Steve Pomerance: Moving Colorado ahead on addressing climate change

I just reviewed the 2019 Legislature‘s bills related to our critical need to reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses. I‘m very pleased that finally we are really moving forward, thanks in large part to our elected representatives from the Boulder area. But the process is not complete, and some legislation is missing important pieces. Here are some brief comments on some of the bills:

HB19-1261 — Climate Action Plan To Reduce Pollution

This far-reaching bill requires an overall statewide reduction in 2025 greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26 percent from 2005 levels, 2030 greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 percent, and 2050 greenhouse gas emissions by at least 90 percent. Additionally, it requires regulated investor-owned utilities (IOUs) to create “clean energy plans” to meet an 80 percent reduction target for their emissions by 2030, though the language is somewhat confusing re: actual performance. In exchange, these utilities apparently get relief from future carbon taxes or other restrictions on the 20 percent remaining emissions.

The bill also apparently puts the state Air Quality Control Commission in charge of developing the implementation plans. But producing such wide-ranging results is significantly beyond the commission‘s current level of responsibility and experience. For example, these plans will need to cover not just the other types of electric utilities (REAs and munis) but also transportation, buildings, industrial processes, agriculture, ranching, fracking, etc. Electrifying transportation and heating will require more clean energy, which will significantly increase electricity demand and change the utilities‘ plans. How costs are dealt with is critical; leaving the “clean energy plans” up to the profit-driven companies will just make the PUC‘s quasi-judicial decision-making process even more complicated and impenetrable. Also, a recent study shows that Colorado could shut down all its coal plants by 2025 and save money. Doing this could dramatically speed up the process of de-carbonization and so change the bill‘s timelines for the better, because the remaining gas generation is more easily replaced by renewables.

HB19-1003 — Community Solar Gardens Modernization Act

I‘m particularly interested in this bill because I was instrumental in pushing the solar gardens idea in Colorado. This bill increases the allowed size of solar gardens from 2 MW to 10 MW, thereby improving their economies of scale. It also allows customers from anywhere in the utility‘s service area to sign on, rather than just nearby customers. Both these changes make solar gardens more attractive. But, for example, the process for setting utility payments to the owners needs to become transparent and prices predictable, so that garden owners can plan for and depend on them. And locally owned distributed generation can improve system reliability, so that should be taken into account.

SB19-077 — Permitting Utilities to Provide Electric Vehicle Charging Stations

This bill both provides permission and the standard regulatory framework to pay utilities for these investments and the power they draw. But this bill does not address whether local land use laws regulate station location and design. And it is unclear to me why the regulated utilities get high risk-level rates of return on these investments when there is no risk at all, since they get paid whether the stations are used or not. Of course, this risk/reward question can legitimately be asked about almost all of these utilities‘ investments.

HB19-1037 — Colorado Energy Impact Assistance Act

As I discussed in my last op-ed, this bill would force customers to pay back the regulated utilities 100 cents on every dollar invested in coal plants when the utility decides to shut them down. That seems fundamentally unfair: Xcel stockholders are doing very well (over 15 percent annualized return), and climate change was already an issue when Xcel pushed the $1 billion coal-powered Comanche 3 in 2004 and the $400 million Clean Air Clean Jobs Act coal plant refurbishments in 2010.

Again, I am thrilled our state government is finally really addressing the issue of climate change on a statewide level, especially given the appalling dismissal of this most important global concern by many politicians in D.C.

But addressing climate change fully, rapidly and at the least cost means paying attention to all the relevant areas I mentioned above, and each of them demands specific knowledge and experience. So to get complete and consistent legislation and high-quality executive implementation will require including outside experts, both citizens and professionals, to work with the insiders in an open and transparent process. Therefore, I strongly suggest that Gov. Polis convene such an effort and invite our many Colorado experts to participate, so we can achieve the best possible results.