Category Archives: Colorado

Colorado Wildfire Climate Change Fail

The past couple of years have been rough on Colorado, in terms of climate change related disasters.  First a couple of record setting wildfire years, and then floods of “biblical” proportions.  At a gut level we know we have to respond, but our public discourse is having trouble addressing the root cause directly.  Instead we’re dancing around the issue, and failing to either adapt adequately to our new reality or to mitigate further climate change.

Adaptation?

Bills related to both the wildfires and last fall’s floods have been wending their way through our state legislature, and last week legislators and the governor held a press conference to highlight some of them, and a lot of the resulting commentary seemed to focus on the safety and well being of the firefighters and other emergency services workers that risk their lives on our behalf.  Largely absent from the discussion were the strong measures that the Governor’s wildfire task force put forward in the fall. They included:

  • Creating a wildfire risk map, and rating all properties on a scale of 1 to 10,  requiring that risk designation to be disclosed before any property sale, and making it available to insurance companies for use in setting their rates.
  • Charging those living in the “wildland urban interface” a fee based on their risk exposure, that would be used to defer some of the additional public costs incurred in protecting their private property.
  • Creating fire-resistant building codes for high risk areas, affecting both the materials used in construction, and requirements for defensible space around buildings.

Make no mistake: these are climate change adaptation measures, and Colorado has rejected them.

Firefighters in Waldo Canyon

As the Denver Post reported in September: developers didn’t like the idea of increased construction costs; the real-estate industry didn’t like the idea of making a lucrative market much less attractive; homeowners in high risk areas certainly didn’t like the idea of paying for the risks they’ve taken on, or making those risks transparent to potential buyers of their property.

Would the discussion be any different if people understood that the wildfire frequency and intensity is likely to just keep increasing as climate change marches on?  This is about as close as the article from September gets to mentioning climate change:

Colorado terrain ravaged by wildfire has quadrupled from 200,000 acres in the 1990s to nearly 900,000 acres in the 2000s.  “Scientists tell us this pattern isn’t going to change,” Hickenlooper said.

Why is the “pattern” there in the first place?  What kind of scientists was the Governor was talking to?  None of the press articles linked to from this post mention climate change even once, despite universally pointing out the trend.  For example: As Colorado wildfires continue to worsen, only moderate laws proposed.  And why are they worsening?  No comment.  Even the wildfire task force’s report mentions climate change only once in 80 pages.

Waldo Canyon Fire Aftermath

The only big risk factor we’ve talked about directly is where we choose to build our homes.  This is an important discussion too.  The overall wildfire risk — at least to human lives and property — is something like:

(human risk) = (area burned) x (pop. density in high risk areas)

Climate change will in large part determine how much of our state burns each year, but we have a choice about how many people and how much property to put in areas subject to burning.  Reducing our exposure to the increasing wildfire risk is an adaptation to climate change — an alteration of our behavior, in light of the expected risks going forward.  For the moment at least, we seem unwilling to listen to the warnings.

But hey, at least the state had a conversation, and decided not to do anything.

Cause and Effect

So what are the causes?  According to the US Forest Service, the enormous bark beetle kill is due in part to warmer winters, resulting from climate change.  These forests filled with dead trees are warm and dry for longer each year, lengthening the western US fire season by about 2 months.  So it’s perhaps unsurprising that the number of large wild fires per year has already increased from 140 in the 1980s, to 250 in the first decade of the 2000s.  This infographic from the Union of Concerned Scientists is a good cartoon summary:

Western Wildfires and Climate Change

(see this paper for the references behind the infographic)

The third panel is probably the scariest for Colorado.  The dark red swath covering most of the western half of the state means that we expect more than six times as much land to burn each year in the near future, with just 1°C (1.8°F) of additional warming — and as Kevin Anderson and many others have pointed out, it is virtually certain that we will see another 1°C of warming… if not 3°C, or even more.

So our elected representatives are right to be concerned about increased risk from wildfires, and about the safety of the firefighters who try to protect us from those fires.  But we’re still missing the point:  We control our exposure to risk locally, and we control the magnitude of that risk globally.

Mitigation?

Policies aimed at avoiding or reducing climate change (like putting a price on carbon) are mitigation efforts.   We’re not talking about them much, even in the context of an obviously climate mediated risk like wildfires.  This is bad.  If we can’t have a conversation about what’s increasing the wildfire risks, how can we hope to respond appropriately?  Is our refusal to respond to change related to our refusal to accept the cause of the change?  Or is it more a kind of landscape amnesia — an inability to even see the change?  Are we going to forget what normal fire seasons looked like, in the same way that we’ve started to forget what a normal winter feels like:

Cold

Double Climate #Fail

Right now we’re managing to fail doubly with respect to climate change.  We are both unwilling to adapt to the foreseeable risks, and unwilling to even mention that these risks are linked to our greenhouse gas emissions, let alone talk about what we might do to mitigate those emissions and the risks that they create.

If we really care about our firefighters, if we really are intent on avoiding ever more costly and tragic conflagrations in our state, we need to both adapt and mitigate.  We need to start building for a warmer world now, and we need to stop warming the world as quickly as possible.

If you agree, look up the contact information for your Colorado state legislators and let them know.

Colorado at the Forefront of Renewables

JanieHernandez
Photo by Janie Hernandez

On June 6th, 2013, Governor Hickenlooper signed Senate Bill 13-252, making it a day to be celebrated by all who are interested in furthering renewable energy sources in Colorado. As stated in the article by EcoWatch, the new bill will increase “Colorado’s Renewable Energy Standard for co-operative associations that provide wholesale electricity in the state, and for large electric associations that provide service to at least 100,000 customers. The bill doubles the amount of renewable energy these utilities must provide to 20 percent (from 10 percent) by 2020, while capping cost increases at two percent.” Bill 252 will not only add renewable energy to the grid, but it will increase the number of jobs and renewable energy projects in rural Colorado, as well as lead to clean, renewable energy investments.

Xcel Energy is also realizing the benefit of investing in renewable energy sources, and not just because of the bill. As of February 2013, Xcel proposed to add 550 Megawatts of wind energy to the grid, primarily because of the cost savings. According to an article in the Denver Post, “Xcel’s average purchase cost for wind since 2007 has been $42.16 a megawatt-hour,” while “the cost of electricity from a new conventional combined-cycle natural-gas plant is about $68.60 a megawatt-hour.” Based on these numbers, Xcel will be saving $26.42 per megawatt-hour by using wind power instead.

Guest Commentary, Leslie Glustrom, Denver Post: Xcel customers must band together to fight hikes

As published on 4/30/2012 in the Denver Post, excerpts from a guest commentary by CEA Research Director, Leslie Glustrom,

“Colorado’s Public Utility Commission has just approved another rate increase for Xcel. If you are an Xcel customer, your electric bill will go up yet again on May 1.

The residential rate increase will be about 5.5 percent phased in over a three-year period and add about $114 million to Xcel’s annual revenue. This is on top of rate increases in 2007, 2009 and 2010 that raised residential bills by about 20 percent. Commercial and industrial customers will see lower percentage increases.

So what is driving these rate increases? The answer is clear: Most of the hikes are associated with Xcel’s investments in fossil-fuel resources. The 2007, 2009 and 2010 rate increases were largely driven by the need to begin recovering the nearly $1 billion that Xcel spent on the new Unit 3 coal plant in Pueblo, which helps serve Xcel’s Denver metro load.

The largest driver for the May rate increase has been Xcel’s decision to terminate its wholesale contract with Black Hills Energy, which serves Pueblo and the Arkansas River Valley. Xcel’s request to have retail ratepayers make up for the lost revenue was strongly opposed by many experts testifying on Xcel’s current rate increase. These experts pointed out that business decisions made on Xcel’s wholesale side should not add to the financial burden of Xcel’s retail customers who bore no responsibility for Xcel’s decision.

Why are the Public Utilities Commission and the Office of Consumer Counsel — which are supposed to represent residential, agricultural and small-business ratepayers — not fighting these rate increases harder? The staff at the PUC and the OCC include many hard-working and dedicated analysts, but Xcel is a very large monopoly with more than $3 billion in revenues each year. Moreover, all of Xcel’s rate case costs are referred to as “costs of business” and are passed on to ratepayers.

There are solutions, but in order to achieve them, ratepayers will have to band together in the face of Xcel’s tremendous financial and political strength.”

Leslie Glustrom (lglustrom@gmail.com) is director of research and policy for Clean Energy Action.

For original article in its entirety: Guest Commentary: Xcel customers must band together to fight hikes – The Denver Post

Xcel’s Newest Decision: Wait Until 2028 For Significant New Renewable Energy

To write to Xcel’s Board of Directors, send an email to boardofdirectors@xcelenergy.com

Despite clear evidence of looming excess capacity, Xcel Energy proceeded to bring on-line in 2010 the new, 750 MW Comanche 3 coal plant in Pueblo, CO – of which Xcel owns 500 MW. Now the new coal plant, and other investments in fossil fuel resources, are “filling Xcel’s plate” and crowding out new renewable energy opportunities despite thousands of megawatts of fully-engineered wind and solar projects just waiting to be built.

On page 13, lines 5-9 from the direct testimony of Xcel witness Kurt Haeger in the 2011 Resouce Plan filing (attached below), Xcel will not need significant new renewable energy until approximately 2028. Seventeen years is a long time to wait!

Also, Xcel does not project a need for any new generation (renewable or fossil fuel-based) as it has many  expiring Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) that can be used to fulfill the projected 292 MW of capacity need projected for 2018 (see page 4, lines 12-21).

Furthermore,  Xcel is currently deciding whether or not not to invest $250 million in extending the life of the 500 MW Pawnee coal plant in Brush, CO  until 2041 by adding pollution controls (as it has applied to do in Docket 11A-325E.)  The addition of the pollution controls would extend the coal burn in Colorado and further limit renewable energy opportunities.

If you would rather see investments in wind and solar instead of in last century’s coal plants, and not wait until 2028 to start growing Colorado’s wind and solar industries again, send your thoughts to boardofdirectors@xcelenergy.com.

Attachments Size
Kurt Haeger’s Direct Testimonial (Xcel witness), 2011 98 kb

Xcel’s Coal Pricing Projections Off By a Quarter Century

Coal costs at Xcel’s newest and largest Colorado coal plant, Comanche 3, are currently increasing by more than 10%/year; however, Xcel Energy is modeling their coal costs as going up by less than 2% per year when making their consumer rate projections.

2011 coal costs for Comanche 3 were in the neighborhood of $1.50/MMBTU, but Xcel predicted they would not be paying this price ($1.50/MMBTU) for coal until the 2030’s (see the LWG 1-4 attachment below).  Xcel’s price modeling was off by a quarter century.

Coal prices for the Comanche 3 plant have been rising steadily:  Comanche coal was  approximately $1.05/MMBTU in 2007 and only $0.70 in 2004 when the coal plant was being planned. (See LWG 3-7 attachment below)

The Comanche 3 plant is scheduled to operate until 2069. Comanche 1 and 2 are scheduled to operate until 2033 and 2035, respectively.  The scenario begs the question:  How high will coal prices get by 2020; let alone 2o69 ? 

As the prices for fossil fuels continue to rise, the economic case for renewable energy and efficiency alternatives is becoming increasingly clear.

07A-447E LWG Ans Attach 31 Disc Resp LWG 1-4 Fuel Prices-Best
07A-447E LWG Ans Attach 42 Disc Resp LWG 3-7 Part 2 Coal Costs
Comanche Coal Costs 2011 Prelim 2011-07(1)

                                                                                                                          Tons            Cents/MMBTU
Comanche 3
2007 Coal FERC 2,976.25 105.15
2006 Coal FERC 3,075.47 96.93
2005 Coal FERC 2,437.53 76.64
2004 Coal FERC 2,727.89 70.82
2003 Coal FERC 2,973.55 68.74