Tri-State Generation & Transmission, the regional power provider for rural electric co-operatives across several western states, has been facing increased scrutiny recently about its resistance to allowing more sustainable local power generation. This pressure is compounded by the continued decline of coal markets and higher costs of coal generation.
Clean Energy Action has urged Tri-state to be more responsive to local requests and more supportive of local clean energy. Check out this new video by Jared Nast for more information about Tri-State and how you can support clean rural power. Share with your friends!
Read the report mentioned in Jared’ piece for more details.
Community Choice Aggregation is an energy freedom program that permits a community to directly access the competitive market to procure power from the energy supplier they choose. This is in contrast to much of Colorado’s current situation in which a monopoly utility (in Boulder this is Xcel) is granted exclusive rights as a region’s energy supplier by the state. The benefits of a free energy market are many; competitive markets can lead to lower rates, the ability to choose sustainably generated power, and the ability to invest in local solutions which create jobs and keeps money in the local economy. CEA endorses policies for energy freedom, and fortunately, local legislators and non-profits like Energy Freedom Colorado are working to make a path to energy freedom for Colorado.
To give you a better understanding of how it works, let’s begin with the power grid. The three main components of a power grid are energy generation, transmission (of electricity over long distances from power plants to local substations), and distribution (of electricity from a substation to the consumer). Community choice aggregation (CCA) is a cooperation between municipal utilities and investor-owned utilities (IOU) in which the municipal CCA purchases power independently, but the transmission, distribution, and customer interface are maintained by the local IOU as shown below. CCAs served about 3.3 million people in 2016 and are growing rapidly in the eight states where they have been legalized, allowing municipalities in these states to choose their power sources in a way that reflects the values of their community, which include factors like cost, environmental impact, and supporting local energy businesses.
To implement CCA in Colorado, our legislature would need to enact CCA legislation, and the Public Utility Commission (PUC) would need to adopt corresponding rules and regulations. Several structural aspects of Colorado’s electricity grid could make this process more complicated than it has been for other states. For example, most states with CCA had already restructured their IOU to make separate companies for power generation and delivery, which simplifies the process of transitioning to municipally controlled power generation. Further, Colorado is not part of a Regional Transmission Organization (RTO), which is an independent, non-profit operator of a large, integrated transmission grid. Instead, each region’s transmission lines are controlled by the local utility, which complicates the task of transporting power from the generation site across a number of independently owned transmission systems to the municipality. Despite the challenges, we can overcome these obstacles and make the change. If you would like to learn more or help move Colorado forward, here are some links for you:
This month, I had the opportunity to represent Clean Energy Action at the Sierra Club’s ‘Building a Carbon Free Grid’ conference in New Orleans, where hundreds of lawyers, energy economists, policy experts and organizers convened to strategize over the technical and movement-building requirements to achieving a just transition away from fossil-fuel powered electricity system towards one that is powered by renewable energy. Over the course of three inspiring, information-rich days, dozens of panelists provided a broad survey of the work that is being done across America to facilitate the transition to a renewably-powered future; the grassroots campaigns, the economic analyses and the legal battles. Since the conference, a few realizations have been solidified in my mind and they’re mostly good news:
The movement for energy democracy is alive and well.
Perhaps the most inspiring takeaway is the realization that the fight for energy democracy is alive and well and the fight is taking place across the United States from California and Colorado to Mississippi and Philadelphia. Take for example the work of Soulardarity, a non-profit in Highlands Park, Michigan that is combatting energy poverty by installing community-owned solar powered street lights after their utility, DTE Energy removed over 1000 streetlights from the community to cut costs. Or consider the work of One Voice, a non-profit from Jackson, Mississippi that is educating and empowering historically disadvantaged community members to run for leadership positions within Mississippi’s rural electric cooperative utilities that provide electricity to 50% of the state’s population. These are just two examples among many of organizations that are harnessing the opportunity to regenerate economic and political power amidst the transition towards a clean, affordable, flexible energy system.
Clean energy portfolios are a cost-effective and technically-feasible alternative to natural gas generation.
A second huge take away from the Building a Carbon Free Grid conference is the understanding that as coal-fired power plants are retired across the country, utilities need not rush to build new natural gas plants. Rather we can replace coal-fired generation capacity with clean energy portfolios and expect similar or cheaper electricity rates, lower emissions and similar or better grid-reliability services compared to natural gas-fired electricity generation. Consider findings from a report by Rocky Mountain Institute titled ‘The Economics of Clean Energy Portfolios,’ which demonstrates that our vision for a 100% clean energy system is the least cost option AND it is technically feasible, today. The report features 4 real-life case studies of utilities across the country that are considering their options for building new electricity generation, showing that in each case, building out clean energy portfolios would be cost-competitive, equally reliable and allow utilities to circumvent ill-advised investments in natural gas plants that may become stranded assets sooner than we expect.
There are multiple paths towards a clean energy future.
The last key takeaway, and perhaps a launching point for further discussion, is the realization that multiple paths exist towards the destination of 100% clean energy — paths that differ in notable ways. Some paths prioritize policies that regenerate political and economic power within communities most-impacted by climate change. Others define success more narrowly as the integration of large amounts of renewables + storage as quickly as possible by whatever means available. As society moves towards a carbon-free grid we would do well to explore all possible paths that exist and weigh the respective benefits and drawbacks of each. Key questions that will help communities assess their options are: ‘Who will foot the bill for bad investments in coal and natural gas?’; ‘who will own the solar panels,wind turbines, storage devices or even the local grid when they are built?’; ‘who will determine how our energy dollars are being invested?’; ‘how will the eventual savings realized from making the switch to RE + storage and microgrids be passed onto average citizens?’.
Overall, the Building a Carbon Free Grid Conference was inspiring and refreshing — I am now certain that we will win this fight. We are already winning across the country at the state and local level thanks to the many individuals and organizations that have dedicated their lives to the vital work of transforming our energy system.
Three judges in the 9th Circuit are poised to rule on the leading question in environmental litigation: the legal right to a livable climate.
Unlike the early decades of U.S. climate action, which focused on legislation and federal agencies, environmental advocates in recent years have increasingly had to rely on states and the courts to demand progress. The 2005 court ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA recognized that sea level rise injures coastal states and required the EPA to regulate greenhouse gasses as pollutants. More recently, cities like New York and Boulder filed suit against Exxon Mobil for their role in the climate crisis. In 2015, youth petitioners brought what may become the flagship climate case of our time against the President and government of the United States. Juliana v. United States alleges that government inaction is denying young people their right to an inhabitable planet. Juliana relies on a long history of public trust doctrine that requires the state to responsibly manage resources held in trust for the public, and advances a new field of “atmospheric trust” litigation. Colorado-based youth climate organization and CEA ally Earth Guardians is a lead plaintiff in the case.
Thus far, the government has filed numerous procedural challenges seeking to have the District Court throw out the case, or for higher courts to intervene. The case has cleared most of these procedural roadblocks, and the higher courts, although expressing some skepticism about its overall viability, have allowed the case to proceed.
Most recently, the government filed an appeal to the 9th Circuit to review the plaintiffs’ standing to bring a case. The question of standing often determines the fate of environmental litigation. For example, one of the key hurdles states cleared in Massachusetts v. EPA was the lack of direct injury due to the small amount of state-owned land that would be affected (the Supreme Court ultimately found that climate change represented a sufficient threat to state sovereignty to give them a claim to injury). In this case, the question of standing challenges the core of atmospheric trust doctrine as the basis for a legal claim. Oral arguments were heard on June 4th.
Now the nation and the world waits to see whether the 9th Circuit will allow the case to proceed to trial by affirming Judge Aiken’s conclusion that the youth of this country have a cognizable legal right to a climate capable of sustaining human life.
While the clock ticks on climate change, Coloradans are blessed with an abundance of low-cost wind, solar and storage projects. Sadly, our current regulatory system doesn’t allow this clean energy to be delivered at high levels to the communities that want it.
It is now clear that it is past time to rethink whether Colorado should move beyond the monopoly (and near monopoly) structures that are keeping Colorado communities from decarbonizing their electricity as quickly and as cheaply as they could be. Recently, the city of Boulder conducted a “request for indicative pricing” and found that if the city could “go to market” (you know, like we do for everything from potato chips to cell phones) there is a significant number of providers willing to bring the city high levels of renewable energy in the early 2020s (e.g. 89%) at a cost well below that of Xcel Energy’s expected price.
In 2018, Xcel’s electricity generation in Colorado was still 73% fossil fuel — 40% coal and 33% natural gas. Xcel’s 27% renewable energy in Colorado in 2018 is better than it used to be, but it is still too little, too slow — and too expensive. Most recently, Xcel has brought on the Rush Creek Wind Project (without going to bid) at about $29/megawatt-hour when the price of competitively-bid wind farms would likely have been less than half of that.
Since the beginning of this century, Xcel has been allowed to spend about $1.5 billion on new and old coal plants in Colorado — expenditures that are now widely recognized as mistakes. Clearly our current “regulated monopoly” system has not served the state well when we have made $1.5 billion of mistakes.Advertisement
Recently the Colorado Public Utilities Commission (which is supposed to protect ratepayers from Xcel’s monopoly power) has begun assigning accountability for Xcel’s mistaken investments in excess coal capacity. The PUC’s decision: 100% of the accountability goes to Xcel’s customers, who not only are expected to pay for the mistaken expenditures on coal, but also they are expected to pay Xcel its full level of profit on the mistakes. Clearly the Xcel-PUC system is broken.
Similarly, the city of Boulder has been trying for almost two decades to exercise its constitutional right to municipalize in order to reduce the carbon intensity of its electricity and make rapid progress in addressing the ravages of climate change. During this time, Xcel has done everything it can (which is a lot) to block Boulder’s progress. Most recently, Xcel has been allowed to back out of a property transfer agreement that Xcel and Boulder spent over a year negotiating, further delaying Boulder’s efforts to decarbonize its electricity supply. Again, it is clear the Xcel-PUC system is broken.
Outside of Xcel territory, much of rural Colorado is served by Tri-State, which also uses its power to keep communities from accessing the low-cost, low-carbon wind and solar that abounds in our state. In comparison, Holy Cross Electric, which serves the area around Aspen, set carbon reduction goals in 2018, and a few short months later they were able to enter into an agreement with Guzman Energy, which will take Holy Cross to almost 70% renewable electricity by 2021, without increasing costs. The difference is that Holy Cross was not served by Tri-State and was not hamstrung by the regulatory system that governs communities in Xcel’s territory.
While there are reforms that can be undertaken to improve the PUC’s regulatory process, it seems likely that the cumbersome regulatory system will not bring us optimal solutions — i.e., the most renewable energy at the lowest cost, the way a more competitive system would.
A group of citizen energy analysts from Boulder County, under the name of Energy Freedom Colorado (energyfreedomco.org) has prepared a white paper of options to help bring Colorado communities more energy options. The Community Energy Options analysis can be found on EFCO’s website, and citizens are working hard to bring these energy freedom options to Colorado.
Having witnessed the failures of Colorado’s regulated monopoly system, it now seems apparent that if Colorado allows market forces, competition and innovation to work, communities will be given more freedom to connect with our abundant low-carbon, Colorado-grown wind and solar electricity at the best possible prices.
Accelerating the transition from fossil fuels to a clean energy economy