Colorado’s Final GHG Roadmap Falls Far Short

Colorado unveils climate plan to cut heat-trapping air pollution by 90%: Two years after lawmakers ordered action, “roadmap” sets path away from fossil fuels toward clean energy. Key steps include: shifting more off coal in favor of renewable wind and solar electricity, reducing methane pollution by the oil and gas industry, faster shifting to electric cars, buses and trucks, encouraging less driving through smarter land use, cleaning up energy used in buildings, and cutting methane emissions from landfills and wastewater. Roughly half the electricity used in Colorado still comes from burning coal, more than in many other states, while gas-powered vehicles and the oil and gas industry add to the atmospheric muck.

By BRUCE FINLEY | | The Denver Post, January 15, 2021

Colorado leaders on Thursday unveiled a plan two years in the making to cut heat-trapping air pollution in the state by 90% — a reduction of more than 100 tons a year — before 2050 to improve public health and help contain climate warming.

This is an issue for all humanity and life on the planet,” and limited international cooperation means individual nations, states and companies must act, Gov. Jared Polis said.

It’s very much in our interest to do our part,” Polis said in an interview. “We have a climate-driven economy. Hundreds of thousands of jobs in Colorado are climate-dependent. And we want to position Colorado as a climate and green energy leader.”

Burning fossil fuels for 150 years has guaranteed that climate warming will hit harder — megafiresaridityheat waves, rising sea levels — for at least three more decades, scientists say. But reducing carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gas pollution would minimize future harm. Roughly half the electricity used in Colorado still comes from burning coal, more than in many other states, while gas-powered vehicles and the oil and gas industry add to the atmospheric muck.

The “roadmap” for state action finalized this week reflects the rise of climate warming and environmental health concerns nationally and worldwide as a top priority. President-elect Joe Biden has promised a $2 trillion investment to hasten a job-generating shift to clean energy and to re-join the international Paris agreement that President Donald Trump rejected.

Biden also is re-organizing White House staffing to focus on climate warming and has appointed former Sen. John Kerry to coordinate work with other countries. In recent months, China, Japan and the European Union ramped up commitments to cut heat-trapping pollution.

Colorado’s 207-page plan — Polis called it “by far the most ambitious and expansive planning document Colorado has ever produced on climate change” — relies on regulatory agencies to enforce pollution cuts at power plants, oil and gas industry sites, and in buildings. Drivers increasingly would be encouraged to shift from gas-powered to zero-emission vehicles through tax benefits and other incentives.

“There is no single ‘silver bullet’ solution,” the plan says. “Modeling shows that a ‘silver buckshot’ approach of reductions across all the major sectors is needed.”

Lawmakers in 2019 ordered state officials to reduce heat-trapping air pollution below a baseline 2005 level, which air quality regulators estimated at 139 million tons a year. The lawmakers mandated cuts by 26% before 2025 to 103 million tons; by 50% before 2030 to 70 million tons; and by 90% before 2050 to 14 million tons. Current overall heat-trapping air pollution hovers around 125 million tons.

Polis has declared Colorado will rely on 100% renewable energy by 2040.

But achieving these targets is expected to require significant new investments, innovations and federal assistance, as well as tougher state policies and standards. State health, energy and transportation officials refining the roadmap emphasized a need to ensure equity, recognizing that climate warming and air pollution often hit low-income and other marginalized communities the hardest.

Key steps over the next decade include:

  • Shifting more off coal in favor of renewable wind and solar electricity
  • Reducing methane pollution by the oil and gas industry
  • Faster shifting to electric cars, buses and trucks
  • Encouraging less driving through smarter land use
  • Cleaning up energy used in buildings
  • Cutting methane emissions from landfills and wastewater

The Colorado Chamber of Commerce in November raised concerns, and business leaders on Thursday issued a statement questioning feasibility. “Economic and environmental progress is best achieved when emissions reduction goals are realistic, achievable and market-driven,” the chamber said. “While this roadmap is well-intended, we urge our elected leaders and regulators to fully consider the costs of implementing such measures, particularly under the current economic circumstances.”

Grassroots groups of residents facing heavy pollution welcomed the plan but joined critics from environmental groups in demanding a more aggressive approach. A coalition of 22 groups including Green Latinos and the Sierra Club signed a letter saying the government still sanctions too much pollution and ignores the needs of people in low-income “sacrifice zones.”

Colorado leaders, if they really want to protect “communities disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis,” must first “dismantle the harmful practices of environmental racism, white supremacy and predatory capitalism,” their letter says, noting that two years have passed since lawmakers ordered action to reduce air pollution.

“Our communities have yet to see tangible action to rein in toxic air pollution or climate crisis-causing emissions,” the letter says. “Every moment we delay, the communities that have been most harmed by pollution continue to live with the associated health impacts.”


Gov. Polis’ Latest Climate Plan Offers More Details, But Critics Still Want More On Environmental Justice By Sam Brasch, CPR, January 14, 2021

Suncor Oil Refinery
The Suncor oil refinery in Denver, June 2, 2020.

Nearly two years after committing Colorado to a massive reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, Gov. Jared Polis has a plan to make it happen. 

On Thursday, the governor’s office released a final “roadmap” to achieve the goals in the state’s 2019 climate action plan. The legislation calls for a 26 percent reduction in emissions by 2025 and a 50 percent reduction by 2030. Those targets are measured against Colorado’s 2005 emissions. 

“This is by far the most ambitious and expansive planning document that Colorado has ever produced on climate change,” Polis said. “And as we pursue this work, we also must ensure that our efforts promote racial equity and economic justice.”

A rapid shift to renewable energy drives a policy schedule

To hit those goals, the roadmap lays out a schedule for new regulations and legislation set to affect almost every sector of Colorado’s economy, including transportation, oil and gas production and buildings. 

The roadmap also further codifies Polis’ larger strategy on climate change. Unlike other blue-state governors, Polis has resisted plans that would set a cap on emissions and fine companies for exceeding limits. The most notable example is California, which passed a “cap-and-trade” law to enforce reductions in 2006. 

Instead, the Polis administration has sought to pass policies tailored for specific industries. The approach has prompted lawsuits and criticism from leading environmental groups like the Environmental Defense Fund, but the roadmap shows his administration doesn’t plan to change course. 

“It’s the right approach for Colorado,” Polis said. “It will lock in emission reductions and cleaner air — and does it in a way that will position Colorado at the center of the clean energy economy.” 

Tensions Between Gov. Polis And Environmentalists Grow After Legal Move In Colorado Climate Lawsuit

At the heart of the roadmap is a rapid shift to renewable energy. Colorado’s largest utilities have all committed to reducing their emissions 80 percent by 2030, often through promises to retire coal power plants earlier than expected. Over the next few years, the roadmap says those companies will work with state air and utility regulators to finalize those plans and codify them into law. 

Other policies are designed to take advantage of a cleaner grid. The roadmap calls for new legislation to encourage drivers to buy electric cars and building owners to switch to electric heating. According to the roadmap, the oil and gas industry can also expect further regulations to reduce methane leaks, a potent greenhouse gas. 

All together, models included in the report predict the current policies will get the state halfway to its 2030 emissions goal. It claims the additional policies, like rules to encourage public transit and work-from-home options, should get the state the rest of the way — or further.  

Activists worry the plan does not include enough of the concerns of Coloradans of color and low-income residents

Environmental groups panned a September draft of the roadmap for a lack of detail. While the latest version includes a timeline for concrete policies, some activists said the roadmap doesn’t do enough to help low-income communities. 

Renee Millard-Chacon, an educator and community activist from Commerce City, said the main problem is the roadmaps’ timing. Besides ordering new emissions policies, Colorado’s plan also calls for an “equity framework” to identify communities most affected by climate change and bring them into the policymaking process. 

While the roadmap is now finalized, a draft of that framework is expected next month. 

Millard-Chacon said that means policymakers failed to include ideas from her community in Commerce City. The largely Latino suburb north of Denver has long suffered from the impacts of industrial pollution, which she says has shown her neighbors a need for local air monitoring and greater fines for polluters.  

“There are ways to heal these spaces if community leaders bring in people who have been harmed the most,” Millard-Chacon said.

As Colorado Plans To Tackle Climate Change, Advocates And Politicians Demand Racial Equity Be Included In The Process

Jamie Valdez, an environmental activist in Pueblo, agreed the state should do more to get low-income Coloradans involved. 

“Gov. Polis, I give him credit for his bold ambitions. I just feel like there could be more focus on frontline communities,” Valdez said. 

When asked about inclusion around the roadmap, Polis said many environmental justice groups provided input on the draft version of the policy outline. He added the roadmap includes details on the upcoming climate equity framework, which will further ensure frontline communities have a seat at the table. 

Democratic state Rep. Dominique Jackson, who represents Denver and originally sponsored Colorado’s climate goals, added lawmakers also have a role to play as they carry out the roadmap during this year’s legislative session. 

“As a Black woman whose lived experience includes often being just left out of the conversations that impact my life, I have a visceral understanding that real environmental justice means truly giving voice and individual power to everyone,” Jackson said.


Colorado governor releases final plan to reduce emissions by 90%. It’s still too vague, environmentalists say.

The Air Quality Control Commission is responsible for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from millions of vehicles and industrial and office buildings

Michael Booth and Mark Jaffe, Colorado Sun, Jan 14, 2021

United Power’s Rattlesnake Solar Farm sits on 175 acres near Hudson, Colorado. (Carl Payne, Special to the Colorado Sun)

The state released its final version of the highly touted “Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap” Thursday, claiming it lays down the path and the timing of specific rules and legislation to achieve massive emissions reductions. But environmental advocates said it still is too vague to guarantee real change.

The report by Gov. Jared Polis and his climate change team, required by previous groundbreaking legislation, is meant to map the role of state departments and commissions in achieving 90% reductions in 2005 emissions levels by 2050. Polis said Colorado has already achieved a 40% reduction, ahead of midpoint targets, but needs to accelerate carbon dioxide reduction in the three key areas of electric generation, oil and gas production, and transportation. 

Separate from the roadmap’s targets, Polis has set the goal of 100% renewable energy use in the state in less than two decades. 

The environmental imperative, Polis said in releasing the final report, is even more obvious now than when he took office two years ago with pledges to combat the greenhouse effect of climate change. The events Colorado “couldn’t have imagined” include three massive drought-driven wildfires in 2020 alone that grew into the largest in state history, Polis said, as well as an ongoing drought that is becoming the norm rather than the exception.

Scenes of wildfire evacuation across the state in 2020 served as “a stark reminder that climate refugees don’t only live near the oceans on the coast, but right here in Colorado,” Polis said. 

MORE: Colorado’s statewide drought “pretty dire.” It’ll take more than a season’s snowfall to get out of it.

The roadmap calls on the Public Utilities Commission, for example, to make the target 80% reduction in electric power emissions by 2030 a “floor” rather than the ceiling, and Polis said rapid reductions in the cost of utility-scale solar and wind energy make further reductions attainable. 

Regulators are joining with advocates for creating timelines for drafting new regulations at the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to reduce high emissions from drilling, production and refining, and many of those rules will be finished in 2021. 

The Air Quality Control Commission has the much more complex task of reducing carbon dioxide from millions of vehicles, from industrial and office buildings, and from widely dispersed sources across the state. Colorado has matched California’s standards for increases in sales of electric-powered vehicles, whose energy source is far cleaner than petroleum, but other specifics are lacking. 

Signs warn people away from parking in front of an electric vehicle charging station at the I-70 Diner in Flagler, Colorado, unless they are refueling. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)

Environmentalists and some legislators have criticized the draft roadmap for not having clear programs and firm timelines and deadlines for action. 

The final plan does set out a range of actions and rulemakings for the next two years. Many of them, however, were already on calendars of air, utility and oil and gas regulatory commissions, and some remain to be defined.

Asked what was added to give the roadmap more specific direction since the draft was criticized, Polis pointed to language addressing inequity in climate change impacts and how those can be remedied. The report pledges, for example, to build more equity-focused community outreach into the rulemaking process, and to include equity analysis in reviews such as permitting and siting pollution sources. 

Later Thursday, the governor’s office pointed to other specific emission policies in the report, including examples such as required reductions in vehicle trips by large employers, a rulemaking process that will start this summer.

State Sen. Faith Winter, a Democrat representing Thornton, Northglenn and Westminster, said the roadmap now includes more specific timelines and measurable goals in climate equity work. 

“What’s being released today is a significant step forward,” Winter said. “We need to prioritize equity first and foremost; historically disadvantaged communities have borne the brunt of climate change.” 

Rep. Alex Valdez, a Denver Democrat, said equity goals will include more access to electric vehicles and charging stations, for example, in underserved Denver neighborhoods. “I represent one of the most polluted ZIP codes in the United States, and they’ll be very happy to hear we are taking bold steps.”

Environmental advocates said equity needs are urgent, and plans like the greenhouse gas roadmap don’t include specific, immediate change. 

“Successfully reducing climate pollution and meeting Colorado’s climate goals must be done in a way that is quantifiable, enforceable, and equitable,” Stacy Tellinghuisen, senior climate policy analyst for the environmental group Western Resource Advocates, said in a statement. 

Tellinghuisen said a quick review of the finalized roadmap “still doesn’t appear to meet those criteria. Specifically, we’ve heard from our frontline community partners — and we agree — that the equitable part is missing from the roadmap.” 

MORE: Colorado is behind on targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions. How far should the state push industry to get there?

Achieving the state’s climate action plans “requires engagement and support of disproportionately impacted communities, yet we are still waiting for (the state health department’s) equity framework,” a coalition of conservation advocates said in a release Thursday. “The delay of this framework signals that disproportionately-impacted communities were not sufficiently consulted or centered, and therefore, are unlikely to reap the benefits that could come from the governor’s roadmap.”

The final roadmap, in a marked change, does outline a broad range of legislative actions that need to be taken to help meet the emission reduction goals.

Polis, for example, in his budget up for the legislature’s approval is proposing $40 million for clean energy financing, and $5 million for local governments for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.

Other elements that will need legislative action include setting carbon reduction targets for gas utilities and requiring large commercial buildings to track and reduce emissions.

Colorado officials are emphasizing the climate change effort can make large greenhouse gas reductions while still providing safe, reliable and affordable energy for consumers and industry. Polis on Thursday included the comments of renewable power executive Kevin Smith, whose Lightsource BP is building massive solar power arrays in Pueblo that replace coal-fired power generation

Lightsource BP is finishing the $285 million Bighorn solar array next to the Evraz steel-rail factory in Pueblo, and will soon announce details on another $200 million array there, Smith said. Both the energy arrays and the steel factory are creating hundreds of new jobs, not just because of climate change targets, but because the energy they need will be cheaper. 

“They are expanding the steel mill for rails in part because they now have long-term, cost competitive power,” Smith said.


o Cut Emissions to Zero, U.S. Needs to Make Big Changes in Next 10 Years

New research details major infrastructure work — including immense construction projects — that would need to start right away to achieve Biden’s goal of zero emissions by 2050.

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To meet its goal of being carbon neutral by 2050, the United States will need to invest broadly in energy infrastructure.
To meet its goal of being carbon neutral by 2050, the United States will need to invest broadly in energy infrastructure.Credit…Beth Coller for The New York Times
Brad Plumer

By Brad Plumer

  • Dec. 15, 2020

If the United States wants to get serious about tackling climate change, the country will need to build a staggering amount of new energy infrastructure in just the next 10 years, laying down steel and concrete at a pace barely being contemplated today.

That’s one conclusion from a major study released Tuesday by a team of energy experts at Princeton University, who set out several exhaustively detailed scenarios for how the country could slash its greenhouse gas emissions down to zero by 2050. That goal has been endorsed by President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., as well as numerous states and businesses, to help avoid the worst effects of global warming.

The study’s findings are at once optimistic and sobering. Reaching “net zero” by 2050 appears technically feasible and even affordable. There are ways to get there that rely solely on renewable energy, as many environmentalists prefer, or that lean on other technologies such as nuclear power or carbon capture. Each approach carries different social and economic trade-offs.

The researchers identified a common set of drastic changes that the United States would need to make over the next decade to stay on pace for zero emissions. That initial groundwork has to start pretty much immediately.

Some examples:

  • This year, energy companies will install 42 gigawatts of new wind turbines and solar panels, smashing records. But that annual pace would need to nearly double over the next decade, and then keep soaring, transforming the landscapes in states like Florida or Missouri.
  • The capacity of the nation’s electric grid would have to expand roughly 60 percent by 2030 to handle vast amounts of wind and solar power, which would mean thousands of miles of new power lines crisscrossing the country.
  • Car dealerships would look radically different. Today, electric-vehicle models are just 2 percent of new sales. By 2030, at least 50 percent of new cars sold would need to be battery-powered, with that share rising thereafter.
  • Most homes today are heated by natural gas or oil. But in the next 10 years, nearly one-quarter would need to be warmed with efficient electric heat pumps, double today’s numbers.
  • Virtually all of the 200 remaining coal-burning power plants would have to shut down by 2030.
  • Today, there are no cement plants that bury their emissions underground, and there are no facilities sustainably producing hydrogen, a clean-burning fuel. By the mid-2020s, several such plants would need to be operating to prepare for wider deployment.

“The scale of what we have to build in a very short time frame surprised me,” said Christopher Greig, a senior scientist at Princeton’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment. “We can do this, we can afford this, but now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and figure out how to get it done.”

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Ninety percent of the energy supply in the United States could come from renewable sources by 2050. 
Ninety percent of the energy supply in the United States could come from renewable sources by 2050. Credit…Deanne Fitzmaurice for The New York Times

The Princeton researchers used some of the most comprehensive models to date of America’s energy system to figure out which combinations of technologies could zero out emissions at lowest cost. Their work follows an in-depth report in October from the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network that reached similar conclusions.

To start, the United States could make enormous strides over the next decade by rapidly scaling up solutions already in use today, like wind, solar, electric cars and heat pumps. Doing so would require $2.5 trillion in additional investments by governments and industry by 2030.

By midcentury, both studies found, at least 90 percent of the nation’s electricity could feasibly come from renewable sources.

Beyond that, however, the task gets harder.

Large parts of the economy still rely on fossil fuels and don’t yet have obvious solutions. How do we fuel airplanes and trucks that can’t easily shift to batteries? What about industries like steel or cement? How do we keep the lights on when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining?

There are plausible options, the studies found. Wind and solar power could be backed up by batteries, some existing nuclear reactors and a large fleet of natural-gas plants that run only occasionally or have been modified to burn clean hydrogen. Millions of acres of farmland could grow switchgrass, a more sustainable source of biofuels than today’s corn-based ethanol. Devices that suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere could help offset emissions.

But most of those technologies are still in early development. That would have to change quickly.

Take heavy industry: If manufacturers hope to capture carbon dioxide spewing from cement factories, the Princeton study concluded, they would need to start constructing early demonstration plants this decade, plus thousands of miles of pipelines to transport the captured gas to underground burial sites beneath states like Texas.

“We need to be building up our options now,” said Jesse Jenkins, an energy systems engineer at Princeton. “Both for the problems we know are just around the corner, and as a hedge in case the solutions we think are promising today don’t work out.”

The changes renewable energy might bring, such as offshore wind farms, could face opposition.
The changes renewable energy might bring, such as offshore wind farms, could face opposition.Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

The studies found that, if done right, getting to net zero appears broadly affordable, largely because technologies like wind and solar have become so much cheaper than anyone expected over the past decade. In all the scenarios analyzed, energy costs would remain smaller as a share of the economy than they were during the 2000s.

But there are still significant hurdles. One is the potential for conflicts over land use.

The Princeton study used detailed mapping to see where all those new solar arrays and wind farms might be located. In one central scenario, they could take up land area roughly as large as Wyoming and Colorado combined. Hulking offshore wind farms could dot the Atlantic Coast from Massachusetts to Florida.

If policymakers decided to use only renewable energy, that could require twice as much land.

“It’s not a question of whether we have enough land, because we do,” said Eric Larson, a senior research engineer at Princeton. “But with that many new projects, you have to ask if they’ll run into local opposition.”

Already today, some wind and solar projects attract protests from landowners or farmers worried about nearby disruptions.

The Princeton researchers also analyzed a scenario in which wind and solar power struggled to grow rapidly, and it resulted in the need for lots of advanced nuclear reactors or natural gas plants with carbon capture, technologies still in their infancy.

Another possible obstacle: It’s unclear how enthusiastically Americans will embrace plug-in cars or abandon their gas furnaces for electric versions. If electrification is slow to take off, getting to zero could require other potentially arduous options, like huge quantities of biofuels or green hydrogen to supplant oil and gas.

Then there are jobs to consider. Net zero would mean eliminating coal and drastically reducing oil and gas use, displacing hundreds of thousands of fossil-fuel workers. (The Princeton study was partially funded by two oil companies, BP and Exxon Mobil.)

On the flip side, millions of new green jobs would spring up for workers retrofitting homes or building wind farms, though those jobs might not be located in the same regions. Some states, like North Dakota or Louisiana, could see significant disruptions.

“One advantage is that we can see this transition coming, and policymakers can take steps to help affected workers,” said Emily Grubert, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech who has studied potential job losses. “But we need to acknowledge that this could hurt some people.”

John Kerry, President-elect Biden’s climate envoy.
John Kerry, President-elect Biden’s climate envoy.Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

While the United States has lowered its emissions in recent years, those efforts would need to accelerate dramatically to stay on pace for zero emissions by 2050.

The report by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network outlined dozens of policies the federal government could adopt. Many are steps Mr. Biden has endorsed, like a nationwide clean-electricity standard or financing for green technologies. Others are more subtle, like streamlining the approval process for transmission lines.

But all levels of society would have to work together, the report said, such as cities rewriting building codes to encourage electric heating, or states reducing car dependency by expanding public transit. Politicians would need to figure out how to gain public acceptance for the sweeping changes unfolding, while protecting vulnerable Americans from harm.

“One question is whether net zero by 2050 can become a consensus national goal, the way building the interstate highway system or going to the moon were,” said Jeffrey Sachs, an economist at Columbia University who led the report.CLIMATE FWD: What on earth is going on? Get the latest news about climate change, plus tips on how you can help.Sign Up

That may prove the biggest hurdle. While Mr. Biden plans to reorient every federal agency toward climate policy, his most ambitious plans could face backlash from a divided Congress.

“These modeling studies are very good, but they assume everything will go perfectly,” said Susan Tierney, an energy consultant with the Analysis Group who was not involved in either report. “They can show us how to get to net zero technologically, but not how to solve all those pesky real-world political and social challenges.”

What both studies do illustrate is that there’s little room for delay. New cars and factories built today will stick around for decades. If they’re not cleaned up soon, it’s vastly more challenging to cut emissions later.

“It may seem like 2050 is a long way off,” said Dr. Jenkins. “But if you think about the timelines for policies, business decisions and capital investments, it’s really more like the day after tomorrow.”

Brad Plumer is a climate reporter specializing in policy and technology efforts to cut carbon dioxide emissions. At The Times, he has also covered international climate talks and the changing energy landscape in the United States. @bradplumerA version of this article appears in print on Dec. 16, 2020, Section A, Page 17 of the New York edition with the headline: A Lot of Work Ahead If the U.S. Is to Reach ‘Net Zero’ on Pollution. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe


Colorado utility plots strategies to finish its push to carbon-free power by 2030

Allen Best December 9, 2020

The 280-megawatt Rawhide coal plant north of Fort Collins.

Platte River Power Authority expects fully eliminating emissions will require more distributed resources and changes to how it manages peak demand. 

Correction: Fort Collins Mayor Wade Troxell’s name was misspelled in a previous version of this story.

After quietly taking a lead in the race to decarbonize Colorado’s electricity supply, a Fort Collins-based power wholesaler has begun plotting how to eliminate the final and most difficult 10% of emissions by 2030.

Platte River Power Authority is already nearing 50% carbon-free power thanks to major investments in wind and solar projects, with more on the horizon, including a 22-megawatt solar farm expected to come online this month. 

As for that last 10%, though, the answers may come not from distant wind farms but instead close to home — literally — and include a pivot in thinking about how the utility maintains a reliable supply of electricity at all times.

“Right now, production chases the load,” said Dave Hornbacher, executive director of electric services for the city of Longmont, one of the four municipalities that comprise Platte River. “When we come home and turn on the light and do our laundry and turn on the oven, those things can happen all at once. A traditional power company ramps up the resources necessary to answer that very immediate need.”

But with high levels of variable renewables, demand will need to be contoured to better match supplies. This will require more thoughtful interaction between consumers and power sources. Can your electric car be programmed to charge when the blustery wind makes electricity plentiful? Can household batteries store cheap renewable energy to power air conditioners on hot afternoons?

The final steps toward 100% carbon-free power likely will involve neighborhood-level energy production and storage, stepped-up energy efficiency, and a “smarter” and more interactive electrical grid, Hornbacher said, all with a goal of synchronizing demand and production.

Pushing renewables, storage

Utilities in Colorado and elsewhere have traditionally met maximum electricity demand by building bigger coal-fired power plants. Particularly since the 1990s, they’ve been aided by the addition of fast-ramping gas-fired plants. That generation was sized to reliably meet the maximum demands — all the while creating pollution, both of carbon dioxide and other exhausts.

Platte River, which serves Longmont, Loveland, Estes Park, and Fort Collins, has similarly depended on fossil fuels. It operates the 280-megawatt Rawhide coal plant north of Fort Collins, and also imports electricity from the Craig Generating Station, of which Platte River has an 18% ownership stake in units 2 and 3. All these units must be closed by the end of 2028, the Colorado Air Quality Control concluded in November in a ruling expected to be finalized this month.

Now come renewables, carbon-free and mostly less expensive. Utilities have integrated them into power supplies at higher and higher levels without sacrificing reliability or raising costs. But there are limits, at least on local and regional levels. The sun goes down with great reliability every night. Even in places where it seems like the wind blows all the time, well, sometimes it doesn’t.

In 2018, when Platte River embraced the 100% carbon-free goal, the utility hovered around 30% non-carbon sources. In its resolution, directors identified nine advancements that must occur in the near term to achieve the 2030 goal. They include matured battery storage performance and declined costs and improved performance of distributed generation resources.

The resolution also identifies the need for a regional energy market. Such markets by a regional transmission organization can more efficiently coordinate deliveries of renewable energy across broad regions. One proposal calls for strong connections with California and other Western states. Another idea sees stronger links to states of the Great Plains. 

Environmental advocates were peeved recently when Platte River directors adopted a resource plan that identifies the possible need for additional natural gas combustion by 2030 to replace the lost coal generation. They accused Platte River of walking away from the 100% carbon-free resolution.

Fort Collins Mayor Wade Troxell, who chairs the board of directors for Platte River, said critics missed how much can change in just four years. He points to Platte River’s 2016 resource plan, which failed to foresee tumbling wind and solar prices. Nor did it assume Platte River would surpass 50% renewable generation by 2022.

Symbolically, a 30-megawatt solar farm backed with two megawatts of battery storage now operates adjacent to the Rawhide plant. It will be augmented this month by the 22-megawatt farm, Rawhide Prairie. Other projects could put Platte River at 60% non-carbon sources by the end of 2023.

The investments have put Platte River at the front of the pack among larger utilities in Colorado, nearly all of which have voluntarily committed to reducing emissions at least 80% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. “It has become a race to the top,” said Zack Pierce, the special climate and energy advisor to Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, on a recent webinar.

Some, like Holy Cross Energy, a co-op serving the Vail and Aspen areas, have also started tinkering with steps to enable complete decarbonization. The co-op may achieve 80% to 85% non-carbon energy by 2024.

Troxell sees being a nonprofit as an advantage for Platte River over privately owned utilities like Xcel and Black Hills Energy because they have no need to deliver profits to investors. 

All four municipalities in Platte River have also adopted strong climate action goals. Size may also be to its advantage to Platte River, which accounted for 5.7% of the state’s electrical sales in 2018, fourth highest among the state’s utilities. A single project, such as the 225-megawatt Roundhouse wind farm that began producing this past summer, can have a significant impact.

Troxell, a professor of mechanical engineering at Colorado State University’s School of Biomedical Engineering, began getting interested in energy systems in about 1995. That interest led him and two former students to form a company, Sixth Dimension. The company produced power generation for buildings, using primarily diesel generation, but some solar. The intent was to allow the businesses to monetize the cost savings. The company succeeded and was sold to a larger company, and Troxell returned to the faculty at CSU.

The idea of dispersed generation integrated into the grid to achieve maximum value lingers in what Platte River will be exploring in the coming years. A decade-old smart-grid infrastructure project in Fort Collins, FortZED, provides a foundation for the work lying ahead. A $6.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, part of the federal stimulus package of 2009, got the project off the ground, bolstered by grants and other assistance from 13 community partners.

One component involved testing technologies that reduced peak energy use and integrated renewable energy, such as solar panels, on the CSU campus and Old Town district. Another element called Lose-a-Watt sought to double energy efficiency. A third set out how to demonstrate how a hybrid DC microgrid could improve efficiency, increase renewable production and transform how buildings interact with the distribution system. A fourth component tested how behavior change and more efficient equipment could reduce the energy footprint of a building on the CSU campus.

The project finally wound down in 2017, at a final cost of $13 million, having helped reform ideas about the integration of renewable energy and improved energy efficiency. 

In Longmont, Hornbacher sees overlapping challenges ahead. The first step is shaving peak demand through tools such as time-based pricing. Can changes in pricing encourage customers to hold off running washing machines or other appliances until times when renewable energy is abundant?

Many utilities already have rate structures that attempt to shave peak demand. Xcel Energy’s critical peak pricing program, for example, offers large-volume users the opportunity to save up to 5% off their annual costs by agreeing to curtailments during critical peak times. It has several such programs

Fort Collins already has an extensive program to reshape demand. “When you use electricity is as important as how much you use,” the city’s utility’s website says in explaining its time-of-day pricing schedule. The peak time is 5 to 9 p.m., when rates are 22 cents per kWh compared to 7 cents at other times.

The Smart Electric Power Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to assisting the electric power industry’s transition to “a clean and modern energy future,” has been enlisted to help Platte River sort through the complexities and uncertainties.

Technology may deliver many answers. A subcommittee of directors has to deliver a strategy to the fuller board in mid-2021. The utility also recently began an effort to engage customers in the four cities in conversation. The goal is partly to educate consumers about what lies ahead during the next decade but also to solicit ideas. Those conversations, Hornbacher said, “will probably involve things we haven’t talked about or even thought about yet.”


Allen Best

Allen writes about energy, water and other topics from a base in metropolitan Denver. He began writing about energy, the climate, and their relationship in 2005.