Colorado proves that clean electricity is reliable electricity

Serface[1]By Joel Serface

We in Colorado are on the front lines of climate change. More than most states, we are already seeing the impacts of changing climate every day.

Warmer winters are threatening our ski industry, which could face up to $150 million a year in lost tourism revenue. Warming is also causing the devastation from the mountain pine and piñon beetles, which are wreaking havoc on many of our forests.

A hotter, dryer climate will lead to more ruinous wildfires, like the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest blazes. And drought conditions and earlier snowmelt are putting strains on our farmers and ranchers.

But Coloradans are also on the front lines combatting the climate crisis with our efforts to cut the dangerous carbon pollution that traps heat and fuels climate change. We’re getting more electricity from non-polluting sources like wind, and we’re cutting electricity demand with money-saving programs to stop wasting energy.

Crucially, this transition toward a cleaner electric system has caused no disruptions to customers. Our lights stayed on, the ski lifts are running, our factories and farms have kept humming.That’s an important lesson to share with the rest of the country—clean energy is reliable energy, less risky and volatile than the energy it is replacing.

It’s also a timely lesson because on Wednesday, Feb. 25, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees the national electric grid, is holding a public technical conference in Denver to examine the impacts on electric reliability of the Obama administration’s proposal to fight climate change. The Clean Power Plan, due to be finalized this summer, aims to reduce carbon pollution from power plants 30 percent by 2030, compared to 2005 levels, by having utilities cut back on using power from the dirtiest coal-fired power plants and boost cleaner energy sources, like wind and solar, and also cut energy waste.

Electric power plants are the single largest source of carbon pollution nationwide. Colorado was the first state to pass voter-approved state-wide goals to get more electric power from renewable sources like the wind and the sun.

Today, our renewables targets are the nation’s second highest. They’ve already created some 10,000 jobs and brought in millions of dollars for rural communities from leases and property tax payments. Renewables counted for more than 14 percent of our electricity in 2013. The biggest utility, Xcel Energy, recently got permission from Colorado regulators to buy even more wind power because it is cheaper than natural gas.

Critics of the Clean Power Plan, including the coal industry and politicians who deny climate science and oppose any effort to reduce carbon pollution, are issuing alarmist warnings about blackouts and outages. But Colorado’s experience, and my own, show they are not only wrong, they ignore the many benefits of low-cost renewable energy in stabilizing energy supply.

My company, Brightman Energy, develops utility-scale solar and wind projects in Texas, Colorado and elsewhere. We’ve seen our renewable projects merge seamlessly into electric grids, providing uninterrupted, inexpensive power.Other states have deployed even more renewable power than Colorado without problems. 

Contrary to the doomsayers’ dire accounting, the pollution-cutting targets set by the Environmental Protection Agency are both modest and achievable. EPA offers states great flexibility to meet their pollution goals by whatever combination of cleaner conventional power, renewables, and energy savings makes the most sense.

At the Denver FERC conference, you’re likely to hear utility bosses say they need more time because the EPA plan is too ambitious. That’s a stalling tactic. Delay is unnecessary—the plan already sets a decade-long timetable for states to meet the goals.

Of course, states, utilities and operators of the regional electric grids will have to continue to do extensive modeling and planning to ensure the transition goes smoothly. But experience over the past few decades shows they are up to the task.

So when you hear sky-is-falling predictions, keep calm, and carry on producing cleaner energy to fight climate change.

Joel Serface, a Boulder resident, is Co-Founder and Managing Director of Brightman Energy LLC.