By Peter Blake
This column appeared originally on Complete Colorado Page 2.
When the runners are closing in on the finish line, move the tape farther back.
That’s the usual strategy employed by greens when it comes to establishing renewable energy standards for electricity production. It’s a marathon that never ends, and the added cost to consumers is secondary, if not irrelevant.
Colorado’s power producers are awaiting introduction of a bill that would raise the minimums yet again. But their lobbyists don’t know the details — and neither does the prospective sponsor, apparently.
There’s plenty of “radio chatter,” said Jeani Frickey, a lobbyist for Colorado’s rural electric associations, but “we don’t have anything specific yet.”
“I’ve not seen any bill drafts, or even outlines of ideas,” said Mike Beasley, an Xcel Energy lobbyist.
An aid to Rep. Su Ryden confirmed that the Aurora Democrat is going to be a sponsor of a bill, but even she hasn’t seen it. “A lot of different people” are still working on the bill.
The ever-rising renewable standards began back in 2004, when Colorado voters approved Amendment 37, an initiative that required regulated, investor-owned utilities to produce 10 percent of their electricity through renewable energy by 2015.
Three years later the legislature, assuming that one popular vote gave them carte blanche to do the work themselves from then on, raised the minimum to 20 percent by 2020. At the same time it established a 10 percent mandate on REAs, co-ops, which are not under the Public Utilities Commission.
In 2010 lawmakers raised the minimum to 30 percent for regulated utilities by 2020. The REAs were left at 10 percent. Now it’s three years later, again, and history tells us that lawmakers will be back with yet higher standards.
Some predict the figure will go to 40 percent for Xcel and Black Hills Energy, and 20 percent for the REAs. Others believe that only the REAs will be raised. But they’re only guesses, and the figures could be adjusted during the legislative process anyway.
By the way, you might think that hydroelectric power would count as a renewable, since no fuel is required and it produces, as Frickey noted, “zero greenhouse gas emissions.”
But Colorado enviros refuse to recognize water power as a renewable. Perhaps they’re afraid it would lead to the damming of various rivers. But if it did count, the REAs would already be over their required 10 percent just using existing dams. Tri-State Generation & Transmission, which supplies 18 of Colorado’s 22 REAs with electricity, gets 12 percent of its power from water, said Tri-State spokesman Lee Boughey. It’s generated by the Western Area Power Administration, an agency of the Energy Department.
REAs would be a natural target for the Democratic-controlled legislature. They cover 73 percent of Colorado’s land but less than 25 percent of the state’s population, said REA lobbyist Geoff Hier. Democrats predominate along the Front Range, where Xcel provides most of the power, and Republicans in the hinterlands.
One group working on the bill is Conservation Colorado, a recently formed amalgam of the state’s Conservation Voters and its Environmental Coalition.
Last September, before the merger was formalized, the leaders of the two groups wrote a letter to legislative candidates urging their support for “Colorado’s Path to a Clean Energy Future.” [Read entire letter below]
They seemed to be targeting the REAs. Noting that Xcel has a 30 percent mandate, “most rural and municipal energy providers have only made a 10 percent commitment that is below the national average,” says the letter. It went on to blame coal plants and autos for air pollution and urged a four-point program:
- “Decreasing the emissions that cause climate change” by at least 2 percent a year;
- Ensuring that “over a third” of Colorado’s electricity comes from renewable technologies;
- Requiring all utilities to offer “energy efficiency” programs that will help customers save energy.
- Encouraging the installation of charging stations for electric vehicles.
- Senate Bill 126, now in the House, would help promote the last point.
It’s hard to predict how Xcel or the REAs will react when a bill is finally introduced. In 2004, Xcel fought the first mandate. But then the greens got smart and stopped treating it as an evil corporate enemy while Xcel came to realize its job was to make money, not provide cheap power. It’s entitled to 10 percent return on investment, no matter what the cost of fuel or capital equipment.
The PUC helped by no longer requiring utilities to apply the “least cost” principle when building facilities or buying fuel. What’s more, the PUC made retail fuel prices subservient to more nebulous environmental goals.
Xcel ended up backing the 2010 bill, just as the REA’s backed the move to 10 percent renewable for them.
If renewables were economically competitive in the marketplace, there would be no need for legislation. Utilities would turn to them automatically. But so far, they’re not. Wind survived only because Congress belatedly extended its special tax credits. Solar is even less competitive.
Xcel already is allowed to charge you an extra 2 percent per month to pay for its renewable facilities and fuel.
Three years ago, when Bill Ritter was still governor, a coalition of natural gas companies, Xcel and greens worked behind closed doors for months before dropping House Bill 1365 into the hopper on March 15. It required Xcel to close down three coal-fired plants or convert them to natural gas by 2017. It was then rushed through the legislative process in a couple of weeks as more than 30 lobbyists worked the halls.
A similar rush-rush process recently worked for the gun bills. Perhaps it will be tried again when the renewable energy bill is introduced.
Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes Thursdays for CompleteColorado.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org