The clean energy movement got a big jumpstart recently with the unveiling of the “Green New Deal.” And even as critics took aim at the plan’s broad agenda and massive price tag, individual states started announcing similar goals. Colorado in particular has moved to the fore, thanks to Gov. Jared Polis’ goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2040.
Can Colorado go completely green, though? And what would it mean for the state’s economy?
Colorado enjoys significant income from fossil fuels. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal produces more than half of the state’s electricity. And coal production in the state is rising, thanks to increased demand from overseas. Oil production has also risen in Colorado over the past decade. And Colorado is the fifth-largest natural gas-producing state — and home to 11 of the nation’s 100 largest natural gas fields.
Such robust coal and natural gas production has allowed both fuels to dominate the state’s electricity generation portfolio. As a result, electricity prices in Colorado run 11.90 cents per kilowatt-hour, notably less than the national average of 12.47 cents.
Colorado has also enjoyed good results with wind energy. Since 2010, electricity from renewable sources has more than doubled to almost 25 percent of the state’s net generation, led primarily by wind power from nearly 2,000 turbines. So, is Gov. Polis on the right track? Is it possible for Colorado to scrap its coal and natural gas power plants within the next 20 years?
Germany offers a helpful case study, since it has been incorporating a similar renewable energy effort for more than a decade. Despite massive subsidies, wind and solar power still meet only 29 percent of Germany’s electricity generation. And getting to that point has driven Germany’s electricity costs to roughly 30 cents per kilowatt-hour, the highest in Europe.
Could Colorado residents afford a similar increase — and start paying three times more for electricity?
It’s not just rising surcharges that are driving up Germany’s electricity prices, though. Wind and solar perennially require robust back-up systems—for when the weather doesn’t cooperate. The Department of Energy estimates that even the most advanced wind turbines reach their full capacity only 42.5 percent. And the highest-performing solar panels — ones in the southwestern U.S. that feature sun-tracking motors — reach their full capacity an even lower 30 percent of the time. Filling in these gaps often requires on-demand energy from “spinning reserves” of natural gas and coal-fired power generation.
Unfortunately, battery storage has yet to prove an all-purpose solution for such shortfalls. The best grid-scale battery technologies available can only provide hours of backup. That’s simply not enough to compensate during days — and even weeks — of low wind and solar output.
The recent “Polar Vortex” demonstrated exactly this sort of unpredictability. When bitterly low temperatures threatened to freeze gearboxes and shatter turbine blades, many utilities were forced to shut down their wind systems. In fact, turbines must be shut down entirely when wind gusts exceed 55 mph. Colorado is certainly familiar with such conditions, thanks to volatile weather fronts that can drive subzero temperatures in the windier mountain regions.
Gov. Polis is right to explore wind and solar power. But his administration shouldn’t overlook the intermittency challenges posed by weather disruptions. Nor should they take for granted the reliability and affordability provided by the state’s mix of fuel sources. Wind and solar have a growing place, but it’s worth considering that natural gas and coal — particularly with newer systems to enhance efficiencies and reduce emissions — are still necessary to meet Colorado’s considerable baseload power needs.
Terry M. Jarrett of Jefferson City, Mo., is an energy attorney and consultant who has served on the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Missouri Public Service Commission. He contributes regularly to LeadingLightEnergy.com.