As coal plants close, more calls for 100% renewable goals
by Allen Best
DURANGO, Colo. – The Sierra Club has been pushing Durango to commit to 100 percent locally produced and renewable electricity by 2050.
The argument of petitioners, reports the Durango Herald, is that in addition to cutting carbon emissions, the local, renewable energy would create local jobs and stabilize energy rates as the cost of fossil fuels continues to rise.
The petition in Durango fits in with a broad pattern across the country of calls for municipalities to embrace goals of 100 percent renewables during the next few decades. In Utah, for example, Salt Lake City, Moab, and Park City have all embraced that goal. In Colorado, so have the Front Range communities of Fort Collins, Boulder, and Pueblo.
That goal no longer seems so far-fetched. Major, investor-owned utilities have been rapidly investing in renewables not because they have to, but because of tumbling prices for wind, but also solar. Cost of utility-scale storage has also started sliding.
Last week, Colorado’s largest utility, Public Service Co., a subsidiary of Xcel Energy, announced that it would seek approval of state regulators to retire two coal-fired generating plants at Pueblo, which began operations in 1972 and 1974. The retirements, if approved by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, will mean Comanche I and II will be retired a decade earlier than previously scheduled.
Xcel wants to replace the lost power with some natural gas-fired electricity but mostly with renewables, with up to 1,000 megawatts of wind and 700 megawatts of solar. It wants to move fast, too, to take advantage of federal tax credits that are scheduled to expire in 2020.
Cost to consumers will stay the same or more likely go down, explained David Eves, the utility’s president of Colorado operations. Reduced greenhouse gas emissions are a bonus.
After the switch, Xcel expects its will be at 55 percent in carbon-free generation. This year, it will be completing conversion of a coal-fired power plant in Denver to natural gas. It had also converted a plant in Boulder last year.
Xcel delivers power to Colorado’s Summit County, where Breckenridge elected officials recently heard from a local group that wanted a commitment to 100 percent renewables, first in city operations and then a few years later in the community at large. Town officials weren’t ready to commit, lacking a clear path to achieve these goals. This was a week before the Xcel announcement.
Mark Truckey, a town planner in Breckenridge who is a member of the local 100 percent group, called the Xcel announcement “huge.”
“This has to speak volumes about how the cost is coming down,” he said. Yet he concedes it’s not exactly clear how Breckenridge can achieve what his group advocates.
In Utah, it’s the same story. Rocky Mountain Power last week reached a deal with solar advocates about a transition. The utility, which serves Park City, has a plan for adding more wind generation from southern Wyoming and upwards of 1,000 megawatts —the equivalent of a giant coal-fired power plant—in solar generation from Utah.
It used to be that renewables came with a price premium. As the Xcel and Rocky Mountain Power cases illustrate, that has changed. Aspen also proves the case.
Aspen Electric was an early adopter. The utility serves half to two-thirds of Aspen. More than a decade ago it invested in two wind turbines in Nebraska. It has also invested heavily in hydroelectric. As a municipality, it is also eligible for electricity from the giant dams of the West.
Several years ago it was able to achieve 100 percent renewables. Despite the renewables—or maybe because of them—residential customers in Aspen pay 20 percent less per kilowatt-hour than co-op members such as those serving Durango.
The rest of Aspen, including the ski area, gets its electricity from Holy Cross Energy. If moving briskly toward renewables, Holy Cross still gets a substantial amount of its electricity from another coal-fired power plant at Pueblo. Although news as of 2010, it increasingly looks archaic.
Solar panels have become abundant on rooftops. Even so, solar delivered just 2 percent of Colorado’s electricity in 2016. Solar energy proponents expect that will change. Costs of panels have declined 64 percent in the last five years, points out the Summit Daily News, citing the Colorado Solar Energy Industry Association. Too, utilities like Xcel, Rocky Mountain Power, and Tri-State Generation and Transmission are increasingly investing in giant farms of solar panels.
Tri-State provides electricity for the co-operatives that serve the Colorado mountain towns of Winter Park, Grand Lake, Crested Butte, and Telluride. The power for Durango also comes from Tri-State through La Plata Electric Association.
Last year, 53 percent of Tri-State’s electricity came from coal, although 27 percent came from renewables, and more is coming on line all the time, says Lee Boughey, spokesman. He points to 75 megawatts of wind generation from southeastern Colorado that will go on-line later this year.
About 4 percent of Durango’s power comes from local renewable sources, but a major solar plant on the Southern Ute reservation has also been added, reports the Durango Telegraph.
Can Durango get to 100 percent renewables, as the Sierra Club petition seeks? La Plata hasn’t said no, although there are many challenges. Most illuminating is a white paper from the co-op’s chief executive, Mike Dreyspring. The paper describes the evolution of markets that will allow slow-cost electrons from renewable sources to be moved around the grid to match demands. That other changes are poised to disrupt old business models—including the centralized power generation of the last half of the 20th century.
Locally produced power, called distributed generation, “shifts the balance sheet risk from owners of central station bulk power generation assets to DG owners,” the paper says. “The traditional, vertically integrated electric utilities that adapt to this changing market place will financially thrive.”
Another way of saying this is that yes, the train is out of the station. It’s just a matter of accommodating the new renewables. Whether 100 percent renewables is possible is a discussion for another day.
This story was published in the Sept. 5 issue of Mountain Town News, an e-mail based newsmagazine first distributed to subscribers. Please consider subscribing or donating.