New energy for Colorado
The future of powering the Rocky Mountains

SideStory: The search for ‘peak oil’

Conoco-Phillips San Juan Gas Plant refines fuel in nearby Bloomfield, N.M. The energy landscape is shifting in the West, and Colorado’s generous supply of natural gas will join renewables to become big players in the New Energy Economy./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Allen Best

For just a brief period of civilization, humans have tapped the dense energy of fossil fuels. “Sweet perfume,” Carbondale’s Randy Udall, a consulting energy analyst and one of the nation's leading activists in promoting energy sustainability, called them at a recent panel discussion in Denver. “These fossil fuels are magical.”

But what comes next? We can’t continue burning coal, petroleum and natural gas the way we have. Atmospheric accumulations of greenhouse gases have doubled since the 1980s – and now the Chinese, Indians and others want treadmills and leaf blowers, too. Even if you pooh-pooh global warming theory, evidence has been growing of the impending shortages of fossil fuels.

“You have to ask yourself what BP was doing drilling to 18,000 feet,” said Udall, alluding to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. “It’s because oil is getting scarce.”

Still, Udall and other speakers at the event organized by the Denver Museum of Nature and Science agreed that we won’t stop using fossil fuels anytime soon. Instead, they described protracted and difficult energy transitions. Those transitions will, they agreed, depend in part upon local initiative.

But they also agreed that it’s an exciting time in Colorado, because of cutting-edge policies, and also abundant wind, solar and other renewable resources, as well as its considerable store of natural gas.

Historian Patty Limerick of the University of Colorado warned against romanticizing about the pre-fossil fuels past. Use of fossil fuels emancipated women, farmers and many others from enormous drudgery. Gas-fueled cars made city streets, once covered with manure, far more pleasant. She also pointed out how much the recreation economy of the New West depends upon large uses of energy.

Limerick also stressed that transitions take time. Electrification, she points out, was a 50 to 60 year process. She advised reasonable expectations in this new transition. Overly ambitious timetables will only lead to bitterness and disillusionment, she said. And she warned against recriminations.

If fossil fuels have improved lives, we’ve become indulgent in their use since World War II – with utter abandon in recent decades. Her nomination for the most indulgent use of a fossil fuel? Burning coal to provide the electricity needed to power a treadmill used for exercise.

Tim Wirth, a former U.S. Senator from Colorado who now directs Ted Turner’s UN Foundation, stressed the need to recognize limits. “We have to figure out how to move from a growth-based economy to a steady state economy,” he said. The resources just do not exist for perpetual population growth and steadily greater expectations, he insisted.

Wirth has long championed natural gas as a bridge fuel, for both cars and for production of electricity. We will need to continue burning natural gas, which produces fewer carbon emissions than either coal or petroleum, until at least the mid-21st century, he said. But with a lawmaker’s eye toward policy, he also said that developing rules for development of renewable energy will be a key challenge. Those with political power don’t want new rules, he said.

What about sequestering carbon? Wirth, who just two years ago advised that it will be necessary to try it, has backed away from that argument. And nuclear energy got only tepid support from panelists. Nuclear plants will be “staggeringly expensive,” said Udall, who nonetheless recommended building “a few and see what they cost.”

Panelists had a best-of-times, worst-of-times perception of development of renewable energy. Udall pointed out that solar energy even now produces only 2 percent of Colorado’s power. Even so, renewable energy has been one-half of all new electrical generation in the last two years, reported Christopher Flavin of the Worldwatch Institute.

If Colorado is, as Wirth said, “on the edge like no place else,” Europe offers many examples of how to move forward. Germany, Spain and 60 other countries have now adopted feed-in tariffs, rapidly accelerating development of dispersed sources of renewable energy.

Udall said investment depends upon whether the need is defined as an emergency. “Can we afford to be patient?” he asked. He suggested that remarkable results can be attained by a committed, thoughtful local population – as he found when he visited an area of Denmark that had rapidly embraced wind energy to power a rural island.

But Udall, more than other speakers, also stressed the need to use existing resources, both fossil fuels and renewables, more efficiently. Energy is wealth, he said, and in hemorrhaging energy we are hemorrhaging wealth – a reality that he believes politicians from both major political parties have begun to realize.

“Resource efficiency is the gold mine we’ll have to go to again and again and again,” he said.

How long will it take to achieve energy security and climate security? “We won’t get to 100 percent, but we can make huge strides,” said Flavin. But he also warned against expecting “a single technology solution delivered on a platter will answer all our problems.”

Tisha Conoly Schuller, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, emphasized the need for dialogue. “Infinite patience brings immediate results,” she said. “The way we engage in this topic is more important than the solution,” she said.

Udall said action must come locally first. “Change in America does not come from the top. It never, ever has,” he said, later adding: “Don’t think global and act global. Just think local. And maybe someday you’ll wake up and discover you have saved a polar bear.” •