Clean power

In a last-ditch effort to forestall the future, critics are urging Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper to veto Senate Bill 252. That measure, approved by both houses of the Legislature, requires electric cooperatives and their supplier, Tri-State Generation and Transmission, to get 20 percent of their power from renewable energy sources by 2020. That is up from the current mandate of 10 percent.

The governor should sign the bill for a number of reasons, but if he needs a bumper-sticker answer for his critics he can try this: If Excel can do it, so can Tri-State.

In fact, Excel, which supplies power to Denver, the I-70 corridor and the Eastern Plains, is already at 20 percent renewable energy. A spokesman told The Durango Herald it expects no problem meeting its mandate of 30 percent by 2020. The requirement for investor-owned utilities such as Excel was set at 10 percent by the voters in 2004 and raised to 30 percent in a 2010 agreement.

Opponents of SB 252 have focused on the idea that raising the renewable requirement will unfairly increase the cost of power for rural Colorado. Tri-State has claimed the bill would cost it between $2 billion and $4 billion.

Even some critics of the bill think those numbers are high. And a limit to rate increases is built into the bill. In any case, the cost argument rests on several shaky presumptions.

One is the idea that renewable energy costs more than dirty power – and always will. But cost comparisons between renewable energy and coal-generated electricity typically look only at the electric bill and projections of future costs too often ignore the history of technology.

In what economists call externalization of costs, the true cost of producing electricity by burning coal is largely ignored. Whether reflected as deteriorated air quality, associated health problems, the effects of climate change or the environmental damage caused by mining, coal has costs far beyond its nominal price per ton.

Moreover, experience suggests that the cost of renewable energy technology will only drop. Technology has been consistent in that regard, from consumer electronics to computers to cellphones or the gadgets in cars. Solar panels have already exhibited that trend.

Nonetheless, electric bills would likely rise somewhat to meet SB 252’s mandate. But focusing exclusively on that also ignores the fact that one person’s expense is another person’s income. And putting more emphasis on renewable energy increases the likelihood that those two people are friends or at least neighbors.

Tri-State gets power from several categories of “resources” according to how easily they can be started and stopped or how intermittent they may be. Its “baseload resources” – the always-available generating capacity, as opposed to that used only to satisfy times of high demand – consists of six coal-fired power plants fed by at least as many mines. Only two of those power plants are in Colorado, one at Nucla, in western San Miguel County, and one at Craig, to the west of Steamboat Springs. The Craig plant, however, is fueled by Wyoming coal. Tri-State’s “baseload” power needs support jobs at two Colorado power plants and one mine. The rest are out-of-state.

More renewable energy, however, would translate to more jobs closer to home. Wind-turbine technology already involves hundreds of Colorado jobs, both building turbines and maintaining them. Even Chinese-made solar panels need local installers and locally available maintenance.

Opposition to expanding the role of renewable energy in our power supply may be a function of coal-industry lobbying. It may stem from a misguided fixation on the nominal price of electricity as the only meaningful issue. But most likely, it simply reflects the too-well-learned lessons of what is rapidly becoming an outdated model.

SB 252 is hardly a panacea, but it is a step forward. Hickenlooper should sign the bill.

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