Green power push stirs up sparks
Amendment 37 mixes it up statewide

Generating substations, like this, could begin to give way to ones that relay renewable energy from sources like wind and sun if Amendment 37, a statewide ballot initiative, passes Nov. 2. The amendment would require that at least 10 percent of electricity provided by large utilities comes from renewable sources./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Renewable energy promises to be one of the hottest items on the Nov. 2 ballot. Proponents are already clashing with utilities and electrical cooperatives on Amendment 37, a statewide ballot question on whether to require utilities to supply a portion of their power from renewable sources. Meanwhile, a war of words and advertising dollars is shaping up for the weeks leading up to the election.

If Amendment 37 passes, utility suppliers serving 40,000 customers or more would be required to provide at least 10 percent of power from renewable sources. The primary source would be wind power, because it is currently the most cost effective, and the companies would have until 2015 to come into compliance. Currently, only about 2 percent of Colorado's power comes from renewable sources. Renewable energy has landed on the ballot largely because of the failure of the Colorado State Legislature to enact similar standards. Three separate attempts in three years were voted down.

La Plata Electric Association is one of many utilities and cooperatives that are opposing Amendment 37. The groups argue that the plan is ill-conceived and will result in higher electricity bills, and they are undertaking a major advertising campaign against the measure./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Mark Stetz, vice-chair of the Southwest Colorado Renewable Energy Society, explained, “There were three attempts in the last three years to get a renewable energy standard in the state Legislature and they were all scuttled. Fifteen other states in the country already have these kinds of standards, including that bastion of liberal ideology, Texas.”

Stetz added that Amendment 37 reflects a shift toward a desire for cleaner, more economical power sources. With three separate failures in the Legislature, Stetz said that getting Amendment 37 on the ballot was a way to get conservative utilities to explore new models.

“It's a way of pushing them away from the current habits and getting them to be more progressive,” he said. “The utilities don't seem to want to do this on their own. This is a way of pushing them into the 20th century.”

Proponents of the question have numerous arguments in favor of encouraging renewable energy. On the one hand, there are the obvious environmental pluses of such a measure. On the other, proponents charged that moving toward renewable energy will actually mean cheaper bills (see sidebar).

“Wind power is a fixed-price commodity,” Stetz said. “It doesn't fluctuate, but it does have a high set-up cost. As time goes on, fossil fuel prices should continue to increase and wind power should continue to come down.”

Stetz added that Amendment 37 could offer visible benefits to the Four Corners region.

“Very simply, we're in the airshed of many coal-fired power plants,” he said. “Any added emissions, from existing plants or the several new ones that are proposed, end up in our air. I don't expect that La Plata or Archuleta counties would be on the power generation side of this, but we would benefit from decreased dependence on coal-fired power.”

The cost of renewable energy

Colorado's renewable-energy ballot measure will most likely have no significant effect on electricity bills, according to a recent analysis.

Ron Binz, president of Public Policy Consulting and formerly Colorado's utility consumer advocate, said Amendment 37 will probably cause electric utility bills to drop about one cent a month per household, or $14 million, between 2005 and 2024.

“The renewable measure's impact on consumer's bills will probably be unnoticeable,” Binz said. “Most likely, statewide rates will be virtually unchanged.”

Binz added that utilities that will see little effect on their prices include Xcel Energy and Colorado Springs Utilities. Customers of Intermountain REA will probably pay 45 cents less each month, according to the study. Six rural electric cooperatives, including La Plata Electric Association, may see modest increases. However, Binz added that they can be avoided depending on the strategy used by the supplier, TriState.

The study was funded by the Energy Foundation, a partnership of major foundations interested in sustainable energy.

– Will Sands

Residents of other counties also have seen the upside of renewable energy, according to Coloradans for Clean Energy, the group that organized the push to get Amendment 37 on the ballot. The group's polling reports as high as 75 percent voter approval of the ballot measure.

“It's looking really good,” said Manolo Gonzalez-Estay, the group's campaign coordinator. “Colorado voters are realizing that clean air and cheaper energy are good things for them.”

While Gonzalez-Estay argued that the measure has grassroots support, he also admitted that it faces daunting opposition from the companies and cooperatives that would have to meet the new standards. Xcel Energy, the state's largest utility, Intermountain REA, the third largest utility, and TriState Generation and Transmission Company, the supplier of six rural electric cooperatives, have all actively opposed Amendment 37. 4

“That's primarily the only opposition,” said Manolo-Estay. “The only people that have invested money into defeating this are utilities.”

Amendment 37 also has drawn opposition from La Plata Electric Association, the Durango area's electrical cooperative. On Aug. 30, the LPEA Board of Directors voted to oppose the initiative, saying it was ill conceived. They also appropriated $3,100 of co-op funding to advertising aimed at defeating the measure.

“It leaves too many unanswered questions,” said LPEA spokesman David Waller. “We don't know how it's going to turn out. The amendment authors said they wanted to treat co-ops differently, but that language didn't make it onto the ballot.”

Waller emphasized that the board is in no way opposed to renewable energy, saying, “We want to stress, again and again and again, that we're 100 percent in favor of renewable energy, and we continue to grow our green power program. We just don't think this is the way.”

Waller concluded by saying that renewable energy is not an absolute solution. “The wind doesn't always blow,” he said. “The sun doesn't always shine. We're still going to have to have coal plants and natural gas plants to cover those times.”

While LPEA has appropriated $3,100 to fight Amendment 37, Coloradans for Clean Energy reported that Xcel Energy is prepared to spend up to $10 million to turn the vote. Mark Stutz, spokesman for the utility, quotes a smaller number, noting that its group, Citizens for Sensible Energy Choices, has raised $560,000 and “Xcel will give substantially more to the effort.”

Like Waller, Stutz noted that Xcel is not against renewable energy, commenting that the company supported the last two efforts to move standards through the Legislature. However, like Waller, he also said that the new measure is poorly crafted.

“One issue Amendment 37 doesn't seem to care about is how much it is actually going to cost,” Stutz said. “The big thing you can't make an assumption about is federal tax breaks. Xcel Energy is looking to triple the amount of wind power we have by 2006. We propose a plan where we'll build our wind when the tax credits come back into place.”

Stutz noted that under the current Administration, federal tax credits are not offered for the construction of wind farms. Those credits amount to tens of millions of dollars, he said. Should voters pass Amendment 37, that expense, along with approximately $6 million in annual operating expenses, would find its way onto utility bills.

“At the end of the day, we're the ones who send the bill to 1.2 million customers and have to deal with their reactions,” he said.

However, even with the full advertising assault that is planned for coming weeks, Stutz said that he fears that voters have made up their minds.

“It's frustrating for us because when people go to the ballot box, of course they're going to vote for renewable energy,” he said.

Gonzales-Estay, of Coloradans for Clean Energy, is making a similar bet. “The passage of this is going to be very significant,” he said with confidence. “We will be the first state in the nation that will pass such an issue by a vote of the people.”





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