GUEST COLUMN: Colorado's pioneer spirit drives innovation in energy

By: GREG BROPHY
March 1, 2017 Updated: March 6, 2017 at 2:27 pm
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Colorado has a long history of attracting innovators looking to create economic opportunities. Our state's earliest pioneers who developed new ways to farm and ranch in an unforgiving climate understood that an ethos of conservation, efficient use of resources and cooperation is necessary to gain a competitive edge. Today's entrepreneurs and risk takers are no different than the settlers who came before them.

Take Colorado's energy sector. Our state's tremendous wind resources, abundant sunshine and plentiful fossil fuel reserves have helped create a robust, innovative energy sector that is one of the fastest growing in the nation. As a staunch advocate of an all-of-the-above energy policy, I'm particularly pleased to see the rapid free market expansion of the Colorado wind and solar industries in recent years.

These two industries have attracted more than $7.7 billion in investment to our state and now employ nearly 11,000 workers. Colorado is home to more than 450 wind and solar companies and expanding every year.

As a result, Colorado is now generating nearly one-fifth of its power from renewable sources, with significant development underway. The solar industry expects to install 1,738 megawatts (MW) of new capacity in the state over the next five years - enough to power more than 285,000 average homes. That's more than four times the amount of solar power installed in the state over the past five years. Few, if any, American industries can boast that type of growth.

The in-state growth of renewables isn't just limited to solar, as Xcel Energy's recently approved Rush Creek project is set to become the state's largest wind farm, adding 600 MW of wind power to the Colorado electricity grid. Drawing from our pool of local innovators, Xcel has announced plans to develop the project with turbines manufactured in Colorado by Vestas.

Vestas, a Danish manufacturer that now employs nearly 4,000 in-state workers, established its North American manufacturing hub in our state in 2010 because of the central location, existing manufacturing base, skilled workforce and extensive transportation infrastructure and rail system.

Along the eastern plains, and according to a report from Progressive 15, clean-tech businesses created 4,250 jobs for Colorado workers at more than 220 companies in 2015. From 2000 to 2016, investments in wind and solar generated an estimated $5.4 billion in construction.

In 2015 alone, 16 renewable facilities provided about $7.2 million in property tax and $7.5 million in payments to landowners. Wind operations and maintenance require an estimated 160 workers, creating a long-term, well-paid employment base that rural Colorado needs.

And these jobs create career opportunities for local kids to stay in their communities. Until recently, eastern Colorado was known for its exports, our crops and our kids. Now, kids who were born and raised in these communities have a real opportunity to build a life where they grew up.

Longer blades, taller turbines and other advancements in the wind industry have helped drive the average cost of wind power down two-thirds since 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The same story is true in the U.S. solar industry, as the cost of installed solar photovoltaic systems have dropped two-thirds from 2010. Xcel estimates that Rush Creek project will save ratepayers $400 million over its 25-year life. The reason for those cost savings is simple: Due to continued innovations, wind power is now frequently the least expensive option on the electricity grid.

These innovations have also driven a shift in the political debate. Support for renewables is strong in rural parts of the state, particularly benefiting Colorado's eastern plains. We owe it to residents in every corner of Colorado to pursue private developments that benefit the entire state, not just the front range. Wind and solar energy are paths to that goal, and groups like The Western Way are proving that conservatives need to weigh in on energy policies that reflect pro-market and pro-consumer policies.

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Greg Brophy is a former state senator who works with The Western Way (TheWesternWay.org), a nonprofit organization urging Western conservative leaders to acknowledge actual environmental challenges and deliver efficient, pro-market solutions.

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