Push for wind power hits Summit County | SummitDaily.com

Push for wind power hits Summit County

FRISCO – Keith walked down Frisco’s Main Street Tuesday, preaching the word of windmills and handing out fliers. The young, bearded conservationist was one of 50 like him touring cities throughout the state, raising awareness about wind power and other renewable energy sources.

Keith works for a nonprofit group called Environment Colorado, an organization that, in the past, has helped pass the Colorado Clean Air Act. Now, the group is pushing for new legislation mandating the use of renewable sources, like wind power, by energy companies.

And, when cel Energy announced Monday it is expecting a 60-percent increase on heating bills if natural gas rates costs remain static, the timing couldn’t have been better.

“We, as a state, rank near the top for potential of every major renewable source,” said Matt Garrison, energy organizer for Environment Colorado. “We rank 11th for potential wind energy in the country. We also have the intellectual capital. The National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden is the biggest renewable lab in the nation.”

Some wind power is already in use in Colorado, as turbines supply power to parts of Vail, Keystone, Breckenridge and Aspen. Vail, for example, is looking to be the first resort to place a turbine near its mountain to supply more power to its facilities. Not only does it help the resort’s image, representatives said, but it also makes less noise and creates cheaper power and cleaner air than traditional generators.

This is all good news for proponents like Garrison who, for five years, have been pushing for a bill to impress the state Legislature. He, like Keith, started by speaking to the public on the streets before moving upward in the cause.

The debate

Last year, the crew of pavement pounders found its champion.

Speaker of the House Lola Spradley saw House Bill 1295 sweep through committee with an 11-1 vote, but it was killed in the Senate by a single vote.

Two factors in the bill, Spradley said, kept it from passing: the fact that the bill would have forced energy companies to produce, by 2010, 10 percent (900 megawatts total) of the state’s electricity from sources like wind or solar power and the idea that renewable sources cost more.

“The more the gas prices increase, the more competitive renewables are. The arguments against the bill were that it would end up costing the consumer more,” Spradley said. “I think the new oil prices rival that of the affordable renewables.”

She’s not far off. According to the Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook for 2002, wind, coal and natural gas were similar in cost for producing electricity, while solar power was significantly higher.

But apples aren’t being compared to apples.

The cost of wind, in the short term, would be significantly higher, cel Energy spokesman Mark Stutz said. His company produces 62 megawatts of power from wind and is planning to purchase its second wind farm soon, with capabilities of up to 162 megawatts, or enough to power every home on the Western Slope.

“It’s a very good idea to have renewable energy sources,” said Stutz, who takes part in his company’s wind-source program, which allows customers to purchase wind power for an additional charge. About 32,000 people in Colorado have joined Stutz in the program.

“But wind is still not as competitive as traditional fossil fuels,” he argued. “Wind farms are not built in downtown Denver or in the middle of Silverthorne. They are in remote locations. You have to build transmission lines. You have to connect those lines to the grid. So, to be effective, you have to do your research to find the most efficient areas. Plus, it gets touchy when you start building more transmission lines. Nobody wants to see them.”

The expenses for research and construction of wind turbines would be passed on to the consumer, minus the state tax credits for renewable energy ($17 per kilowatt hour). In the long run, Stutz added, the additional costs would be flattened without the need to purchase natural gas or oil.

But those short-term rate increases are what have other energy companies opposing such legislation. Ray Clifton, executive director for the Colorado Rural Electric Association, an organization of electric companies, said he wants wind power but testified against the House bill.

“It is our philosophy that the state or federal government should work in tandem to develop the industry to make it a powerful, thriving energy source,” Clifton said. “We need this industry to keep this country moving and to become free of energy problems. But this should not be a rate-based item. We need some kind of stimulus first.”

Clifton said that while cel has the proper hardware in place to make wind power cost-effective, most energy companies do not. Without tax relief – or some other benefit to offset construction costs – he will continue to oppose legislation that mandates change.

“The state would be requiring something,” Spradley added. “If it was a competitive market, we couldn’t do it, but the energy companies have a monopoly. You don’t have a free market. You have a monopoly market.”

cel owns the Ponnequin Wind Facility off Interstate 25 in northern Colorado and rents power from Pete’s Wind Facility near Sydney, Neb., near the Colorado border. The farms are at two-thirds capacity and only run at maximum output 30 percent of the time.

Holy Cross Energy, a rival energy company that offers a similar wind-source program, also opposed the bill.

The strings attached

Wind, in its natural state, is free.

As electricity, though, it does come with a cost. The electric companies pay between $2,000 and $5,000 to each farmer for each turbine on his or her property, and powerlines can cost up to $1 million per mile.

But price might not be the only reason Colorado’s first serious attempt at mandating wind power failed. Craig Cox, executive director for the Interwest Energy Alliance, said the coalition “made a deal with the devil,” or, with less fire and brimstone, a power company.

At a distance, the wind power bill and its accompanying bill should have complemented each other. The wind bill was attached to a power plant cleanup bill, which would have reduced air pollution from three of cel Energy’s coal-fired power plants on the Front Range.

“The boat was overloaded and sank,” Cox explained.

While cel representatives testified in favor of HB 1295 and needed the federal money for cleanup, the Senate’s denial came as no surprise. In 1998, cel was granted $211 million to improve emissions from its plants but still had to increase rates to pay for the overhaul. (In comparison with the national average, Colorado residents still pay almost a cent less per kilowatt hour).

Others questioning the effectiveness of renewable energy say the unpredictability of wind also means it can never be used as the primary source of power. Harnessing the power of wind, Stutz said, is not an exact and consistent science like the conversion of gas.

Still, proponents say, losing in the senate turned out to be a valuable lesson.

“It’s showing us where we need to shore up our weaknesses,” Cox said.

Interwest Energy Alliance is an organization, like Garrison’s Environment Colorado, working for alternative energy solutions. Cox and his coalition have teamed with Spradley and are planning on resubmitting the bill when the legislative session reopens in January.

CREA, says Clifton, will continue to watch such legislation closely.

For more information about Environment Colorado, call (303) 573-3871 or go to http://www.environmentcolorado.org.

Ryan Slabaugh can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 257, or rslabaugh@summitdaily.com.

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