance call from Grand Lake—at 30 cents a minute.

“AT&T acted exactly as Tri-State is acting today: protective, anticompetitive and punitive,” said Gavan. “That’s exactly the wrong game plan.”

The telephone monopoly, he said, had few services available and they were very expensive. Innovators foresaw many possibilities: advanced networking services, voice mail, and then exotic call-handling services of value to businesses.

Gavan was among the challengers of AT&T. In his career he was IT director for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration headquarters in Washington D.C. For 18 yeas, he was system engineer and IT director of MCI Telecommunications and later WorldCommunications after its acquisition of MCI. He owns seven patents associated with new technology.

Looking back to the 1980s, he sees many parallels between telecommunications giant AT&T and some of the big utilities of today.

“AT&T tried to throw up roadblock after roadblock after roadblock to slow the change in the telephone business model, and in the process they wound up shorting themselves. The same thing is happening here.”

Much of the conference was devoted to discussions about what those futures might look like. Nobody tried to argue that anything short of massive changes were afoot.

To see the PowerPoints presented at the conference by Plant and others, go to the Engage Delta County website.

@CSUtilities makes a commitment to #solar power

Xcel Energy’s Greater Sandhill Solar Farm north of Alamosa, Colo. Colorado’s San Luis Valley has some of the nation’s best solar resource. Photo/Allen Best

From The Colorado Springs Independent (Pam Zubeck):

On Sept. 20, the Colorado Springs Utilities Board approved adding 150 megawatts of new solar generation, plus battery storage, by 2024. The change means 20 percent of Utilities’ energy will come from renewables. That project, coupled with two others totaling 95 megawatts, will power more than 75,000 homes. The hit to customer billings is an increase of 1 percent over 10 years, Utilities said in a release.

Meantime, Xcel Energy Colorado, serving 1.5 million electric customers in the state, completed a 600-megawatt wind farm, the Rush Creek Wind Project, covering 100,000 acres in five counties: Lincoln, Arapahoe, Elbert, Kit Carson and Cheyenne, The Denver Post reported. Xcel plans to generate most of its power from renewables by 2026.

@CSUtilities extends CEO contract offer to Aram Benyamin

Here’s the release from Colorado Springs Utilities:

Board extends offer for CEO

In an open session on Sept. 17, the Utilities Board unanimously voted to extend an offer to Aram Benyamin to be the next Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Colorado Springs Utilities.

Nearly 130 candidates from across the United States submitted their resumes for consideration. In June, the Utilities Board reviewed the top candidates and determined which candidates should complete advanced screening. In July, the Board reviewed the information and selected seven candidates to proceed as semifinalists.

Over the last few weeks, the full Utilities Board conducted seven semi-finalist interviews with internal and external candidates. Deliberations on who would be moving on as finalists were concluded prior to the Aug. 22 Board meeting.

As part of the process, there were opportunities for employees and the public to meet the CEO finalists and provide feedback to the Board. The Utilities Board incorporated the feedback they received from employees and the public and considered the information as they interviewed the candidates.

Aram Benyamin, P.E.
General Manager of Energy Supply
Colorado Springs Utilities

Aram Benyamin currently serves as the General Manager of the Energy Supply Department at Colorado Springs Utilities.

Prior to Colorado Springs Utilities, Mr. Benyamin was the Senior Assistant General Manager, head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s (LADWP) power system, the nation’s largest municipal utility.

At LADWP, Mr. Benyamin was responsible for 4,000 employees with an annual budget of $3.9 billion, serving more than four million residents of Los Angeles.

LADWP’s power system spans over four states. It includes 7,327 megawatts of generation capacity, 3,507 miles of high-voltage 500, 230 and 138 kV AC transmission lines, two 900 miles of 500 kV DC lines and a 465 square mile area of overhead and underground power distribution network.

Mr. Benyamin is a Professional Engineer and has a bachelor’s of science degree in engineering from California State University, Los Angeles. He also has a master’s degree in business administration (MBA) from University of La Verne and a master’s degree in public of administration (MPA) from California State University, Northridge.

He has also earned a Certificate, Senior Executives in State and Local Government, Harvard University, Kennedy School of Government; Certificate, Executive Business Management Program, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), Anderson School of Management; Certificate, Engineering and Technical Management, UCLA; Certificate, Business Management Program, UCLA; Certificate, Leadership for the 21st Century, UCLA; Certificate, Total Quality Management, UCLA; Certificate, Construction Management, UCLA.

Mr. Benyamin’s current and past board member and trustee affiliations include YMCA Downtown Colorado Springs Board Member, Armenian General Benevolent Union, Worldwide District Committee Board Member, Boys and Girls Scouts commissioner, troop committee member and volunteer, Trustee of Joint Safety and Training Institutes, Southern California Public Power Association board member, Large Public Power Council board member and California Municipal Utilities Association board member.

  • View Mr. Benyamin’s resume.
  • See Mr. Benyamin written responses to interview questions.
  • Read Mr. Benyamin’s video interview transcript.
  • From The Colorado Springs Independent (Pam Zubeck):

    Monday, Sept. 17, the Colorado Springs Utilities Board voted to offer the energy supply general manager, Aram Benyamin, a contract as the new CEO of the $2 billion enterprise.

    Benyamin would replace Jerry Forte, who retired in May after more than 12 years as CEO.

    He came to Utilities in 2015 from Los Angeles Department of Water and Power after he was ousted the previous year due to his close association with the electrical workers union, according to media reports. He also had supported the challenger of Eric Garcetti, who was elected as mayor.

    Benyamin tells the Independent that he will accept the offer, although details are being worked out, including the salary. Forte was paid $447,175 a year.

    Benyamin will take his cues on major policy issues from the Utilities Board but does have thoughts on power supply, water rights and other issues involving the four services offered by Utilities: water, wastewater, electricity and gas.

    He says he hopes to see more options emerge for Drake Power Plant, a downtown coal-fired plant that’s been targeted for retirement in 2035. That’s way too late, according to some residents who have pushed for an earlier decommissioning date…

    Utilities has been slower than some to embrace solar and wind, because of the price point, but Benyamin says prices are going down. “Every time we put out an RFP [request for proposals] the prices are less,” he says, adding that renewables will play a key role in replacing Drake’s generation capacity, which at present provides a quarter to a third of the city’s power.

    While sources are studied, he says the city is moving ahead with “rewiring the system” to prepare for shutting down the plant. But he predicted a new source of generation will be necessary.

    Though he acknowledged he’s not fully versed in Utilities’ water issues, he says it’s his goal to “serve the city first.”

    “Any resources we have we need to prioritize them to the need of the city today and the future growth and then decide what level of support we can give to anybody else,” he says.

    The Utilities Policy Advisory Committee earlier this year called for lowering the cost of water and wastewater service for outsiders — notably bedroom communities outside the city limits which are running lower on water or face water contamination issues.

    Benyamin also says he’s open to further studying reuse of water. “Any chance we have to recycle water or use gray water for irrigation or any other use that would take pressure off our supplies, that’s always a great idea to look into,” he says.

    From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Conrad Swanson):

    “My short-term vision is to take a look at the organization and kind of recalibrate the vision of what a public utility should be and how a public utility should fit into the vision of the city itself,” Benyamin said.

    Long-term goals include identifying what fuel changes Utilities will face and examining the water supply and transmission, he said.

    Benyamin said he wants to insert leadership that will boost revenues while maintaining competitive rates. He also foresees increasing renewable energy production and energy storage.

    “Renewables and storage are the trend of the future,” he said. “That’s where we’re going.”

    Technology for storage and renewable energy, such as wind and solar, are becoming more efficient and affordable, Benyamin said. Combining those two factors with improved distribution of electricity will enable Utilities to be more versatile, he said.

    The coal-fired Martin Drake Power Plant downtown is to be closed no later than 2035, but Benyamin said that date could be moved up significantly with more technology, storage and transmission options.

    Colorado Springs with the Front Range in background. Photo credit Wikipedia.