United States

United States

A sense of urgency in Colorado

Time is running out for a Colorado task force to implement renewable energy plans as the term of office for the governor spearheading the drive nears its close. Wind is the flagship technology and two new plants are soon to supply power to the nation's largest green pricing programme. A partnership between environmental groups and utilities provide a possible model for future wind power development elsewhere.

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In Colorado an unusual partnership between environmental groups and utilities is starting to get renewables off the ground like never before. The state is potentially one of the hottest areas for wind development in the United States. But there may only be a relatively small window of opportunity for clean power to become so established that it can really take off -- and the ultimate success of this current attempt at greening the Rocky Mountain state remains to be seen.

This winter two wind projects are racing to become the first to deliver electricity to green pricing customers. And interest so far, in wind energy and green pricing -- where people choose to pay extra to specify electricity from renewables -- has been stronger than expected. A higher proportion of Colorado citizens have now bought into green pricing programmes, or they work for companies that have done so, than anywhere else in the US. Several thousand residences and 56 businesses -- some of them household names such as IBM and Coors -- have signed up for wind power in the service areas of four utilities, enough to justify the state's first 10 MW of installed wind capacity.

Indeed renewables advocates estimate that these customers have committed more than $1 million to buying wind over the next one or three years, depending upon whether they are businesses or homes. Yet those lobbying for green energy say the real push towards renewables has hardly begun in Colorado. The state, they say, has the best combined wind and solar resources anywhere in America except for Texas. By this time next year, renewables advocates hope that 15-20 MW of wind will have been spoken for in Colorado. Right now Colorado is on the verge of its first in-state operating wind farm, while the second wind project to supply the state will wheel its power from windy, little-populated Wyoming.

Political recognition

Even at the top level of local politics there is unusual recognition of the potential. Governor Roy Romer, a Democrat who some months ago announced that his mansion will be wind powered, recently and optimistically called for the state to become a world centre for renewables, saying that at the same time it plans to install 250 MW of clean power generation over the next decade. Romer's announcement followed a report in the fall from his Office of Energy Conservation (OEC). "Renewable Energy in Colorado's Future" details ten steps for bringing renewable technologies to Colorado. Its mission is to recommend exactly how the state can add the proposed 250 MW over the next decade, an estimated one-fifth of the new generating capacity that Colorado will need in that period. Already Romer's office has set aside $500,000-$1 million to implement the recommendations.

The report calls for Colorado to embrace wind and solar power for numerous reasons: to improve air quality, boost economic development, diversify the electricity mix, conserve fossil fuel and add high-tech jobs. As much as 94% of the state's electricity is generated by burning coal, while much of the balance is produced from hydro and gas fired plants. Denver is also notorious for its smog.

Some of the suggested steps in the report are so aggressively pro-renewables they are a virtual blueprint for how states can encourage a clean energy industry. Among other things, the report calls for financial incentives for renewables, for a study of their economic impact, for a green energy standard, and -- once the market is deregulated -- a surcharge on all electricity sold to pay for the development of renewables. "We're just on the brink of exploding this green power ethic -- and the real hard hitting marketing hasn't even started yet," says Rudd Mayer, green marketing analyst for the state's leading environmental group, the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies. Since 1991, the fund has been trying to boost clean electricity. She also says it was the fund that convinced the utilities to try green pricing -- by bringing them together with potential customers.

Time running out

But if Colorado is not electrified enough by renewables within the next year or so, the best opportunity in years may have been missed. In part it is the current governor, who can seem like something of an aberration in Colorado politics, who is providing the opportunity. But he cannot be re-elected this autumn because of a law that limits his time in office. His successor is likely to be a Republican, oriented towards conventional fuels. And the governor's Office for Energy Conservation, which was founded by Romer, is not expected to survive into the next administration: it could fold after just one more year.

The state is an odd political mix, which in part explains this window of opportunity. Colorado is known for its coal resources and the strength of its coal lobby. The state legislature, where legislation for restructuring the electricity market is being introduced this year, is also Conservative and sometimes influenced by the powerful coal lobby. Colorado is also home to the headquarters of one of the country's largest conservative religious groups.

Nonetheless, it also includes enclaves of liberal tree-huggers such as in Boulder and in the ski resorts of Aspen and Vail. More than in many other states, the environment has a large presence, and not just for consumers. The high Rockies, snow-capped even in summer, are very visible from the state's most populated areas. And the environment or "the outdoors" is often part of profit-making for the state's businesses. A company called Patagonia, which makes and sells wilderness equipment such as skiing and backpacking items, will use wind power, it announced recently. And Coors, makers of one of America's most popular beers, touts the use of clean Rocky Mountain water to support its basic product image.

With time running out for today's favourable political climate, renewables advocates are vowing to push hard over the next year to get a critical mass off the ground. "We hope to get it to the point so it will be unstoppable," says Mayer. "The utilities have said they'll meet whatever demand there is." The push will include not only grassroots campaigning, which the Land and Water Fund and other groups have already successfully been using in Boulder to get customers for green pricing, but also a professional marketing and advertising campaign. New areas are being targeted, such as parts of Denver or towns like Grand Junction, for direct mail marketing of renewables.

In addition, one of the governor's recommended "steps" is already under way. Last month the OEC was about to start issuing grants totalling $50,000 to non-profit advocacy groups that work to recruit green power customers. Individual grants, through the Land and Water Fund, will probably be around $5000, says Marc Roper of the OEC, which means that a total of ten groups will be funded. "It's not really that much money," he says. "It's more to help them handle the cost of something like mailing." Also getting under way is a second programme, with some $100,000-200,000 in funding, to help the state's "design-build community" incorporate renewables into buildings, says Roper. He expects it to be launched this month, probably with a request for proposals.

Nordex out, micon in

In the latest in Colorado wind news, developers of both of the wind farms that will soon supply power to state consumers have changed their technology suppliers. The bigger project -- 10 MW being built under America's largest green pricing programme -- has made an unexpected final decision. Having said in September that it was close to choosing German Nordex Balcke-Dürr turbines, instead of the American Zond machines originally slated for the plant, it has decided instead to use NEG Micon 750 kW turbines. They will supply electricity to customers of Public Service Co. (PSCo) and a small municipal utility, Holy Cross, with green power from a 10 MW wind farm. PSCo's Steve Dayney had said the utility was likely to select German Nordex turbines with lattice towers because they were more tested commercially than the original choice of Zond 750 kW units (Windpower Monthly, October 1997). The NEG Micon turbines were chosen, in the end, because they were "more economical," says PSCo's Natalie Goldstein. The choice of Micon units, which will have tubular towers, means that a US Department of Energy grant is still up in the air because the turbines are not fully American, says the OEC's Roper. "That's an issue that still has to be worked out," he adds. The governor's office had originally hoped to get the grant to help offset the cost of wind power to Colorado.

The project, known as the 10 MW Ponnequin Wind Facility, is being built near the state border with Wyoming to produce electricity for PSCo's WindSource green pricing programme. Construction started some months ago on the first phase of 5 MW. The second phase is currently planned at an installed capacity of 5 MW, but it could be larger if there is enough demand for the output.

Because of the PSCo decision to use NEG Micon technology, a two-turbine project under development by Northern Alternative Energy (NAE) at Medicine Bow in Wyoming -- but slated to produce power for Colorado -- has dropped its first choice, also NEG Micon 750 units, and will now use two Vestas V-42 turbines. The change was made to keep to a new on-line delivery date of March 31, says NAE's Greg Jaunich. He explains that once Micon had agreed to supply turbines to PSCo -- which paid for its flagship turbine with cash -- there was uncertainty as to whether the manufacturer would be able to deliver NAE's turbines by the start deadline next month. Unlike PSCo, NAE had to take out loans to buy its turbines. Construction started on this project last month; at one point, the turbines were to have been electrified by early December.

Electricity from the Medicine Bow project will be sold to Platte River Power Authority of Colorado, which will in turn sell the power to the Wind Power Pilot Programme operated by Fort Collins Power & Light municipal utility. The several month delay in developing the wind plant -- it was originally to have been on line on November 1 -- is in part because of problems in getting the turbines delivered. NAE had bought Medicine Bow Energy Inc more than a year ago (Windpower Monthly, May 1997) to acquire the Medicine Bow site, known in the past for its huge Hamilton Standard WTS-4 turbine, and also for the Boeing MOD-2 that was dismantled in 1986.

Governor's blueprint

The race to provide wind will undoubtedly help keep the focus on the recommendations contained in the Governor's renewables report (box). His task force also made some more ambitious, pro-renewables recommendations which were not highlighted in the announced ten step programme, such as:

¥ imposing a surcharge on all electricity, once the market is deregulated, to fund commercial renewables development

¥ a requirement that electricity suppliers disclose their resource mi

x¥ building a Colorado Renewable Energy Industries Centre

¥ an analysis of the benefits of investing in Colorado's renewables industries

¥ the reduction of property taxes for renewables plants

¥ creating a system of tax credits for renewables

¥ reducing liability risks associated with responsibly designed and operated wind farms, for example with regard to endangered species

But despite months of hard work by Romer's task force, many of its recommendations may never be implemented, not least because of the likely axing of OEC. "In some respects it weakens the push behind some of the recommendations," says Randy Udall, of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency in Aspen and one of the task force members, with more than a little understatement. "We're bullish about where this is headed, even though OEC is on a short tether," he says.

Udall still expects 15-20 MW of wind to have been sold via green pricing by this time next year, while he hopes that a growing clean power ethic will take root. "But where it goes from there is anyone's guess," he says. He points out that permission to build the Ponnequin wind farm has yet to have been granted. And while he believes that farmers and ranchers in the eastern plains of Colorado will be very amenable to wind farms mixed with agricultural uses, other more populated or wild areas could attract opposition to wind development. That may mean that most wind power in the future will be imported from Wyoming, with its class four and five winds. A veteran US wind plant developer, SeaWest of California, is now building a wind farm of Mitsubishi turbines in Wyoming's Carbon County, he notes, though the company is also scooping out a site in Colorado. Udall feels, however, that expansion of the Carbon County site is more likely than a new project in Colorado. An addition to the project's capacity of several hundreds of megawatt has been talked out for the Carbon County site. "Isn't it ironic," says Udall, an outspoken critic of hydrocarbons, "that the country's best winds are in Carbon County!"

If nothing else, what Colorado may end up offering the US wind industry is a model for how environmental groups can influence utilities, which are often not perceived as purveyors of environmentally sound power. "To the nation, we've shown how a partnership between the utilities and environmental groups can aggregate demand -- it's significant nationally as it's what everyone wants to be able to do," concludes Mayer of the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies.

Task Force's ten steps to successGovernor Roy Romer's report recommends:¥ help state and local government to adopt policies to buy green power

¥ encourage Colorado utilities to adopt net metering

¥ financial support for groups working to recruit green power customers

¥ programme to help the building industry incorporate renewables into construction projects

¥ ensuring access to qualified solar contractors by supporting training, certification and licensing

¥ helping the home loan industry to finance renewables and evaluate state home loan and housing programmes to encourage the use of renewables

¥ supporting renewable energy education in schools, including co-sponsoring demonstration projects

¥ supporting development of the state's renewables industry by developing strategies to nurture renewables businesses

¥ a permanent home for renewable energy issues in the state government

¥ advocating and promoting specific state task force recommendations to those whose involvement and support is necessary for successful implementation

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