Colorado’s decarbonizing road trip

Can Colorado cut emissions 50% by 2030? State officials identify several scenarios 

by Allen Best

Colorado in May 2019 set out on a long road trip when Gov. Jared Polis, sitting at a table set up near a community solar garden in Arvada, signed HB 19-1261, the Climate Action Plan to Reduce Pollution.

Spring sunshine, so full of promise and expectation, swathed the gathering of several hundred legislators, activists, and others who had turned out to celebrate Colorado’s adoption of greenhouse gas reduction targets. The targets were then and remain among the most ambitious in the nation.

The law celebrated that day identified three key mileposts. The first comes in 2025, when Colorado is supposed to achieve 26% reductions in its emissions as compared to 2005 levels.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis

That sounds like a heavy lift, even frightening, except that Colorado since 2005 has already reduced emissions 18%. The reductions have much to do with the closing of several coal plants and operation of remaining plants at less than full capacity, their relative idleness enforced by the emergence of lower-cost renewables.

The 2030 goal might cause some fidgeting, though. By then, Colorado must wring 50% of the emissions from its economy.

Then there’s the 2050 goal of 90% reductions. But who can think that far ahead?

Unlike the clustering under blue skies in Arvada a year ago, the shaping of the roadmap for the next decade and beyond has moved indoors and, because of the ever-present threat of covd-19, physically distant. It’s wonky and, if tedious to follow, is the stuff of big, important ambitions.

Another state law, SB 19-096, Collect Long-term Climate Change Data, required a statewide inventory of greenhouse gas emissions. For this it delegated primary authority to the Air Quality Control Commission. The AQCC is associated with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

But legislators also explicitly recognized the central role of electricity in reducing emissions as was reflected in both SB19-236 and HB 1261 and  instructed the PUC to achieve 80% reduction in emissions from electrical generation by 2030 in those utilities over which it has jurisdiction. Separately, the AQCC has authority over municipal utilities and electrical cooperatives.

The Colorado Energy Office, or CEO, has been in the middle of this design of a roadmap. Also involved in lesser roles have been the departments of agriculture, natural resources, and transportation.

On a recent Monday, Will Toor, the CEO director, and representatives of the health and environmental department, shared with the PUC commissioners what this roadmap looks like so far. In the time of covid, it was an unusual meeting in that there were no dogs barking in the background. This meeting went in the other direction. Will Toor, who directs the energy office, confided jokingly that it was the first time in a month that he had worn a tie. He didn’t confide whether he was wearing shorts or perhaps pajama bottoms.

This story was published in Big Pivots No. 11 (5.25.2020) If you would like to be on the distribution list, write to: [email protected]

Colorado wants to first get a strong handle on what is producing the emissions now and, because the baseline for measuring progress is 2005, what emissions were then. Like a low-resolution photo tripled in size, Colorado currently has a relatively blurry picture of the emissions.

Some sectors of the economy will deliver crisper images than others. Toor said it may be impossible to get a handle on emissions from the oil and gas sector in 2005. Indeed, some of the current regulatory efforts underway in Colorado seek to better identify methane leaks from pipelines and other hydrocarbon infrastructure. Methane is a primary constituent of natural gas and a powerful if relatively short-lived greenhouse gas.

Measuring carbon dioxide emitted by the electrical sector will be relatively easy. Colorado has 7 coal-generating stations (some with multiple units) and 18 gas-fired plants. See Wikipedia lists. Even so, some mathematical detective work will be required. How much power generated by Colorado power plants gets exported outside Colorado? Xcel Energy says 0.2 % of all its electricity generated in Colorado got exported in 2019.

More important, what is the carbon footprint of electricity imported into Colorado, as occurs with electricity generated by a power plant at Wheatland, Wyo.

These data will become far more important in the next two years as Colorado electrical utilities join imbalance markets, allowing more sharing of electrical supplies across broader regions. Even more powerful will be Colorado utilities joining into a regional transmission organization, which allows moving electrons on the grid at a relatively massive scale without regard to state borders and perhaps existing limitations of the Western electrical grid.

Two-thirds of oil extracted in Colorado is exported, but some of it is refined by Suncor north of downtown Denver.  Photo/Allen Best

Colorado also gets energy imported from Canada and elsewhere to the Suncor refinery north of downtown Denver. It works the other way, too. Some of the natural gas produced in the Piceance Basin of Western Colorado gets exported north to Wyoming and the Rockies Express pipeline along I-80. Some oil from the Denver-Julesburg Basin of northeastern Colorado also gets exported.

Regulation 22, which was adopted unanimously by the Air Quality Control Commission on Friday after almost two days of testimony and discussion, will provide the platform for what will be needed.

Joshua Korth, who leads the technical analysis for climate change with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, told the PUC commissioners that Regulation 22 will put fairly specific guardrails on what type of information will be collected. One intent is to limit reporting requirements of small energy providers who get their bulk supplies from others.

That was indeed what happened after about 16 hours of testimony and discussion at the Air Quality Control Committee meeting.

See also: Getting a grip on Colorado’s emissions 

The state agencies creating this road map see electrical generation being crucial. The coal plant at Boulder has been closed, one in metro Denver converted to natural gas, and small plants near Grand Junction and Nucla have also been shuttered, too. Still more and bigger closures lie ahead at Pueblo and Craig during the next 10 years. Yet others—Hayden, Pawnee, and Comanche 3—are questionable.

This will occur even as electrical demand in Colorado grows to supply electric cars and other, larger vehicles, such as buses. Transportation has probably become the largest cause of greenhouse gases in Colorado. The state hopes to have 42% of cars in electrified by 2030 compared to just 2% or 3% now.

The state also sees expansion of electricity in the building sector, displacing natural gas, but with smaller gains as compared to transportation. Further decarbonization of electricity will have magnified impacts in these other sectors.

The state officials see several different paths to achieve the reduction targets, but they don’t yet have a preference. What is abundantly clear—and was to legislators last year—is that all the paths involve going through the PUC chambers.

“What is really striking here is how much of it falls within the wheelhouse of the PUC,” Toor told the PUC commissioners.

The pathways, though, are still being defined. Toor said the roadmap should be complete by the fall, at which time the agencies will be coming forward with recommendations for administrative and regulatory policies and also legislation.

Toor also said that the state agencies believe a “fair amount” of hydrogen will be produced by 2030 in Colorado through electrolysis, using wind and solar energy to do so, and displacing fossil gas in that way.

Farm, agriculture
Corn gets harvested on a farm near Delta, Colo., in September 2019. Colorado officials working on climate change strategies say incentives will most effectively engage the agriculture sector in carbon reduction and mitigation strategies. Photo/Allen Best

Agricuture will necessarily be treated differently than pollution from power plants because it’s difficult to measure and because there are so many dispersed farms, some large but many small. Dairies and the like also vary in dimensions. Too, SB19-096 specifically exempted agriculture for obligatory reporting unless there are major sources.

Instead, the state will seek voluntary reporting of emissions, the same approach as for smaller municipal solid-waste landfills and domestic wastewater treatment plants.

Toor pointed out that agriculture historically has been approached differently from other industries. “We would anticipate that the focus on the agricultural side would be on incentives as supposed to direct regulation.”

email
Allen Best