The renewable energy debate

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Colorado voters in November will decide whether to embrace Amendment 37, a ballot initiative that requires top utility companies to get 10 percent of their energy from renewable energy sources such as wind farms and solar panels by 2015.

In a state that uses renewable energy for less than 2 percent of its electricity needs-the vast majority of power plants are fueled by coal – several major utility providers may challenge the ballot inititiative.

However, renewable energy has strong allies, as well.

Colorado House Speaker Lola Spradley (R-Beulah) and U.S. Rep. Mark Udall (D-Eldorado Springs) are backing the amendment. During the last four years, Spradley has advocated renewable energy sources, backing several bipartisan bills that failed to gain enough support in the Senate.

Amendment 37 is not a constitutional amendment, but rather an amendment to state statutes. “I would not have signed on if it was a constitutional change,” Spradley said. “For the first time, voters will have a choice in how they buy energy.”

Renewable energy can take many forms. Wind power works by taking advantage of the nature of the electric motor-if electricity is applied, the motor spins. Conversely, if it spins, electricity is created.

Breakthroughs in the aerodynamic shape of the blades and how the blades are mounted on towers are creating a more mature technology. Now wind power, at 3 to 4 cents per kilowatt hour, is nearly as inexpensive as coal power.

“It is a crucial time to think about our energy security,” Udall said. “We need to prepare for the future by reducing our dependence on unstable foreign energy sources. Renewable energy is a step toward a secure, stable future.”

The price of fuel changes and leads costs to fluctuate. But in Colorado, coal remains the least expensive, at 2 to 2.5 cents per kilowatt hour. Natural gas currently ranges from 3.5 to 4.5 cents per kilowatt hour. “The issue is one of cost,” said Paul Komor, a lecturer in the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “Wind is comparable in cost to natural gas, but still more than coal. Those who are opposed [to the amendment] are mostly those in the electrical utility business, for two reasons. These technologies are not free, so the primary issue is one of price. But there’s also a philosophical issue. They see this as a mandate, and people just don’t like to be told what to do.”

The benefits of wind-powered energy are evidenced in the Colorado Green Project, the wind farm near Lamar that was dedicated in May, where an 11,840-acre field of 108 turbines generate 1.5 megawatts of electricity each. The electricity is sold to Xcel Energy – which, in turn, sells to ratepayers. The 162 megawatts created by the farm, the fifth-largest in the country, is enough to power about 52,000 homes.

According to Xcel, its customers will save about $4.6 million a year because of the Colorado Green Project. Xcel is the fourth-largest electricity and natural gas provider in the U.S. and is a contributor to Citizens for Sensible Energy, an anti-renewable energy campaign.

The Lamar project generates $2 million in annual property taxes, as well as rental royalties for landowners who allow wind turbines on their property. “There were many benefits to the county and local folks,” said Rick Gilliam, senior energy policy adviser for Western Resource Advocates. “The tax base increased 29 percent, which includes schools and hospitals. It’s the single largest private capital project in the county’s history.”

Price-wise, wind power is already a safe bet. Solar power, despite technological advances, lags behind as an cost-effective choice.

The use of solar power, all the rage in California homes, is growing 20 to 30 percent per year. Solar energy sources cost 20-25 cents per kilowatt hour, and technology has a ways to go before solar energy becomes as cost competitive as wind power, said Gary Schmitz, spokesman for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden.

“Given the emphasis on reliability, the emphasis on reducing emissions, solar power still has its opportunities for contributing to our power needs,” said Schmitz. “Panels are becoming a major part of housing developments and office buildings. This is not universally true, but what we’re generally seeing is for wind, we’re having large utility-scale operations, and solar in a more distributed fashion.”

Solar power panels, often made from silicon though some companies are experimenting with plastic, absorb photons from the sun, which frees up electrons in the panel material. As the electrons are sent through to the other side of the plate, it creates “potential difference,” which is essentially voltage.

With more electrons on one side than the other-remember your high school chemistry here-one side is positive, and the other is negative. The effect turns the material into a battery of sorts. Putting a wire between the two sides allows for a current to flow through that wire.

“Historically, there’s been a higher marginal cost for renewable energy. The sun doesn’t shine 24 hours a day, the wind doesn’t blow 24 hours a day. You had to make up for it with back-up power. I think that’s less the case today than it’s been in the past,” said Schmitz. “Since 1977, the cost of solar energy has been cut by 80 or 90 percent. The same is true of wind power.”

By 2015, the initiative, according to Coloradans for Clean Energy, would be equivalent to taking 600,000 cars off the road, or saving the water used by 15,000 single family households. Every year.

“Renewable makes a lot of sense in the long term. Fossil fuels are finite,” said Komor. “The more important issues are environmental-that we no longer want to deal with the environmental problems that using fossil fuels costs. Latest guesses say we have 100 years before we run out of coal in this country. That’s a long time.”

Natural gas prices have shot up dramatically over the last several years. Xcel raised rates 73 percent on average last winter. Another increase, between 15 and 20 percent, is planned for autumn. The utility cited the increased costs for the fuel. Basic economics dictates that with less and less of the resource around-currently we import around 30 percent of our natural gas-the price will go higher.

One would think that was a clear case for the merits of renewable energy.

Yet Colorado Springs Utilities, the Intermountain REA and the Colorado Mining Association represent the strongest opposition to the amendment, said Gilliam, who is also chairman of the steering committee for Coloradans for Clean Energy.

“Utilities are gambling with our futures,” he said. “Coal plants are around for 50 to 60 years or more. Within that period, I think there will be some form of carbon dioxide regulation, and retrofitting those plants is going to be enormously expensive. Renewable energy is a way of mitigating that risk.”

In February, Xcel announced plans to build a $1.3 billion expansion to the coal-fueled Camanche power plant in Pueblo. That unit alone could pump as much as 6.5 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air annually.

“From the utility perspective, the costs are passed on to the customers. The utilities are going to put that risk on the ratepayers. By doing more renewables, we’ll have an alternative electric resource,” said Gilliam. “It also gives utilities more experience with renewables; when they are making decisions, they will know how to work with wind, and can include them in their resource mix.”

Some capitalists have expressed concern that the ballot initiative could inhibit the free market.

“Electricity is a regulated industry-energy already is policy. I don’t see this amendment as an intervention,” said Komor. “There will be winners and losers. It’s definitely a boost for the Colorado renewable energy indus
try. The way the amendment is written, the ratepayers will pay it. Right or wrong, nothing’s free.”