Utilities in Colorado are planning to add a lot more renewable energy over the next few years, for a variety of reasons. I’ve looked at a couple of the trends driving this energy transition such as 100% renewable energy commitments from the utilities’ major customers, including towns and cities like Pueblo and Boulder, and major companies like Aspen Skiing Company, Google, Vail Resorts, IBM, Anheuser-Busch, and New Belgium.
But perhaps the biggest reason that utilities in the region are pursuing more renewable energy is that the low costs of wind and solar energy have continued to fall, opening up a huge market: replacement power for existing coal plants.
Cheap renewable energy has already meant that when utilities needed new power generation in recent years, they have mostly chosen renewable energy. Nationwide, wind and solar power represented about two-thirds of all the new electricity generation capacity that was brought online in both 2015 and 2016, according to the US Energy Information Agency.
But as the costs of building new wind and solar projects have kept dropping, renewable energy is now becoming cheaper even than continuing to run existing coal-fired power plants - as Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper recently noted, “Coal is no longer the low-cost fuel."
A look at two Colorado electric cooperatives navigating the implications of solar power’s declining costs
Emily Bowie at San Juan Citizens Alliance writes about how the La Plata Electric Association (LPEA) board of directors is discussing the implications of the declining costs of solar energy. Bowie describes how the “board’s touchiest topic is how the declining costs of renewable energy (and rising costs of coal) should impact LPEA’s future.”
Some board directors are concerned about how declining solar power costs could encourage more customers to install their own rooftop solar arrays, and what that might mean for the electric cooperative.
Other board members are more focused on the opportunity for LPEA to take advantage of falling solar power prices, by pursuing its own solar projects. As LPEA director Bob Lynch put it, “I want to be part of a plan that figures out how to use solar to help all our members.”
Fraser, CO - The town of Breckenridge passed a resolution last week establishing a goal to power the community with 100% renewable electricity by 2035. Breckenridge joins other Colorado towns and cities that are pursuing 100% renewable energy, including Pueblo, Boulder, and Nederland. Aspen achieved its 100% renewable energy goal in 2015, while other towns and cities including Denver and Durango are also considering renewable energy goals.
The responses from the utilities that serve those Colorado towns and cities show that these 100% renewable energy goals are helping push the region toward a cleaner electricity grid, achieving a broader impact than sustainability goals that remain within the boundaries of a municipality. That’s consistent with a new report by global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, which argues that cities should focus their sustainability efforts on four strategic areas for maximum impact. First among those four strategic areas is using their position as major electricity consumers to help decarbonize the electricity grid:
While cities may believe they have little influence over the grid mix, in fact, they often represent a major portion of any local electric utility’s customers, potentially giving them significant leverage to shape the emissions profile of the electricity consumed within their metropolitan area. Still, capturing this opportunity will not be easy, and cities cannot do it alone. Utilities and regulators must play a central role in ensuring the overall mix of renewables is appropriately balanced at a system level and that critical components such as energy storage are in place to ensure grid reliability. Nevertheless, cities have an essential role to play by setting clear decarbonization goals, aggregating demand for renewables, promoting energy efficiency, and shifting more urban energy consumption to electricity (especially in transportation and heating).
Lowering the emissions intensity of the electricity grid is an especially impactful way that municipalities in the Rocky Mountain region can advance their sustainability goals, because the region’s grid is more dependent on coal, and therefore more carbon intensive, than other parts of the US. But as these Colorado towns and cities seek to accelerate the transition to renewable energy, they face varying challenges in working with the different utilities and electric cooperatives that sell electricity in Colorado. Colorado towns and cities are served by two investor owned utilities, 29 municipal utilities, and 22 rural electric cooperatives, according to the Colorado Energy Office
Let’s look at four Colorado municipalities pursuing renewable energy goals, each with a different electricity provider: Breckenridge, Pueblo, Aspen, and Durango.
Mead, CO - Next week, United Power will switch on its biggest solar project yet. At 16 megawatts, the SR Platte solar array will produce enough electricity to power 2,700 homes, and help the electric cooperative save money on its electricity purchases.
But because of its contract with its electricity supplier, Tri-State Generation and Transmission, United Power is unlikely to build more solar arrays any time soon, so it's shifting its focus to energy storage.
Coal can't compete with cheap renewable energy
Walden, CO - After more than a decade of efforts to dramatically expand the Sunflower Electric Power Corporation’s coal-fired power plant in Holcomb, Kansas, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, the principal backer, now considers it unlikely that the project will move forward.
The Holcomb coal plant expansion project received a key air permit in March, following a Kansas Supreme Court decision. As the economic reality facing the coal industry continues to make it less and less likely that new capacity will be added, Holcomb seemed to be a potential outlier; last month it was called “perhaps the most likely prospect for a major new coal plant in the United States.”
But without the support of Tri-State, a Colorado-based utility, prospects for the 895-megawatt coal unit are increasingly dim.
In an August 14 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Tri-State reported that it had “assessed the probability of us entering into construction for the Holcomb Expansion as remote.” As a result, the utility reported that it had written off more than $93 million it spent trying to build the coal unit.
Plans move forward for a floating solar array in Jackson County, while Mountain Parks Electric considers its own solar projects.
Walden, CO - In Jackson County, the town of Walden’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously this week to build a solar array that will help power the town’s water treatment plant. Jim Dustin, the Mayor of Walden, said at the Mountain Parks Electric August board meeting that the project “will be unique in Colorado – it will be a floating array.” Dustin said the cost of the 50 kilowatt solar array will be covered by lower electricity bills over the next decade or two.
At the electric cooperative’s August 10 board meeting, Mountain Parks Electric board members and staff also discussed their own solar energy efforts. Among the solar projects that Mountain Parks Electric is considering is a collaborative effort with other electric cooperatives in the region and the Rocky Mountain Institute. According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, solar developers have responded with offers that would deliver solar energy at a price of about 4.5 cents/kilowatt hour, less than the cost of electricity and transmission from coal fired power plants that participating electric cooperatives currently pay.
New wind and solar power in Colorado is now cheaper than existing coal plants
Companies' 100% renewable energy goals are getting results in Colorado
What does cheap solar mean for electric cooperatives?
Colorado towns and cities are helping push utilities to embrace renewable energy
How are electric cooperatives navigating the transition from coal to cheap clean energy?
Blocked from building more solar projects, United Power shifts to community batteries
Economic reality sets in for Tri-State efforts to expand the Holcomb coal plant
Solar projects in the works in Grand and Jackson counties
Mountain Parks Electric grapples with solar