Energy Plan a Positive Step

The Denver Post, editorial endorsement


Renewable energy production always seems to be just around the corner, but the big utilities have now brought these modern capabilities to our front door.

Amendment 37 on the Nov. 2 ballot would stimulate a modest advance in the use of wind power, solar and biomass technologies, and we urge voters to say “Yes.”

The measure will provide long-term economic and environmental benefits and approval would put Colorado at the forefront of jurisdictions that are promoting a transition away from fossil-fuel production.

The proposal would require most large Colorado utilities and cooperatives to get 3 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2007, increasing to 10 percent by 2015.

Sixteen other states – from New York to New Mexico to California – now require their utilities to get various amounts of their electricity from renewable sources.

For Colorado, the environmental benefits are obvious and substantial. Colorado gets most of its electricity from coal-fired power plants, but we pay a two-fold environmental price. Even the best coal plant emits far more air pollution than any wind, solar or biomass facility. Coal plants also consume enormous quantities of water, while renewable sources really use none.

The economic benefits of renewable energies are less obvious but no less real. Renewable sources promise to help Colorado farmers and ranchers earn cash by leasing land for wind farms and solar panels, or selling animal wastes to biomass power plants.

Electric cooperatives, which oppose the amendment, say the proposal could drive up marginal costs, but this claim doesn’t account for trends in traditional fuel prices that could also affect consumers. Prices for natural gas are zooming up with no end in sight. By contrast, the “fuel cost” of wind is stable – in fact, wind energy is already price-competitive with natural gas. Coal prices also may rise if coal plants are required to further curb air pollutants. There will be no such additional costs for renewable energy. In fact, one analysis says if Amendment 37 passes, most consumers will see a slight price drop or no change in electrical rates.

The Office of Consumer Counsel, which represents consumers before the Public Utilities Commission, is studying the effects but says if there are any upward pressures on prices, they may relate to the proposal’s requirement that at least 4 percent of all renewable energy must come from solar energy, currently the most expensive of the renewable technologies. By 2015, 0.4 percent of the state’s electricity thus would come from solar power – a requirement so minimal it seems unlikely to affect monthly electrical bills.

In any case, Amendment 37 provides several provisions to protect consumers. If residential prices rise more than 50 cents per month per household due to renewable energy, the Public Utilities Commission can tell utilities they no longer have to meet the renewable requirement. And utilities can opt out of the program by majority vote of their customers, providing at least 25 percent of their customers participate in the election.

Since Amendment 37 is a proposed statute, not an addition to Colorado’s overcomplicated constitution, the legislature can modify it if problems arise. But legislative interference should be unnecessary, as Amendment 37 appears to be carefully worded. Lawmakers had three chances to put a renewable energy requirement on the books – but failed to do so, despite strong public support for the plan. This time, voters themselves get to decide whether to move Colorado further down the road of renewable energy – by voting “Yes” on Amendment 37.