Can Colorado re­ally achieve 100 per­cent green en­ergy by 2040?

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Vin­cent Car­roll

Con­gress­man Ed Perl­mut­ter may have pulled out of the gov­er­nor’s race, but Democrats still have ca­pa­ble can­di­dates com­pet­ing for the party nom­i­na­tion, and per­haps one more in the wings. It’s also safe to say that their bold­est ideas re­main in play.

Take cli­mate change. Two can­di­dates, Con­gress­man Jared Po­lis and for­mer state Sen. Michael John­ston, high­light on their web­sites the star­tling pledge to make Colorado the first state to tran­si­tion to 100 per­cent re­new­able en­ergy — by 2040.

And both in­sist they will do this while re­duc­ing util­ity bills.

Is this prom­ise — full green en­ergy with lower bills by 2040 — plau­si­ble? Is it fea­si­ble even with dra­co­nian gov­ern­ment man­dates?

Not with current tech­nol­ogy, it isn’t — and both can­di­dates know it. They tell me they’re count­ing on con­tin­ued, steady de­cline in the cost of wind and so­lar as well as — and this is ac­tu­ally more crit­i­cal and more prob­lem­atic — break­throughs in en­ergy storage tech­nol­ogy.

The goal would be uniquely am­bi­tious among states. The clos­est now is Hawaii, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Conference of State Leg­is­la­tures, which has man­dated 70 per­cent re­new­able en­ergy by 2040 and 100 per­cent by 2045 — the fi­nal 25 per­cent in five years!

Among large states, only Cal­i­for­nia and New York have adopted even a 50 per­cent man­date, al­though for 2030.

Colorado law re­quires re­new­able en­ergy to equal 30 per­cent of elec­tric­ity pro­duced by in­vestor-owned util­i­ties by 2020 — a goal Xcel En­ergy is poised to sur­pass. But the task will get rad­i­cally more dif­fi­cult as util­i­ties close in on 100 per­cent. As the MIT Tech­nol­ogy Review ex­plained re­cently, “The es­tab­lished view among en­ergy re­searchers” is that a full tran­si­tion, “par­tic­u­larly get­ting the last 20 per­cent or so of the way there, would be pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive us­ing ex­ist­ing tech­nolo­gies. One of the key miss­ing pieces is af­ford­able grid-scale storage that can ef­fi­ciently power vast ar­eas for ex­tended pe­ri­ods when wind and so­lar sources aren’t avail­able.”

Colorado has been for­tu­nate that its push into re­new­ables since 2004 oc­curred largely at a time of plum­met­ing nat­u­ral gas prices and im­pres­sive ad­vances in wind and so­lar tech­nol­ogy. But not ev­ery state got off easy. Cal­i­for­nia’s stam­pede into re­new­able en­ergy has con­trib­uted, ac­cord­ing to the Los An­ge­les Times, to elec­tric­ity rates rising “faster than in the rest of the U.S.” In­deed, “Cal­i­for­ni­ans now pay about 50 per­cent more than the na­tional av­er­age.”

Wind and so­lar do pro­vide com­pet­i­tively priced en­ergy these days (with sig­nif­i­cant sub­si­dies). To­gether with a huge

con­tri­bu­tion from nat­u­ral gas, they’ve helped re­duce coal’s share of power gen­er­a­tion. But some­one has to pay for new in­vest­ments and solve dis­tri­bu­tion is­sues, not to men­tion sup­ply backup power when wind and so­lar are loaf­ing.

Just last month, 21 pres­ti­gious re­searchers (sev­eral with ties to in­sti­tu­tions in Boul­der) pub­lished in the Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tional Acad­emy of Sciences a sharp re­but­tal to an in­flu­en­tial 2015 paper that is reg­u­larly cited as demon­strat­ing that the na­tion could move en­tirely to re­new­able en­ergy, in­clud­ing trans­porta­tion, by 2055. The re­but­tal cited nu­mer­ous er­rors and fan­tas­tic as­sump­tions re­gard­ing such in­puts as avail­able hy­dropower and cost of cap­i­tal.

Al­though these re­searchers them­selves are in most cases pro­po­nents of re­new­able en­ergy, they felt com­pelled to voice ob­jec­tion to what they see as mis­lead­ing claims. “The fear is that leg­is­la­tion will man­date goals that can’t be achieved with avail­able tech­nolo­gies at rea­son­able prices,” the MIT Tech­nol­ogy Review also re­ported. That could lead to “wildly un­re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions” and “mas­sive mis­al­lo­ca­tion of re­sources,” said David Vic­tor, an en­ergy pol­icy re­searcher at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, San Diego. “That is both harm­ful to the econ­omy, and cre­ates the seeds of a back­lash.”

The schol­arly dis­pute is di­rectly rel­e­vant to the Colorado pro­pos­als. In Po­lis’ “white paper” on re­new­ables, he claims it will “save con­sumers 10 per­cent on en­ergy costs,” cit­ing data from the So­lu­tions Project. That’s the brain­child of ac­tor Mark Ruf­falo and Josh Fox, the anti-frack­ing film­maker who re­galed view­ers with phony claims re­gard­ing the cause of a fiery faucet in Weld County, among other false­hoods. They re­cruited the tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise of Stan­ford sci­en­tist Mark Ja­cob­son, who hap­pens to be lead author of the same 2015 study on re­new­able en­ergy that turns out to be fun­da­men­tally flawed.

Are Ja­cob­son-in­spired es­ti­mates of con­sumer sav­ings and job cre­ation for the So­lu­tions Project likely to be any more cred­i­ble?

Ja­cob­son also was co-author of a 2013 re­port out­lin­ing how New York state could sup­pos­edly tran­si­tion to 100 per­cent clean en­ergy by 2030. How­ever, a close look by Bloomberg News re­vealed the state “would need about $382 bil­lion and wind tur­bines cov­er­ing an area equiv­a­lent to 13 per­cent of the state’s land mass” to fol­low the blue­print.

John­ston told me he too con­sulted Ja­cob­son’s work, al­though he also men­tioned the Sierra Club, NREL, and even Xcel En­ergy as among his other sources.

Sig­nif­i­cantly, al­though Po­lis lists a num­ber of con­crete steps he would take to push re­new­able en­ergy, he does not men­tion a statu­tory man­date of 100 per­cent.

“I do not in­clude the kind of top-down ap­proach that you are ask­ing about,” Po­lis said by email. “There are no hard man­dates, and my con­cern about hard man­dates is that un­less there was lan­guage that pro­tected con­sumers they could lead to rate in­creases. And if there was lan­guage that pro­tected con­sumers and pro­vided an ‘out’ from the man­date then the man­date wouldn’t mean much. Thus my pro­posal is bot­tom-up and mar­ket driven.”

Po­lis ac­knowl­edges that current storage tech­nol­ogy is in­ad­e­quate, but says his pro­jec­tion is “based upon as­sump­tions that both storage tech­nol­ogy and re­new­able gen­er­a­tion tech­nol­ogy will con­tinue to in­crease efficiency at sim­i­lar rates to the his­toric rates of the last decade.”

John­ston is bank­ing on the same tech­no­log­i­cal progress, al­though he fa­vors re­quir­ing util­i­ties to meet “bench­marks” on the road to 2040. And he prom­ises his own white paper by month’s end pro­vid­ing fuller de­tails.

Tremen­dous progress on storage is crit­i­cal given how wind and so­lar en­ergy fluc­tu­ate day to day. But such storage is still in its in­fant stages, even if Tesla CEO Elon Musk re­cently did pledge to build a 100-megawatt storage sys­tem in South Aus­tralia for a wind farm there — by far the largest such bat­tery sys­tem in the world. If it’s a suc­cess, util­ity scale en­ergy storage may fi­nally be on the dis­tant hori­zon.

But sup­pose that’s true. Re­plac­ing current in­fra­struc­ture would still be an im­mensely com­plex, costly propo­si­tion. Xcel owns coal units in Colorado with a “net de­pend­able ca­pac­ity” of 2,516 megawatts of power (1 megawatt can ser­vice roughly 750 homes), and nat­u­ral gas plants with about the same ca­pac­ity, ac­cord­ing to com­pany doc­u­ments. Ratepay­ers al­most al­ways foot the bill for new in­vest­ments and will do so with storage tech­nol­ogy, too. A mas­sive, crash tran­si­tion over a rel­a­tively few years could eas­ily end up spik­ing util­ity bills if reg­u­la­tors and politi­cians aren’t care­ful.

If Democrats sweep to power in Colorado in what has the mak­ings of a good year for them in 2018, hik­ing the current re­new­able man­date of 30 per­cent will be high on their agenda. The de­bates will be driven by con­cern over cli­mate change, but any at­tempt to po­si­tion Colorado as the na­tional leader in re­new­able en­ergy needs to in­clude con­sumer pro­tec­tion, too.

Be­cause no one ac­tu­ally knows what tech­nol­ogy will look

like in 23 years.

Vin­cent Car­roll is a for­mer Den­ver Post and Rocky Moun­tain News editorial page edi­tor.

Daily Cam­era and Den­ver Post file

Both Colorado Con­gress­man Jared Po­lis, top, and for­mer state Sen. Michael John­ston have pledged to make Colorado the first state to tran­si­tion to 100 per­cent re­new­able en­ergy — by 2040.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.