Must Platte River Power cross natural gas bridge to 100% emissions-free goal?
by Allen Best
FORT COLLINS, Colo. – The unknowns with which electric resource planners plotting pathways toward 100% emissions-free energy must contend are those rare events, called “dark calms,” such as occurred in northern Colorado one January day in 2018.
The wind didn’t blow.
The sun didn’t shine.
Batteries can tide over a utility in such events, but how extensive must be the batteries? And, for that, matter, how long can such dark calms last?
A report to directors of Platte River Power Authority says insufficient data exist to predict the worst-case scenario for multiple years of dark calms. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation recommends allowing no more than a one-day outage in 10 years or 2.4 hours in one calendar year.
With much uncertainty still lying ahead, executives of the utility have recommended directors from the four member communities—Estes Park, Fort Collins, Longmont, and Loveland—have the utility focus on plans to purchase a gas-fired reciprocating internal combustion engine, or RICE, to replace the certainty now provided by the Rawhide power plant. Platte River has pledged to close the coal plant by 2030.
That alternative is among four under consideration for much of 2020. Directors are expected to make a final choice at a meeting on Sept. 24. But really, there are only two: 1) eliminate coal but add gas; and 2) forget about all fossil fuels in planning for 2030.
Directors in 2018 adopted a resource diversification policy while maintaining reliability, financially sustainability and, of course, environmental responsibility. But the three pillars depended upon 9 conditions ranging from participation in an organized regional market to advanced capabilities and use of active end-use management systems. Amid them was a premise of matured and battery storage performance and cost declines. You can read the policy here.
Is any utility not mulling the same questions?
Xcel Energy, in its famous announcement in December 2008, committed only to 80% emissions free reduction (compared to 2005 levels) by 2030. It also said carbon-free, but even at the time I understood that to be an equivocation to keep things simple. It means only carbon-emissions free. Carbon is still on the table, if it can be done without atmospheric emissions, such as through sequestration technology.
There is tension between aspirations and current reality, between the need for change and the uncertainty about how fast technology but also economics can move in just the next 10 years.
In March, just before the curtain of covid fell, Platte River held meetings in three of its four communities, with the final one held via video teleconferencing. Colorado State University’s Center for Public Deliberation provided students trained in small-group facilitation to probe what people thought about the four scenarios and why. The results were summarized in a June report.
The focus groups’ report makes for unusually interesting reading, if you, like me, are just flat-out curious about how we negotiate the difficult path that climate scientists say will be necessary in the next 10 years.
It wasn’t a scientific survey. Those who showed up—roughly 160—were very well educated, 89% with college degrees, most with advanced schooling, and relatively affluent: a third had incomes of over $100,000. And, of course, nearly three quarters were baby boomers or older.
Not surprisingly, there was scant support for maintaining the status quo, i.e. keeping Rawhide operating until 2036. The other extreme assumed rapid technological advances—but not enough to justify closing Rawhide by 2030.
The action was in the middle: zero coal (but the new natural gas plant) and the zero carbon.
There was also pushback from some that Platte River had been too cautious, that in fact the goal of 100% renewables could be achieved without negative impacts to cost and reliability. “In a sense, they rejected the tension between reliability and renewable energy and believed both could be achieved soon without any unnecessary sacrifice.”
There were thoughts about batteries, questions whether Platte River was enlisting the local (and considerable) talent of northern Colorado. This report ran 20-some pages, so I’m teasing out the highlights. The report cites frequent tensions between the known and unknown, and the 100% goal in the middle.
As per the report, the middle ground seemed to lie in keeping a steady eye on the aspirations.
In the break-out discussions, some were OK with hitting 90% or 95% emission-free energy. Other were OK with the natural gas, hoping it would be used as little as possible—which is the intention. Many made the argument that regardless of the 2018 promise, they wanted Platte River to work toward getting as close to 100% as was possible, and if it was 95% or 98% that would be OK—while leaving open the possibility that with technological advances, 100% could be reached sooner than 2030.
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On Aug. 20, after the meeting of directors, there was pushback from some of the environmental advocates. Public comment time had been pruned, and the Sierra Club sent out a release that lamented the “major reversal” of the 2018 policy and noted that if this happens, it will be the only utility in Colorado with plans to build a new fossil fuel power plant for use beyond 2030.
Sue McFaddin, founder of SevenGenerations LLC (Fort Collins), predicted “costly, stranded assets” and said that Platte River “also needs to help Fort Collins improve our air quality (#19 most unhealthy city in the nation for ozone) by installing nitrous oxide controls or shutting down Rawhide earlier. We can’t wait 10 years for good air quality.”